Axios Media Trends

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August 25, 2020

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Situational awareness:

  • TikTok officially sued the Trump administration over the president's executive order to ban the app unless it's sold to a U.S. company, arguing it's no security threat and that it was deprived due process.
  • 🗓️ CNBC has set Sept. 30th as the premiere date for 'The News with Shepard Smith."
  • 👀 First look from Axios' Mike Allen: CNN's Brian Stelter's book about Fox News called "Hoax" has sold out, with rush reprint.

1 big thing: Trump pushes fringe beliefs mainstream

Illustration of President Trump wearing a tin foil hat
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Using his social media megaphone, President Trump has pushed once-fringe beliefs into the consciousness of everyday Americans.

The big picture: The coronavirus "infodemic" that has flooded the internet with misinformation and conspiracy theories has worn down people's already faltering trust in institutions, making it easier for fringe ideas spread by the president to go viral ahead of the election.

  • Startling stat: "This is a moment we've been building to for over a decade. But what we thought might unfold over the next 5–10 years, we're actually seeing unfold over a matter of months," says Jonathon Morgan, CEO of Yonder, an artificial intelligence startup that monitors mis- and disinformation.

Driving the news: The president has ramped up his attacks on mail-in voting, claiming Democrats will use it to rig the November election by voting multiple times or using other means that would be illegal, unprecedented or outright impossible.

Several fringe ideas and conspiracy theories have been pushed further mainstream by the president, often via tweets to his 85 million followers.

  • Unproven cures for the coronavirus have grown in popularity after the president has promoted them. Many Trump supporters remain convinced hydroxychloroquine is a miracle COVID-19 cure but that there's a conspiracy to obscure its efficacy in fighting the disease.
  • Birtherism has mutated from false claims that President Obama wasn't born in the U.S., an idea Trump built his political career on, to casting doubt on the eligibility of Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, who was born to immigrant parents in California.
  • Tech censorship began as an idea most embraced by fringe online figures like Trump super-fans Diamond and Silk before becoming widely accepted in the GOP, with Trump as its top promoter. The idea that tech firms censor political speech they disagree with is now a commonly held belief among both Republicans and Democrats, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
  • QAnon continues to grow. President Trump, who praised supporters of the conspiracy theory last week, has retweeted QAnon followers at least 90 times since the pandemic began, and others in Trump's inner circle have also shared Q content. Nearly a dozen QAnon supporters are now 2020 Republican Congressional nominees.

Be smart: "By the time fringe information reaches the president, it's gone through sources of information that, to him, are very reliable," says Morgan.

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2. NEW: Facebook accelerates News Tab launch abroad

Illustration of the facebook logo as a newspaper covered in visa stamps
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Facebook is expediting the launch of its Facebook News tab in countries beyond the U.S., the company will announce Tuesday.

  • Sources tell Axios that Facebook is working out deals to pay publishers in several countries to include their content in the News tab, just as the firm does in the U.S.

Yes, but: One notable absence from the list of countries is Australia.

  • A source confirms that the company likely won't be launching Facebook News there for the foreseeable future, because of a battle Facebook is fighting with Australian regulators who intend to require the platform to pay news companies on the regulators' terms.

Details: Facebook is looking to accelerate the launch of Facebook News in multiple countries within the next 6-12 months, including the U.K., Germany, France, India and Brazil.

  • As is true in the U.S., not all participating publishers will necessarily be paid, and publishers that produce more content will likely receive bigger payouts.

Be smart: It's notable that Facebook is in the early stages of launching a News tab in France, given that regulators in that country were the first to ratify a new EU copyright law last year that requires tech firms to negotiate paying publishers for their content or risk being regulated.

Our thought bubble: By starting to negotiate payout deals with publishers now, Facebook could avoid having regulators, particularly in European countries, establish terms that might be less favorable.

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3. Networks fact-check the RNC live

Screen shot from MSNBC coverage in the 9:00 p.m. hour

MSNBC and CNN cut away from live coverage of the Republican National Convention several times on Monday night in order to fact-check claims made by speakers.

  • Fox News also cut away from several speeches, but didn't fact-check claims as aggressively.

Why it matters: There's been an ongoing debate amongst media insiders about whether news networks should feel compelled to cut away from the RNC, Axios' Rashaan Ayesh, Alayna Treene and I write.

  • Earlier on Monday, a coalition of nearly a dozen progressive groups wrote a letter addressed to the heads of CNN, MSNBC, ABC News, NBCUniversal, and CBS, urging them to air the RNC on a one-minute time delay.

Yes, but: There's a concern that networks could appear biased against conservatives if they cut away from live convention programming to fact-check the RNC, but not the DNC.

Driving the news: MSNBC cut away from at least 6 speakers on Monday and skipped some speeches entirely, including Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Fox News host and the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr.

  • MSNBC, CNN and Fox News all cut away from Vernon Jones, a Democrat from the Georgia State House of Representatives, during his speech in the first hour of the RNC. MSNBC spoke with Dr. Vin Gupta for a fact-check on the use of hydroxychloroquine.
  • MSNBC and CNN later cut away from a joint speech by Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the couple that went viral after pointing guns at Black Lives Matters protestors outside their house in St. Louis.
  • Fox News cut away from several speeches, including Rep. Matt Gaetz, Guilfoyle and Turning Point USA's Charlie Kirk.

🗳️ Follow along with all of our convention coverage in the new Axios convention hub.

4. TV ratings way down for the DNC

Data: Nielsen; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: Nielsen; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

TV viewership for the Democratic National Convention was down about 17% on average this year across all four nights compared to 2016.

Why it matters: The drop is likely attributable, at least in part, to the virtual nature of the convention and the plethora of streaming and digital viewing options that exist today.

  • About 15% fewer American households have Pay-TV now than they did then.
  • Joe Biden's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention drew the highest ratings of any night during the four-day event, according to Nielsen ratings.

Details: MSNBC received the most total viewers among all networks, cable and broadcast, across the four-day event. Fox, which usually dominates the evening primetime hours in viewership, lagged way behind.

The big picture: The numbers show how a growing sense of partisan news consumption in America may have curtailed viewership.

  • The ratings drop was weighted more heavily to massive decreases in viewership of traditional broadcast networks like CBS, NBC and ABC, compared to cable, which typically has more politically-active viewers.

Be smart: There's no way of measuring exactly how many people streamed the convention or watched clips of it on social channels, but presumably, millions more Americans tuned in online.

  • The Biden campaign told CNN that over four days, there were roughly 35.5 million livestream views combined over the online platforms of organizations that streamed the convention.

5. Coronavirus breaks the bundle

Reproduced from Park Associates "Broadband Services in the U.S." report; Note: 2019 survey was conducted in Q3, with 10,059 respondents and a ±1% margin of error; Chart: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from Park Associates "Broadband Services in the U.S." report; Note: 2019 survey was conducted in Q3, with 10,059 respondents and a ±1% margin of error; Chart: Axios Visuals
  • Verizon last week said that it would renew its deal with Disney to offer Disney+ free to unlimited wireless customers for one year, and it would also give subscribers to some of Verizon’s wireless plans free access to Hulu and ESPN+ as well.
  • Apple also announced last week said that it would begin offering a bundle of CBS All Access and SHOWTIME for only $9.99 per month. The two streaming services standalone would typically cost $20 monthly for both.

Why it matters: These new types of streaming bundles will help telecom providers reduce churn long-term.

  • Consumers are adopting stand-alone broadband services at a much higher rate than just two years ago, and analysts predict that the economic downturn prompted by the COVID-19 outbreak will accelerate the trend, Axios' Kim Hart and I wrote earlier this year.

Be smart: The traditional broadband, phone and pay TV bundle was in trouble even before the pandemic.

  • Consumers continue to drop their wired phone lines in favor of wireless everything. They generally purchase stand-alone wireless subscriptions in order to customize their data plans and features.
  • Free streaming is on the rise. "I do think this (coronavirus) is going to lead to a lot of unbundling and cord cutting," says Alan Wolk, co-founder and lead analyst at TV[R]EV.

The big picture: Over a decade ago, telecom providers started to bundle their services together to increase average revenue per user. A "double-play" bundle often included internet and pay TV like cable or satellite, while a "triple-play" bundle typically included internet, TV and phone service.

What to watch: Now telecom companies are interested in bundling broadband service with over-the-top video services, but will need to offer a compelling value-add to consumers who are now used to buying services a-la-carte.

Read the full piece.

6. Scoop: Open Technology Fund sues Trump Administration

Illustration of a hand holding a gavel that is about to slam down on a computer mouse.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Open Technology Fund (OTF) is suing the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) over roughly $20 million in congressionally appropriated funds it says the government is refusing to provide, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: There's bipartisan uproar from Congress over the funding.

  • The OTF is a government-supported nonprofit focused on advancing internet freedom around the world.
  • The USAGM, whose new CEO is seeking to replace OTF leaders with Trump loyalists, is required by law to provide the funding via federal grants, but it has given shifting rationales for why the money has been held up.

Details: The lawsuit, filed Thursday in federal claims court, alleges the USAGM breached its contracts with the OTF by withholding two piles of money, each more than $9 million, and manipulated OTF officials to force OTF into breaching its grant agreement.

  • The lawsuit also says two chief financial officers at the USAGM flagged that it was illegal to withhold the funds, but the USAGM tried to move forward with the plan anyway.

Be smart: The issue of funding the OTF is particularly sensitive, given that the USAGM announced last week that it plans to create and fund its own Office of Internet Freedom.

  • Sources fear the agency is withholding the OTF's funds in order to shift them to its new agency, which is illegal if done without congressional approval.

7. New safety measures coming as theaters slowly reopen

Illustration of a bag of popcorn wearing a medical mask
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Executives from the biggest movie chains in the America came together on Friday to unveil a joint safety plan for people looking to visit movie theaters as they begin to slowly reopen this week.

Why it matters: Theaters are desperate to bring consumers back after spending the past five months stuck mostly closed or at limited capacity.

  • The domestic box office brought in a paltry $1.8 billion this year, compared to $11.3 billion this time last year.
  • Many theaters have had to postpone reopening for months as the virus intensified and as studios yanked their blockbusters from debuting.

Driving the news: Executives from AMC, Regal, Cinemark, Imax and Marcus unveiled new "CinemaSafe protocols," a set of health and safety standards that will be universally applied to all movie theaters owned by top chains.

  • The CinemaSafe campaign requires that all movie theaters make masks mandatory, enforce social distancing, reduce capacity to around 40%-50%, update air filtration systems, sell tickets electronically and modify concessions.

By the numbers: According to figures from the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), more than 300 companies — comprising over 2,600 locations and more than 30,000 screens across the U.S. — have joined the protocols.

What's next: A slew of new movies is expect to debut in the U.S. this week and around the Labor Day holiday, which theater chains hope will bring eager consumers back.

  • The most highly anticipated debut will be Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” which comes to theaters in the U.S. over Labor Day after international showings.

Read the full story.

8. Student media sounds alarm on unsafe university reopenings

Illustration of a stack of newspapers with a siren on top.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

College media outlets are calling out their universities for failing to address the potentially-devastating communal spread of COVID-19 in their college towns.

Why it matters: With local newspapers in decline, campus papers have increasingly become the default for how students and community members get their news.

  • At UNC, The Daily Tar Heel wrote "we all saw this coming' in an editorial that went viral last week.
  • At Penn State University, Onward State reported on a petition asking the university to send freshmen home that garnered more than 2,500 signatures.
  • The University of Notre Dame's The Observer posted a front-page editorial titled "Don't make us write obituaries" after the university closed campus.
  • The University of Alabama's The Crimson White wrote an editorial after clusters of cases emerged titled: "No, President Bell, we won’t be your PR."

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