Axios Media Trends

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May 12, 2020

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Situational awareness: The next COVID-19 relief package to be considered by the House includes a proposal to make newspapers, radio, and television stations eligible for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans.

1 big thing: "Plandemic" enters corona-conspiracy news cycle

Data: Zignal; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Zignal; Chart: Axios Visuals

The coronavirus conspiracy news cycle has grown more powerful off of audiences that were already susceptible to misinformation about other health care myths, like anti-vaccination conspiracies.

Driving the news: The latest conspiracy theory — that the virus is a "plandemic" engineered to increase vaccination rates — stems from a documentary-style video featuring a discredited medical researcher that has gone viral.

  • The video features former researcher and activist Judy Mikovits issuing misinformation like that wearing masks is harmful and that Dr. Anthony Fauci directed a cover-up about the origin of the disease.
  • It has gone viral on social platforms, even though most of the big sites, like Facebook and YouTube, have yanked it.

Flashback: Mentions of “Plandemic” were fairly low in March and early April, and were really only picked up a handful of times in conversations that also referenced other conspiracy theories, like anti-vaccination conspiracies.

  • The "plandemic" conspiracy theory really began to take off in May, after an interview with Mikovits was posted to YouTube and other sites from an America's Voice News, according to Zignal Labs.

Yes, but: The media can make these things appear worse than reality.

  • When you look at the data, the "plandemic" conspiracy theory is small in its online spread in comparison to the Bill Gates conspiracy theory and the disinfectant conspiracy theory, which is so huge Axios had to exclude it from this chart.

As tech platforms race to stop certain theories from spreading, others are already beginning to take hold.

The big picture: The most effective misinformation plays into existing fears, especially around health, safety and well-being. This is in part due to the fact that there's already so much uncertainty about causes and cures for new and existing illnesses.

  • It's for this reason that U.S. adversaries, particularly Russia, often take advantage of real-world health crises to sow discord among Americans — it's a topic in which people are easily divided and duped.

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2. Stats gone viral

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The appetite for coronavirus stats has grown so big globally that traffic to Worldometer, a statistics website run by a group of international developers, surpassed 1 billion visits in April, in line with major platforms like Reddit and ahead of LinkedIn.

By the numbers: was the #28 most-trafficked website worldwide this month, according to data and analysis from SimilarWeb.

  • That's up 20.6% in traffic from March and up 36,928% from April 2019.

How it happened: Up until January 2020, relied heavily on organic search to drive traffic to the site, at nearly 80% traffic share. 

  • Come February, direct site traffic began to increase, as more people began specifically typing the URL for the site into their browsers.
  • By April, direct traffic made up more 2/3 of the site's referrals.

Be smart: That trend is indicative of significant increases in brand awareness and recognition of this site in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

  • It could be that once users searching for coronavirus tracking pages found, they repeatedly started going back. 

The big picture: The United States made up the largest share of April traffic going to, at 25.8%, followed by India (8.67%), the UK (6.6%), Canada (5.18%), Germany (3.13%), Australia (2.49%), Poland (2.18%), France (1.73%), Turkey (1.66%), and Brazil (1.65%). 

3. Senate moving on VOA head

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Senate Republicans are moving to swiftly confirm a conservative filmmaker to lead the independent agency in charge of Voice of America (VOA), the state-sponsored international news agency, per The New York Times.

Why it matters: The Trump administration has twice-nominated Michael Pack, but it's been held up in the Senate confirmation processes. Pack has received pushback from some Democrats for his ties to Steve Bannon.

  • Some Democrats still have hesitation. Last week, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez, D-NJ, told the White House he had concerns about Pack’s business history, per CNBC.

The big picture: Broader concerns about VOA's independence arose after an Obama-era legal provision changed governance over the agency from a board of non-partisan directors to a CEO selected by the president.

  • Last month, the White House escalated its attacks on the VOA, saying it elevated Chinese propaganda. Many Democrats initially feared that the VOA would become a propaganda arm for the Trump administration, which journalists within the agency vehemently deny.
  • Sources say that while the White House began to publicly slam the VOA in April during the coronavirus, it had been been posturing against the group for many months.

By the numbers: The VOA broadcasts in more than 40 languages and reaches an estimated weekly audience of 280 million, mostly international.

  • The agency receives over $234.7 million in annual funding through the U.S. Agency for Global Media, formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
  • It's governed by a 40+ year-old charter that legally requires the VOA to report "accurate, objective, and comprehensive" news abroad. Sources say that firewall feels very strong within the VOA.

Go deeper: VOA journalists fight claims that it is Trump propaganda

4. Cord-cutting accelerates as empty restaurants, bars ditch cable

Data: MoffettNathanson Research; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: MoffettNathanson Research; Chart: Axios Visuals

Cord-cutting hit a record high last quarter as shuttered businesses began letting go of their cable and satellite bills.

Why it matters: Until now, cord-cutting was mostly a consumer household-focused phenomenon.

Be smart: “Businesses have the same motivations to cut the cord as consumers – content and cost," said David Wiesenfeld, chief strategist at Tru Optik.

  • "When restaurants and bars begin to reopen, cutting the cord is the easiest way to offset lost revenue and reduce operating costs while also meeting the demands of their customers.”

By the numbers: Traditional Pay TV subscriptions fell by 1.8 million in Q1, the worst quarterly result on record, according to research firm MoffettNathanson.

  • "At 63% of occupied households, traditional Pay TV penetration has reached a level not previously seen since roughly 1995," per analysts Craig Moffett and Michael Nathanson.

BONUS: TV's binge moment winds down

Data: Nielsen; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios
Data: Nielsen; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

TV binging slowly began to decelerate over the past few weeks, as more states have started to implement gradual reopening measures and as the weather begins to warm up.

  • Binging is down among all age groups, but particularly amongst the primary TV demo of people 18-49, according to Nielsen.

5. Networks scramble to salvage fall TV season

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

TV execs, eager to court advertisers for their fall programming lineups, are turning to virtual "upfront" presentations to court marketers.

  • The "upfronts," a series of elaborate advertising pitches and parties that networks use to secure dollars ahead of time for their fall seasons, have been forced to go virtual for the first time this year due to the pandemic.

Driving the news: NBCUniversal ad sales chief Linda Yaccarino led a virtual presentation with her staff yesterday — usually an elaborate affair at Radio City Music Hall.

  • But instead of providing juicy details about the network's fall lineup, Yaccarino and team used the webinar event to assure marketers that "once we know the details about Sunday nights ... you'll be the first to know," referring to the network's Sunday NFL programming deal.

What's next: Unlike NBC, Fox announced a tentative fall schedule on Monday, filled with scripted and reality TV series that it can bank on producing, instead of elaborate shows that it may not be able to pull off during the pandemic.

  • ViacomCBS will host two virtual upfront presentations next week.
  • Disney, the parent company to ABC and ESPN, is hosting smaller presentations with ad buyers.

The bottom line: TV advertising, which was expected to be down around .4% this year, including the Olympics and elections, is now expected to be down nearly 13% this year, per ad buying agency MAGNA.

Go deeper: Ad market expected to take a big hit in 2020

6. A league of its own

Data: NYT earnings reports; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios
Data: NYT earnings reports; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

The New York Times said during its earnings report on Wednesday that it gained more than a half-million new subscribers — roughly double the amount of net new subscriptions that it typically sees in any given quarter.

Yes, but: There's concern that The Times' subscription success could come at the expense of other publishers, particularly at the regional level.

  • Especially at a time when people are more conscious of budgeting, consumers that pay for a Times subscription may chose to do so over their local or regional paper.

Why it matters: That conundrum drives home a broader narrative that the pandemic will force bigger media and tech companies to get even bigger, while smaller ones dwindle.

The big picture: Despite the fact that more people are hungry for news, news companies like The Times are still struggling to bring in ad revenue during the coronavirus pandemic.

  • The Times said that it expects its ad revenue to be down roughly 50% next quarter from the same time last year.

Go deeper: NYT reports record new subscriptions, warns of major ad losses

7. 1 fun thing: TikTok proves its musical power

Doja Cat performs in Los Angeles last year. Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

TikTok has vaulted another song to the top of the Billboard charts as Doja Cat's "Say So," assisted by a new remix featuring Nicki Minaj, hit No. 1 this week, Axios' Shane Savitsky writes.

Why it matters: It's the latest in a string of songs to find viral success on the app — this time, fueled by a viral dance created by 17-year-old Haley Sharpe — before breaking through to become the most commercially successful song in the country.

The state of play: The song shows how key a choreographed dance can be vital to sustained success on TikTok — and eventually to a wider audience.

The bottom line: The continued success of "Say So" shows how Generation Z can still be a few months ahead of the music industry's best A&R people — as it rapidly evolves to try to adapt to this new viral paradigm.