By Michael Harrison
The embarrassing situation and accompanying financial vulnerability being faced by our colleagues at FOX News is a high-profile example of the consequences of audience “targeting” that has become the common positioning strategy in today’s competitive media marketplace. The process is simple: You give the specifically targeted audience what it wants, not necessarily what it needs, even if what it wants is of dubious quality or unhealthy and – in the case of political talk media – untrue. It is a problematic, unsavory practice that has been brewing in our industry for years and, in the case of FOX, the proverbial toxicity has just hit the fan.
However, those in both the talk and print media, who are sanctimoniously gloating over FOX’s self-imposed misfortune, had better take a real hard look at themselves in the mirror. The strategy of serving up red meat to highly defined core audiences is practiced almost religiously by both the left and the right (not to mention purveyors of sports talk, specialty subjects and even music) – and the tolerance for talent deviation from this course by management has dwindled to almost zero. Today’s overworked and fear-driven managers have no stomach for audience complaints or ratings dips resulting from hosts saying things that do not resonate with the almighty “core.”
Smart programmers over the decades (and I’ve known some) understand that doggedly super-serving the low-hanging fruit of the core eventually yields diminishing returns. You wind up with a happier-but-shrinking audience of increasingly off-kilter zealots who eventually viciously turn on you when you stop feeding them the red meat they crave in what I call the daily dance of affirmation. It is that philosophical gray area between flat out lying or simply being wrong. What it comes down to is this inconvenient truth: programming for ratings, sponsorship support and audience approval isn’t simple.
Heaven help the progressive host who finds fault with Saint Biden or the conservative host who goes against the insidiously pervasive Trump factor. Or the sports talk show host who complains about the downside of betting. Or the music jock who actually engages in music criticism. This is the industry’s elephant in the room.
It’s time to acknowledge the beast.
Michael Harrison is the publisher of TALKERS. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.