Success factors for progressive TV content

Over the last few months, I've written a fair amount about progressive TV, especially about creating new progressive TV offerings.  For the most part, I've focused on the delivery mechanism and, at a fairly high level, the business model for making it real.  I've described an entrepreneurial strategy for creating a network of leased access progressive cable channels and I've reviewed the efforts of The Real News to distribute a progressive news show in as many different format as possible.

Today I want to zero in on the problem of creating content for progressive TV, since I think it's crucial to success.  For a long time, I've been frustrated to see that the TV clips which generally get embedded in the progressive blogosphere are takes from Countdown, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report (well, that was the case before the writers' strike, anyway.)  Democracy Now! and online progressive shows like GoLeft.TV, by comparison, don't tend to get much buzz.  That's a problem for the progressive movement, because it means that some of our most partisan media outlets - the progressive blogs - are generating buzz for allegedly non-partisan shows controlled by media conglommerates like GE and Viacom, and anchored by white men.  That's no way for us to build a diverse, independent progressive media enterprise.

If we want to succeed in building a traditional progressive media empire, especially a progressive TV empire, then we'll need to focus on the problem of producing content for progressive TV.  In particular, progressive TV will need to produce content which is most likely to be readily adopted by grassroots progressive audiences and progressive bloggers.  This kind of organic adoption is key to stealing audience share away from more conservative or middle-of-the-road traditional media, and building sufficient buzz for progressive TV to make it sustainable and even profitable.

Given  the scarcity of dollars available for progressive TV,  programmers should be judicious in planning and developing content.  In particular, they should be planning content which is relevant to major topics of discourse within the progressive movement; readily embeddable in short clips; capable of being integrated with real world community events, ala Drinking Liberally nights or DFA meetups; relatively cheap to produce; and capable of driving new ideas into the national discourse outside the progressive movement.

At the "sweet spot"  intersection of all of these success factors, I believe, is coverage of major political events, in particular election returns, televised debates, national party conventions, the State of the Union, and to a much lesser degree, some Supreme Court decision announcements and Congressional committee hearings.  These kinds of events are predictably the source of a lot of buzz, both inside and outside the progressive movement.  The conversation surrounding these events, especially the spur-of-the-moment analysis by TV pundits, can be tremendously important in shaping the political impact of the events in the weeks and months following.

Moreover, these sorts of headline events occur at predictable times, and therefore tend to create small, spotaneous offline communities which are capable of generating brief bursts of buzz.  As a Drinking Liberally organizer, I can speak with certainty to this - our most popular events are TV watching nights, for things like the State of the Union and election results.  In fact, when we don't schedule such events, we regularly get questions about whether there are other groups planning a TV watch night.  Although these kinds of events are great opportunities for tuning in to a new progressive channel, and thereby generating buzz for the channel among our membership, we inevitably tune in to a drab, right-center corporate channel like CNN for these shows.  The progressive alternative simply doesn't exist.

As a first pass at creating content for progressive TV, programmers could do much worse than plan night-of coverage and analysis for large political events like the State of the Union and election returns.  Of course, this kind of analysis should be performed by a host of diverse pundits, specifically including women and minorities.  (In fact, such diversity would probably be a competitive advantage vis-a-vis corporate TV; at times CNN's pundits sound like they're stuck in the 1950's, and are totally incapable of understanding a political environment where white men aren't completely dominant.)

There are some big challenges to providing this kind of coverage, but I think the most difficult challenge is gathering sufficient data to provide grist for compelling and informed conversation.  Although Anderson Cooper's goofy moving pie chart was sort of a joke on the night of Iowa's caucus, CNN's exit poll data was extremely valuable and helped drive the post-election narrative.  Progressive content providers need to be able to gather and analyze their own data, whether it be exit polls, or (for televised events like State of the Union or presidential debates) focus groups, snap polls, and the like.

That's a fairly expensive and difficult proposition, but there are some existing models for collecting that data.  For example, The Media Consortium has been pooling resources from a variety of traditional progressive media outlets to provide in-depth coverage of selected Congressional committee hearings for about one year; the resulting coverage is available at ing/.  Another model, which long-time MyDD readers will be quite familiar with, is the 2006 MyDD/Courage Campaign polling project, essentially a donate-and-provide-input approach to polling. (Full disclosure: my company's done a small amount of technical work for Chris Bowers, who helped organize that project.)  I think the 2006 project suffered a bit from the turnaround time required to fund, design, and implement the poll, but it nevertheless produced extremely valuable polling data.

Given that the events for which polling data is needed are highly predictable, and given the proliferation of low-cost polling options like robocalling (such as this outfit, run by MyDD reader IVR Polls), gathering data for progressive programming should not be too far out of reach.  The costs could be bourne by some combination of progressive media outlets and grassroots activists, with some share of control of the polling questions provided to donors.

Regardless, the important point is that progressive TV programmers need to begin providing options for progressives who want to watch important political events and hear progressive follow-up analysis.  This is hardly a revolutionary idea, and in fact, some progressive programmers are already working towards that goal.  The Real News, for example, is working towards establishing desks in DC and New York to facilitate coverage of the presidential election.  Once this kind of programming is in place and readily accessible in traditional formats like cable TV, we'll be able to begin transitioning away from center-right corporate TV.


FYI for the metadata afficionados out there: I've gone back through the archives today and have re-tagged my posts, so that everything I've written on progressive TV is tagged "progressive TV", and everything addressing cable is tagged "cable TV".  Just doing my part for the semantic web, I guess.  Enjoy!

Tags: election coverage, Media, polling, progressive TV (all tags)



Re: Success factors for progressive TV content

Thank you for the link to GoLeft.TV. I don't have cable, so the Internet is where I get news. (I don't even watch mainstream TV.)

The short clips feature youthful broadcasters and issues that are meaningful. Progressive TV challenges us to think and brings awareness to what's really relevant. I see what you mean about CNN; they have years of experience and know how to present things in a punchier way with more data. But with time, progressive TV will probably make progress!

by Joannems 2008-01-25 10:07AM | 0 recs
Re: Success factors for progressive TV content

You're welcome.  I actually found that show by accident, while surfing around on Alternet I believe.

Note that getting data isn't just about punchier programming.  It's also about driving the post-election (or post-convention, post-SotU, etc.) narrative.  In particular, collecting our own data means that we get to change the narrative in different ways.  Note how, for example, CNN failed to collect data about church attendance among Iowa Democratic caucus-goers.  Had we had our own pollsters collecting that data, we might have been able to open up a new and interesting post-election narrative.

by Shai Sachs 2008-01-25 10:15AM | 0 recs
Re: Success factors for progressive TV content

You're right--being punchier is not necessarily the same as having more data. There is actually a risk that as a source becomes punchier it will become watered down.

Narratives that are personalized and feature real people would definitely catch people's eyes though. If a story featured church attendance, for example, it could present both data showing how people would vote based upon church attendance (using charts, etc.) and look into how real people think by asking them for stories.

I find it interesting how people are voting in the south, and it's not directed along color lines. Seeing as the elections there are coming up, why not feature stories about why that is? Is it related to church-going?

by Joannems 2008-01-25 10:25AM | 0 recs
Re: Success factors for progressive TV content

Well, that depends on how you ask the question.  I'm not sure about the South in particular (and Florida tends to behave a bit differently than the rest of the South in any case), but until recently, church attendance was an excellent predictor of your vote.  Regular attendees tended to vote Republican, and non-attendees and lackluster attendees tended to vote Demcoratic.  On the other hand, pollsters have known for a very long time that people overinflate their church attendance (the self-reported numbers from individuals and the membership numbers from churches don't come close to matching), so who really knows.

As good or as poor a factor as churchgoing is, it's got nothing on factors like race or sectarian affiliation.  Blacks vote Democratic, and evangelicals vote Republican, in very solid numbers (usually 80+%).  That might be changing, at least among evangelicals, but so far the evidence doesn't suggest that.

Of course, these are nominating contests, not general elections, and the numbers on what factors predict someone's vote are all over the place from one state to another.  So I've got no clue whatsoever.

by Shai Sachs 2008-01-25 12:39PM | 0 recs
Re: Success factors for progressive TV content

Why is "progressive" all the rage. Are we still trying to hide our liberal-socialist roots?

by shergald 2008-01-25 10:34AM | 0 recs
Re: Success factors for progressive TV content

Actually, these days I think there's a consensus that liberal denotes, approximately, old Democratic-aligned establishment, and progressive denotes, approximately, the new grassroots movement.

by Shai Sachs 2008-01-25 12:43PM | 0 recs
Re: Success factors for progressive TV content

All I know is that I want the News anchors to look like sterotypical conservatives.  I want people flipping the channels to be totally confused at first glance which channel is Fox News and which is ours.  If we come off looking like stereotypical "liberals" (i.e. Alan Colmes), we aren't going to get zippo for market penetration.  

Fox News wasn't always the hyper-right-wing outfit it is today.  Their early years were much more subtle... just slightly blurring the distinctions between them and other media... sucking average Americans in, before they unleashed the torrent of right wing propoganda a few years later.

That is what we need to do... If our team makes progressive news look like a Jehova's Witnesses convention, then there will be enough cognitive dissonance in the mind of viewers to both keep watching and listen to what we have to say.

I hope we also borrow the Fox News concept of confrontation.  Their confrontational style is one of the reasons they've been able to bring in so many viewers.  It makes the news interesting, and it also helps advance an agenda.



by lordmikethegreat 2008-01-25 11:53AM | 0 recs
Re: Success factors for progressive TV content

I'm not sure that mimicking Fox is really such a great idea.  Partly because I think that channel is odious, but partly because I think progressives wouldn't really enjoy watching "progressive Fox".  That's not to say confrontation has no place on progressive TV, and it's certainly not a suggestion that all of our anchors should be Alan Colmes imitators.

Actually, in terms of pundits, I think the progressive grassroots has slowly but surely nurtured its own flight of up-and-coming progressive commentators, including bloggers like Markos and Jane, columnists like David Sirota, radio show hosts like Rachel Maddow, comedians like Baratunde Thurston (who used to host DL with me) and the rest of the Laughing Liberally crew, and so on.  These folks don't pull any punches and they do a pretty good job of representing the diversity of the progressive movement, I think.  More importantly, they actually have intelligent things to say about political events, which is far more than I can say about most of the pundits on Fox, CNN, and the rest of them.

by Shai Sachs 2008-01-25 12:51PM | 0 recs
Re: Success factors for progressive TV content

But some of the progressive people you mentioned, for instance, have credibility problems.

You can't call yourself a progressive, and advocate for the least progressive candidate, the one who uses a poor imitation of ignominious Rovian tactics.

If you think viewers don't know this, you're only fooling yourself, and this plays into bubble creation, the kind that DOOMS an organization, .

The difference between what you think you are, and what, or who, you really are, it's a large crack, so to speak.

And your opponents will grab onto, like Fox TV, did, with the Democrats.

And in the end, the American people suffer for it.

by Marsha1 2008-01-26 05:07AM | 0 recs
Re: Success factors for progressive TV content

Well, I've only named a small sampling of potential pundits who are genuine progressives.  Regardless of what your thoughts are of individual people (and I'm not even sure who you're referring to, anyway), the point remains that there are a lot of progressive pundits waiting in the wings, and more than enough to stock a progressive election night coverage show.

by Shai Sachs 2008-01-26 07:21AM | 0 recs
Re: Success factors for progressive TV content

This doesn't necessarily have to do with cable TV or with having "our own" channel, but: why don't progressives talk more about PBS? NewsHour is more insightful than any of the other evening newscasts; NOW and Bill Moyers are more progressive than anything on the networks.

Seems like there's a disconnect between progressive programming (not just on PBS, but on public access and the nether regions of satellite and digital cable) and progressive viewers. Obviously, those programs need advertisers / donors to thrive, so they need viewers. What gives?

by tetraminoe 2008-01-30 08:47PM | 0 recs
Re: Success factors for progressive TV content

Well, I think if you look at the numbers, PBS viewers probably tend to be progressive as is.  As for the flip question - why doesn't the progressive movement rely on PBS?  I think the answer is that we are looking for a channel which allows us to spread our worldview and be partisan and PBS, supported as it is by public money, couldn't possibly do that.

It's funny that you should mention this, though, since I'm writing a post about a very related question right now.

by Shai Sachs 2008-02-02 03:26AM | 0 recs


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