Success factors for progressive TV content
by Shai Sachs, Fri Jan 25, 2008 at 09:11:54 AM EST
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 http://www.themediaconsortium.com/report 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!