“No man is an island,” John Donne famously wrote. Yet that bit of 17th-century philosophy seems increasingly ill suited to a media age where it’s every person — and each TV show — for itself.
(From the pages of the April 9 issue of Variety.)
Recent weeks have featured numerous examples of network branding, as programmers attempt to dazzle consumers with the breadth of their offerings. CBS filled its NCAA tournament coverage with promos touting the Eye network as home to the No. 1 (as in most-watched) drama, No. 1 comedy, and so on. AMC populated its high-rated “The Walking Dead” season finale with a campaign dubbed Something More, awkwardly seeking to link zombies to “Mad Men,” along with less-classy fare like the unscripted “Immortalized” and “Freakshow.”
The social-media age, though, has made such connections ever more tenuous, allowing viewers to circumvent traditional distribution chains, and individual talent and franchises to bypass their employers and speak directly to their fans.
Nor is this phenomenon limited to entertainment. Journalists step outside their news outlets and engage the public, forgoing the customary megaphone. Hence former MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann can continue to interact with his 437,000 Twitter followers more than a year after splitting with Current TV, where his on-air audience was actually smaller.
New York Times media writer David Carr parenthetically noted in last week’s column, “My boss likes to point out that I tweet constantly but Twitter never sends me a check.” True enough, but Carr and others are in a sense making an investment — not just calling attention to their work but building a personal brand that in theory will be at least semi-portable should they and their current employers part company.
Everyone has in essence been turned (sometimes grudgingly) into their own marketing department, cementing a rapport with an audience designed to extend beyond transitory affiliations like network or news outlet.
If this state of affairs represents a departure from the old order, it’s a perfectly logical response to a business environment where media conglomerates have demonstrated just how disposable employees and franchises can be.
Viewed that way, loyalty and team spirit — while conceptually laudable — are for saps. Much like the prevailing mindset in the sporting world upon which TV networks have become so reliant, welcome to the era of free agency, where the LeBron James (pictured above) brand is bigger than the specific NBA jersey he happens to wear that season.
Media stars who once hitched their wagon to a network for life have every reason to be equally mercenary. Even though they were nudged into retirement, iconic figures like Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson wrapped up their careers when they vacated their signature positions. Having been prodded toward the door twice by NBC, Jay Leno seems likely to leave his bosses sweating over where he might wind up next.
Of course, there are exceptions to such faithlessness, and it’s worth noting those companies characterized by inordinate stability — CBS and Fox News Channel come to mind — have benefited accordingly.
Small wonder CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves, who has spoken of affording industry elders the respect they’re due, has managed the employ the persnickety David Letterman without the drama NBC keeps enduring.
In a sense, Letterman also provided an early illustration of the current climate when he left NBC, and network officials sought to retain his signature bits as their “intellectual property.” The claim made the network a punchline (not for the first or last time), as if “Stupid Pet Tricks” could belong to anyone but the gap-toothed guy who popularized them.
That said, CBS’ fondness for corporate imaging seems, if not a complete relic yet, surely destined to become one. DVR-savvy viewers bond directly with “The Big Bang Theory,” just as they do with “Walking Dead” or “Downton Abbey,” whose loyal subjects mostly evaporate until the specific object of their affection returns.
Perhaps it’s no accident a media century ushered in by “Survivor” — where the winner-takes-all mantra has informed and infected so much else — would revise Donne’s metaphor.
Because today’s media folk are adrift on our own little islands, trying to pull together like-minded tribes. And not to ratchet up the pressure, but the crystal-blue waters surrounding us keep slowly, ominously rising.