Beware the lessons of growing up Galapagos

In All the old rules about movie stardom are broken, part of Slate's 2017 Movie Club year end review, Amy Nicholson writes:

Lugging my $10 masterpiece back to the hotel, I thought about how most of the famous faces who represent the movies have been dead for 50 years. Marilyn’s smile sells shot glasses, clocks, calendars, posters, and shirts in stores from Sunset Boulevard to Buenos Aires, Tijuana to Taiwan. What modern actor could earn a seat at her table? The biggest stars of my lifetime—Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage, Sandra Bullock—never graduated past magazine covers to souvenir magnets.

If Hollywood played by its old rules, I, Tonya’s Margot Robbie and Call Me by Your Name’s Armie Hammer should be huge stars. They’re funny, smart, self-aware, charismatic, and freakishly attractive. Yet, they feel like underdogs, and I’m trying to figure out why. Robbie has made intelligent choices. Her scene-stealing introduction as Leonardo DiCaprio’s trophy wife in Wolf of Wall Street. Her classic romantic caper with Will Smith in the underseen trifle, Focus. She even survived Suicide Squad with her dignity intact. In I, Tonya, she can’t outskate being miscast as Tonya Harding, but bless her heart for trying. As for Hammer, Kameron, your review of Call Me by Your Name called him, “royally handsome,” which seems right. He’s as ridiculously perfect as a cartoon prince, and I loved how Luca Guadagnino made a joke of how outlandish the 6-foot-5 blond looks in the Italian countryside. Whether he’s unfurling himself from a tiny Fiat or stopping conversation with his gangly dance moves, he can’t blend in—and good on him and Guadagnino for embracing it.

But even if Robbie and Hammer each claim an Oscar nomination this year, I suspect they’ll stay stalled out in this strange time when great actors are simply supporting players in a superhero franchise. I’m fascinated by Robbie and Hammer because they’re like fossils of some alpha carnivore that should have thrived. Does anyone else feel like the tectonic plates under Hollywood have shifted and we’re now staring at the evidence that everything we know is extinct? It’s not just that the old rules have changed—no new rules have replaced them. No one seems to know what works.

Nicholson goes on to cite Will Smith, who once had huge hits seemingly with every movie he made and who is now on a long cold streak.

I'm wary of all conclusions drawn about media in the scarcity age, including the idea that people went to see movies because of movie stars. It's not that Will Smith isn't charismatic. He is. But I suspect Will Smith was in a lot of hits in the age of scarcity in large part because there weren't a lot of other entertainment options vying for people's attention when Independence Day or something of its ilk came out, like clockwork, to launch the summer blockbuster season.

The same goes for the general idea that any one star was ever the chief engine for a film's box office. If the idea that people go see a movie just to see any one star was never actually true, we can stop holding the modern generation of movie stars to an impossible standard.

The same mistake, I think, is being made about declining NFL ratings. Owners blame players kneeling for the national anthem, but here's my theory: in an age of infinite content, NFL games measure up poorly as entertainment, especially for a generation that grew up with smartphones and no cable TV and thus little exposure to American football. If I weren't in two fantasy football leagues with friends and coworkers, I would not have watched a single game this season, and that's a Leftovers-scale flash-forward twist for a kid who once recorded the Superbowl Shuffle to cassette tape off a local radio broadcast just to practice the lyrics.

If you disregard any historical romantic notions and examine the typical NFL football game, it is mostly dead time (if you watch a cut-down version of a game using Sunday Ticket, only about 30 minutes of a 3 to 3.5 hr game involves actual game action), with the majority of plays involving action of only incremental consequence, whose skill and strategy on display are opaque to most viewers and which are explained poorly by a bunch of middle-aged white men who know little about how to sell the romance of the game to a football neophyte. Several times each week, you might see a player hit so hard that they lie on the ground motionless, or with their hands quivering, foreshadowing a lifetime of pain, memory loss, and depression brought on by irreversible brain damage. If you tried to pitch that show concept just on its structural merits you'd be laughed out of the room in Hollywood.

Cultural products must regenerate themselves for each successive age and generation or risk becoming like opera or the symphony is today. I had season tickets to the LA Phil when I lived in Los Angeles, and I brought a friend to the season opener one year. A reporter actually stopped us as we walked out to interview us about why we were there, so mysterious it was to see two attendees who weren't old enough to have been contemporaries of the composer of the music that night (Mahler).

Yes, football has been around for decades, but most of those were in an age of entertainment scarcity. During that time the NFL capitalized on being the only game in town on Sundays, capturing an audience that passed on the game and its liturgies to their children. Football resembles a religion or any other cultural social network; humans being a tribal creature, we find products that satisfy that need, and what are professional sports leagues but an alliance of clans who band together for the network effects of ritual tribal warfare?

Because of its long incubation in an era of low entertainment competition, the NFL built up massive distribution power and enormous financial coffers. That it is a cultural product transmitted by one generation to the next through multiple channels means it's not entirely fair to analyze it independent of its history; cultural products have some path dependence.

Nevertheless, even if you grant it all its tailwinds, I don't trust a bunch of rich old white male owners who grew up in such favorable monopolistic conditions to both understand and adapt in time to rescue the NFL from continued decline in cultural relevance. They are like tortoises who grew up in the Galapagos Islands, shielded on all sides from predators by the ocean, who one day see the moat dry up, connecting them all of a sudden to other continents where an infinite variety of fast-moving predators dwell. I'm not sure the average NFL owner could unlock an iPhone X, let alone understand the way its product moves through modern cultural highways.

Other major sports leagues are in the same boat though most aren't as oblivious as the NFL. The NBA has an open-minded commissioner in Adam Silver and some younger owners who made their money in technology and at least have one foot in modernity. As a sport, the NBA has some structural advantages over other sports (for example, the league has fewer players whose faces are seen and who are active on social media in an authentic way), but the league also helps by allowing highlights of games to be clipped and shared on social media and by encouraging its players to cultivate public personas that act as additional narrative fodder for audiences.

I remember sitting in a meeting with some NFL representatives as they outlined a long list of their restrictions for how their televised games could be remixed and shared by fans on social media. Basically, they wanted almost none of it and would pursue take-downs through all the major social media companies.

Make no mistake, one possible successful strategy in this age of abundant media is to double down on scarcity. It's often the optimal strategy for extracting the maximum revenue from a motivated customer segment. Taylor Swift and other such unicorns can only release their albums on CD for a window to maximize financial return from her superfans before releasing the album on streaming services, straight from the old media windowing playbook.

However, you'd better be damn sure your product is unique and compelling to dial up that tactic because the far greater risk in the age of abundance is that you put up walls around your content and set up a bouncer at the door and no one shows up because there are dozens of free clubs all over town with no cover charge.

Sports have long had one massive advantage in production costs over scripted entertainment like TV and movies, and that is that their narrative engine is a random number generator (RNG). If you want to produce the next hot streaming series, you have to pay millions of dollars to showrunners and writers to generate some narrative.

In sports, the narrative is embedded in the rules of the game. Some players will compete, and someone will win. It's the same script replayed every night, but the RNG produces infinite variations that then spin off infinite variations of the same narratives for why a game turned out one way or the other, just as someone has to make up a story every day to explain why the stock market went up or down. At last check, RNG hadn't found representation with CAA or WME or UTA and thus its services remain free.

Unfortunately for major sports, this advantage is now a weakness as sports narrative is much more brittle than its entertainment counterparts. Narrative is a hedge against disaggregation and unbundling, and that is a critical moat in this age of social media and the internet.

One way to measure entertainment value on this dimension is to ask whether you can read a summary of a narrative and enjoy it almost as much as consuming the original narrative in its native medium. My classic test of this is for movies and TV shows. If you can enjoy a movie just as much by reading the Wikipedia plot summary as by watching it, or if you can enjoy a TV shows almost as much by reading a recap than by bingeing it on your sofa, then it wasn't really that great a movie or TV show to begin with.

Instead of watching the entire last season of Game of Thrones when it returns in 2019, I offer you the alternative of just reading textual recaps to your hearts content online. Is that as enticing an alternative as actually watching all six or seven episodes? You'll ingest all the plot details either way, but for the vast majority of fans this would be a gut-wrenching downgrade.

My other test of narrative value is a variant of the previous compression test. Can you enjoy something just as much by just watching a tiny fraction of the best moments? If so, the narrative is brittle. If you can watch just the last scene of a movie and get most or all the pleasure of watching the whole thing, the narrative didn't earn your company for the journey.

Much more of sports fails this second test than many sports fans realize. I can watch highlights of most games on ESPN or HouseofHighlights on Instagram and extract most of the entertainment marrow and cultural capital of knowing what happened without having to sit through three hours of mostly commercials and dead time. That a game can be unbundled so easily into individual plays and retain most of its value to me might be seen as a good thing in the age of social media, but it's not ideal for the sports leagues if those excerpts are mostly viewed outside paywalls.

This is the bind for major sports leagues. On the one hand, you can try to keep all your content inside the paywall. On the other hand, doing so probably means you continue hemorrhaging  cultural share. This is the eternal dilemma for all media companies in the age of infinite content.

Two nights ago, I watched a clip of multiple angles of Tua Tagovailoa ripping a laser beam of a pass to win the National Championship for Alabama. I didn't watch it live, or on ESPN. I watched it on HouseofHighlights on Instagram, where, instead of hearing some anchor on Sportscenter basically tell me what I can see with my own eyes, the video spins around after a moment to reveal the stunned face of the fan who just witnessed the pass live, reaction videos being a new sort of genre which allows a person in the video to act as the emoji reaction caption from within the video itself, speaking a visual language that most young people of this YouTube/Snapchat generation are already familiar with but which traditional media doesn't notice, let alone grok.

This disaggregation problem extends to ESPN, currently still the 400 pound gorilla in the sports media jungle (reminder, there are no 800 lb gorillas). The network suspended Jemele Hill for tweeting something negative about Trump, using the same playbook as the NFL, who threatened players with suspension for kneeling for the national anthem. Both believed these actions on the part of their talent were harming the value of their product.

The irony is that if both ESPN and the NFL had let these things play out naturally, I suspect at worst it would have been neutral, and at best it might have increased their ratings. For the NFL, the ties to modern movements for social justice might have kept the league and its games in the national conversation and made it tangentially relevant to the next generation. The most culturally relevant bit of Sportscenter today may just be the Sportscenter Top 10, as athletes who make a stunning play routinely tell reporters they are excited to see if they'll be featured on that evening's roundup of the top 10 plays.

Unfortunately, many athletes already see an appearance in HouseofHighlights as the social media alternative to appearing in the Sportscenter Top 10. If you follow top athletes on Instagram, you can see which of them favorite posts on HouseofHighlights. Lebron James routinely favorites posts, as do many other stars. Since many of those athletes follow each other on Instagram, that feature of Instagram produces common knowledge. It's not just that Donovan Mitchell knows that Lebron James favorited a HouseofHighlights clip of him dunking, it's that Mitchell knows that James knows that Mitchell knows and so on.

For ESPN, hewing to the idea that only highlights presented dispassionately or games broadcast respectfully are key to their value is a risky one. Not that they haven't generated a ton of wealth from doing so, and not that TV broadcast rights to major sports aren't still extremely valuable, but those are much more fixed commodities, available to the highest bidder, and ones whose value are close to their peaks, if not past them. This can't be a complete surprise within the four walls of their corporate offices given how much salary and air time they devote to blowhards like Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless, but their hesitance to lean into cultivating more original voices will haunt them in the long run. The average caption on an Instagram clip of a major sports league highlight is about twice as likely to be fresh and contextually humorous to a young person than any amount of generic sportscaster hooey spouted on ESPN.

This vulnerability extends to their online presences. I still visit on the web and on my mobile devices to get my sports news roundup each day, but sometime in the past few years, the designs of all these presences shifted dramatically. Gone was a hierarchical layout with different sized headlines and groupings of stories. In its place is a long center gutter of updates from a variety of sports leagues, in modern news feed style.

One can see why they went this way, it made ESPN more current, allowing them to push the latest stories to the top of the page to compete with people getting more current updates from Twitter and other social media sites. For a smartphone, in particular, with its limited screen space, it's not easy to block content into multiple sections on one page.

However, the moment you copy someone else's design, you've shifted the terms of the debate in their favor. In a previous era, ESPN's visually distinct information hierarchy set itself up as the authority on what stories mattered. In the new design, what matters skews towards what's the last thing to happen. It's all flow.

To some extent, in our hyper-personalized world, the era of any media entity deciding what stories matter more than others was always going to decline from what might be seen now as a temporary heyday. I care more about Chicago sports teams and Stanford given my background, so having those elements given more prominence was a notable improvement in the site's newly personalized design. Still, what is lost is that sense of authority, that ESPN sets the terms of the debate. Humans remain a social animal, and we take cues about what matters from our each other, including our media entities. ESPN has ceded more and more of the work of determining our sports Schelling points to other entities.

While this may sound grim, the major sports, their respective leagues, and ESPN all have a fairly solid near term window. For one thing, sports is still the highest volume, highest popularity real-time entertainment. As such, it remains a linchpin of many entertainment packages including cable bundles, and so we'll see various media companies pouring money into it until it can't hold things together anymore. We may even see the prices bid even higher for some time as often happens for assets being milked for their last but fleeting window of cultural scarcity.

A second and less discussed factor is that most young tech CEO's don't know the first thing about sports. They, like a sizable part of Silicon Valley (the group that tweets #sportsball whenever Twitter is inundated with reactions to some notable sports event), grew up with other interests. Without that intuitive sense of sports' place in culture, they aren't as attuned to the opportunities in that category.

This provides the leagues opportunities to swindle the tech companies for a while longer, an example being the rights to stream Thursday Night Football, which a series of tech companies from Yahoo to Twitter to Amazon have (probably) overpaid for the last few seasons. As Patrick Stewart said in L.A. Story, "You think with a statement like this you can have the duck?!" The chef says, "He can have the chicken!" Thursday Night Football is zee chicken of the NFL broadcast portfolio, but the restaurant is still called L'Idiot.

This happened for tech companies when they tried to add film and television to their portfolio, too. They routinely paid fortunes for the rights to back seasons of shows that are no longer relevant anymore. When I was at Hulu, I could only shake my head when I heard the asking price for all the back seasons of Seinfeld. Years later, long after I'd left, Hulu paid multiples of that. The cultural decay curve for content in this age of abundance is accelerating by the day, and there is no equivalent of botox to ward it off.

Given market feedback, however, such temporary arbitrage never lasts long. The days of the NFL strong-arming its partners to overpay for the most meager of rights are coming to an end. The thing about setting up a moat around your content is that the moment your cultural value crosses its peak, the moat becomes a set of prison bars. The flywheel loop can turn just as furiously counter-clockwise as clockwise.

And one of these days, a tech company will look at ESPN's homepage and notice how much it looks like their own. If they just put a bit more structure around it, could they satisfy that sports itch for their captive audience which already check in with them multiple times a day?

It seems implausible today, but look at what happened in film and television. For the longest time, so many tech companies were guilty of exactly what Hollywood accused them of, not understanding how film and television is made and marketed, how that industry creates demand for its product. Like all engineering led-cultures, Silicon Valley suspected Hollywood of not being data-driven enough, and many suspected that upstream process failures were responsible for failed releases. Half a film's budget is spent on prints and marketing? What a waste! (Engineers despise marketing.)

Forget that most of these people in tech had never been on a film set, or sat inside a writer's room, or seen the volumes of market research done before any film's release. It's all just content, let's just crowd source some alternatives. Or, if we produce some premium content, what's needed is earlier crowd-sourced feedback. Hundreds of millions of dollars were wasted before Silicon Valley realized they didn't know what they were doing.

Fortunately, all it cost them was some money and some time, something most of the incumbents have a surplus of. Now they write checks to creatives in Hollywood and leave them alone to do what they do very well already. Machine learning improves with data even when the algorithms are off, and so do most tech companies.

I am a lifelong lover of media in all its forms, and sports in particular was central to how I assimilated into America. It has long served as cultural connective tissue between me and friends, family, and strangers. But if I had an easy way to short all the major sports leagues over the next decade, I would. Nostalgia serves many purposes, but its most dangerous one is wrapping us in a memory of a time when we were still relevant.