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Will Media Fragmentation Solve The Culture War Or Make Us More Divided?


The following is a transcript of my radar from Wednesday’s edition of “Rising” on Hill TV.

Two years ago I wrote about Greg Gutfeld’s eye-popping ratings. The ratio of news coverage to viewers, compared with the ratio of media coverage to viewers for comedians like Samantha Bee, said something profound about the media bubble.

It still does. It’s the Coming Apart thesis in practice, a consequence of elite sorting.

Call it the Law of Rotten Tomatoes. Why do critics love Nat Geo’s fawning “Fauci” while audiences hate it? Why do critics hate the sharply new Chappelle special while audiences love it? Why is the consensus so different between classes? Because journalists have similar backgrounds, lifestyles, and tastes. The incentives to question that dogma are low. The incentives to champion it are high.

Despite being on cable Gutfeld is now the number two host in late night, behind only Stephen Colbert. Colbert, despite a legendary run at Comedy Central, now inspires more cringes than laughs. He is nearly unbearable. So why is he the king of late night?

This is an example I always use to illustrate a trend that gets way too little attention. Colbert and Gutfeld are nothing averaging somewhere in the neighborhood of two million viewers, according to Nielsen. It may seem crazy that Colbert is sharing the same top slot as Johnny Carson, whose last year on The Tonight Show was pulling in triple the nightly viewers 30 years ago.

So what’s the big deal? This is a story about the business of commercial art as much as the quality of it. But it’s political too.

Gutfeld is an instructive foil for two reasons: first he’s on cable, which has undercut the networks’ power along with streaming, and second because he’s politically incorrect, which is an advantage since all the comedians whose asses he’s kicking insist on following rules that needlessly handicap them.

And yet that doesn’t explain Colbert. He’s not funny but he is, as Gutfeld recently said, “Sesame Street for Democrats.” There’s a market for that, and in the era of media fragmentation, so long as you corner the market on a niche, you can pull in two million viewers and win the late night race. So if there’s a market for cringey Boomer resistance comedy, and there is, then all you have to do is produce that low-hanging fruit better than anyone else.

This has obvious upsides. It means scrappy alternative shows like Rising have more power than certain shows on dusty cable platforms like CNN. It means places like The Intercept and The Federalist are more powerful than they could have been before.

One story I’ve been following closely at The Federalist is The Daily Wire’s very intentional and well-funded campaign to compete with the Hollywood establishment. Just last night, The Daily Wire announced it’ll release “Terror on the Prairie” next spring, anticipating more vaccine mandates in the film industry. See what’s happening here?

When Disney booted Gina Carano from “The Mandalorian,” The Daily Wire immediately collaborated with her on this new film. As Ben Shapiro told me back in August, “We entered the entertainment space in order to deliver a message to Hollywood: You no longer have a monopoly.”

Why can a conservative media outlet make that claim in 2021? Because streaming makes the barrier to entry lower, allowing more players to compete. Political correctness is creating niches that are easier for new competitors to fill.

Every industry is starting to have its own version of Substack thanks to both these forces. An upside is that heterodox celebrities like Gina Carano increasingly have landing pads outside the industry establishment, which incentives artistic freedom and integrity.

A downside is that it encourages us to stay divided, to cluster in niches that let us share more with a few than less with more. Maybe you found Johnny Carson to be vanilla. Maybe, like me, you love political comedy and find the kind of comedians who made and make it in mass media to be uninteresting. When you have to appeal to everyone, you have to be a little less offensive, especially now. But without Johnny Carson and the mass media he thrived in, we are not forced to confront what we share, we are encouraged to emphasize what makes us different and live in that universe. Maybe you love Jezebel and Lindy West and fourth-wave feminism… you can watch “Shrill” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” and never have your values questioned.

Mass media was quickly a success and then a causality of technological advances. This will have advantages and disadvantages but the least we can do is recognize that we’re in a very different place and it’s influencing our culture in dramatic ways.