Borkowski End of Year Trends: Part One
It's the end of the year so we're going to give you a roundup of 2020 in the media through the lens of the Borkowski Trends top 10 most talked-about topics.
This is also a sad occasion as we say goodbye to one of the founding fathers of this newsletter who is departing for pastures new. If regular readers notice less Joe Biden fan fiction, that's why. Sorry we never gave you a byline big guy...or plugged yourTwitter!
The Ghost of Media Future
Just as the acceleration of climate change transforms out planet in exponentially more significant (and worrying) ways, the dawn of the 20s has seen a UK media landscape – bordering on hegemonic since the end of the Second World War- change more significantly in months and years than it did in decades previously, and rarely in ways that make its future feel secure.
As always, the BBC is the centre of the British media universe and its public image – under constant siege- has taken another battering in 2020, and that’s even before we take into account self-inflicted damage.
They started the year by axing the popular and high-achieving Victoria Derbyshire Show without, it seems, telling the eponymous presenter beforehand. Someone less well-liked and active on social media might’ve been easier to sweep under the carpet.
We summarised their Q1 record as follows:
“There’s their habitual inability to connect with young audiences (BBC Sounds – mascot: Laura Kuenssberg not knowing how to sh*tpost), their involvement in the embarrassment of Britbox, their unequal treatment of their employees symbolised first by Carrie Gracie’s last stand and then by Samira Ahmed’s tribunal victory. There’s their flip-flopping lack of support for Naga Munchetty’s principled stand, Jon Humphries immediate uptake of the Daily Mail hatchet…”
They also copped flack for their platforming of discredited and demagogic voices, although they seemingly had that in common with the rest of the media world. We regularly bemoaned the ubiquity of Nigel Farage’s media presence on issues far removed from his one area of policy knowledge (Brexit) - part of a trend that saw an appetite for commentators in the style of Alex Jones cross the Atlantic. An exposé on the copy/paste template used by loudmouths like Brendan O’Neill demonstrated that little imagination is needed to build a reputation as a commentator these days beyond thinking up headlines that will offend or exasperate at least 50% of the news-reading population.
Nor was it a flagship year for press freedom or ‘Fourth Estate’ powers. We’ll go into further depth on the British government’s treatment of journalists below, but in America Mike Bloomberg came dangerously close to giving us an updated example of what a media baron with a powerful platform and hatfuls of cash could do to the democratic process (this is before Trump tried to take it down from the inside – more on that later too).
Back over here the pandemic hit our media institutions like a hurricane. The BBC’s woes continued with the emerging political threat of ending the license fee and leaving Auntie to compete with the American giants of big tech for subscriptions in the marketplace (an effective death sentence), and the launch of Times Radio which poached several big players from the Beeb and had a moderately successful launch before interest inevitably plateaued.
Tabloids were excoriated for their perceived role in the Caroline Flack tragedy and circulation among print newspapers continued to tumble. The Guardian cut 180 jobs and we were left with the real possibility that subsidy from a Murdoch-sized wallet (and adherence to the owner of said wallet’s propaganda) would be the only thing keeping newspapers alive in 5 years’ time.
Things were little better in the consumer sector, we described one particularly brutal period as follows:
“Digital news innovatorBuzzfeedand travel industry godfatherLonely Planetboth announced the closure of operations in the UK and Australia, while layoffs and furloughs have recently been made atCondé Nast, Quartz, The Economist and Vox, withVICErumoured to be following suit.”
We also looked at the comparable fates of Bauer, Joe.co.uk and (rumoured) BBC 4, and the end of the year reminded us how some media outlets don’t help themselves in their quest to survive a changing world, with Sky One forced to pull a reality show about woodcraft for featuring a man with a prominent Nazi tattoo in the promotion.
Elsewhere we saw subscription streaming services boom thanks to lockdown; Disney continue its aggressive content expansion with the acquisition of such entertainment mega properties as Hamilton and the launch of Disney+, while Netflix announced its intention to move into the live events game with a Comedy Festival (thwarted by COVID we assume).
Traditional media outlets did also find some inventive new ways of garnering attention; Judy Dench and Harry Styles’ Vogue covers were inspired. Robert Pattinson’s lockdown ‘selfie’ photoshoot with GQ was a neat lockdown-specific trick and ITV’s airing and defence of a BLM-inspired performance by dance troupe Diversity were all notable, as was the miraculous continued success of Magic FM – a masterclass in how to seize a niche and use it as a basis for a viable media business.
What to expect in 2021? Old dogs attempting increasingly desperate new tricks while a proliferating litter of puppish new media fads continue to snap at their heels.
The Second Age of the Influencer
In 2019 we predicted that the furore caused by the likes of Fyre Festival and Caroline Calloway would end the first ‘Wild West’ age of the influencer, and so it has proved.
Some have clung desperately to the model of ‘get followers then get paid - at any cost’ but accountability this year has been stronger, and ridicule rarely far behind it for those who abuse that model.
In a huge twist of irony, the well-mannered victim and lone reputational survivor of the Fyre Festival furore Andy King, embarked on a new career as…well…an influencer, complete with a (scheduled before COVID) UK speaking tour. By the end of the year, he was recording personalised messages on Cameo, but he’s making a living. Later the first ‘Virtual Influencer’ was ‘signed’ by talent agency CAA in one of the year’s better gimmicks.
But beneath the harmless nonsense lay a more sinister legacy of the first age of influencers; Arielle Charnas, allegedly having been diagnosed with COVID and yet gleefully flouting the rules to countless followers, and the YouTuber who spent year monetising her autistic foster son before giving him up abruptly two prominent examples within a short space of one another. Then there was Logan Paul’s house being raided by the FBI in convenient proximity to him releasing a single.
But we’re getting wise to how the sausage is made and in recent months have had the benefit of a kind of viral industry watchdog in the second half of the year in the form of @Influencersinthewild, the social account that catches influencers in the act behind the (carefully stage managed) scenes, followed a couple of months later by a very real crackdown by the CMA.
Perhaps the biggest misstep was the decision by the WWF, when given precious access to Sir David Attenborough’s Netflix special David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet decided that a partnership with perhaps the most influential human on the planet not to hold a high office of state would be improved by a collaboration with…Brooklyn Beckham.
On the other hand, big brands and decision makers are developing a more sophisticated approach to influencer marketing, and some of the influencers themselves are showing a developing understanding of the new DNA of fame: purpose, humility and authenticity.
The professional influencer industry was consciously worked into election campaign strategy for the first time – notably by the abortive Bloomberg campaign but it was still a watershed which could lead to the replacement, or at least evolution of the ‘Celebrity Endorsement’ in politics.
We’re wiser to influencers and are moving towards an age where we treat anything with the trappings of professionality, with the same scrutiny we would an advert, but advertising can still be very powerful, and influencer marketing used in that way has still not reached its peak.
The Evolution of the Overnight Viral Sensation
One process that has so far generally eluded the media world is the transformation of an overnight viral sensation into someone with a stable and sustainable level of long-term fame.
2020 didn’t change that but the viral stories we picked out showed patterns in virality that might be useful for media and comms professionals on the hunt for the next wheeze.
Earlier in the year we met the viral weatherman whose camera just happened to be applying hilarious filters to his face during a live report. So that’s: someone with a lot of media savvy being the victim of a hilarious accident (while in contact with a significant audience) and dealing with it with charm and grace.
An adorable one off? How about Charlotte Awbery, the wannabe professional singer buttonholed by a social media prankster on the tube and then 'reluctantly' singing a near-perfect version of Lady Gaga’s ‘Shallow’ which gained her (and said prankster) a media tour and hundreds of thousands of social followers overnight.
There are the millions of stories in which we anthropomorphise animals doing funny things to make them both funnier and more relatable. Animals go viral whatever the agenda but imposing human traits on them seems to be a recipe for extra media attention as this one week’s worth of stories proved:
"Just this week we’ve seen widely-shared stories about an incrediblyfast and graceful pig(Pumba’s new groove?), a gang offeral chickens in Jerseymeeting a bloody end (a dark crossover sequel of Chicken Run & The Wrong Trousers?) , a100,000 strong army of ducksassembled to fight locusts (Daffy & David Cross in Kung Fu Panda vs A Bugs Life??),Kenyan donkeyssaved from the slaughter (basically just the first five minutes of Shrek, right?), and a swarm ofherpes-ridden monkeysin Florida (Spring Break for Donkey Kong?!)"
Can’t easily give animals a human persona? How about powerful and terrifying symbolism. Exhibit A the Guardian article about the Tower of London ravens abandoning their posts at the height of the pandemic – long a quintessential harbinger of British doom and guaranteed to capture the imagination with its Poe-esque sense of gothic foreboding.
Then there are the total accidents. The viral sensations whose lack of media savviness and self-consciousness gives them an unrivalled charm. Remember the pub landlord who put an electric fence around his bar to enforce social distancing? And what about doggface? All the advertising, PR, marketing and social media execs in the world could not have come up with something as simple and brilliantly effective to leverage fame for him, for cranberry juice, or even for the mighty Fleetwood Mac. Viral flukes still exist.
But so too do stunts that are entirely purposeful. Oobah Butler, the internet’s foremost hipster prankster famous for fake restaurant The Shed in Dulwich, achieved another minor viral sensation when he released a couple of case studies for his doppelganger agency Oobah, with which customers can hire a lookalike to do something they’d rather avoid on their behalf.
Nobody has been able to bottle organic virality. Big brands can buy it, and news reporters can force it to an extent, but people generally resist the kind of organic engagement that creates a true viral sensation with anything labelled as an advert or perceived as too try-hard. Don’t expect that to change in 2021.