Polarizing is profitable – Just ask Spotify or Zucker

Two scandals rocking the United States media landscape this week highlight the role that polarizing content plays in driving profits.

This combination photo shows Neil Young and UFC announcer and podcaster Joe Rogan
Rock legend Neil Young (left) pulled his music catalogue from Spotify in protest over what he calls vaccine misinformation spread on Joe Rogan's (right) immensely popular podcast on Spotify [File: AP]

The US media business is always full of drama, and there was a heaping helping of it this week between the controversy surrounding streaming service Spotify and the abrupt resignation of CNN chief Jeff Zucker.

One scandal involved a new media platform, the other an old media TV executive so powerful he is practically a household name.

But both media maelstroms shine a spotlight on the stunning profits that have been generated from broadcasting polarizing content to an American public in the throes of an increasingly destructive culture war.

To recap: Spotify kicked off the week smack in the middle of a Twitter campaign urging users to delete their accounts. The #cancelspotify controversy took hold on January 26 when Canadian-American folk rocker Neil Young told his managers to pull his songs from the streaming service over what he (and hundreds of scientists) believe is misinformation about coronavirus vaccines spread through Spotify’s immensely popular podcast The Joe Rogan Experience.

“They [Spotify] can have Rogan or Young. Not both,” the rocker said in a now-deleted letter to his management posted online.

Young put his songs where his values are and said goodbye to Spotify. Artist Joni Mitchell and others followed him, along with some podcasters.

For its part, Spotify stuck with Rogan and went into damage-control mode.

Without naming Rogan specifically, Spotify’s CEO Daniel Ek said in a blog post on Sunday that the company was taking steps to combat vaccine misinformation, and pursuing other measures “to raise awareness around what’s acceptable and help creators understand their accountability for the content they post on our platform”.

Labelling Spotify a “platform” echoes the end run that social media giants like Twitter and Meta – parent of Facebook and Instagram – have long used to dodge legal liability for misinformation posted on their platforms.

Ek also took another page from the social-media crisis communications playbook and used the blog post to declare his personal commitment to freedom of speech: “It is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor,” he wrote.

But behind the high-minded language, and promises to do more to clean up the platform, there is a strong profit motive at play.

Back in May 2020, Spotify paid a reported $100m for exclusive rights to Rogan’s podcast. The reason: music streaming wasn’t profitable for Spotify. But it saw dollar signs in Rogan, who routinely has divisive, controversial guests on his show.

The bet has been paying off. Spotify’s advertising revenues were up by 40 percent in the final three months of last year. That was largely driven by podcasts, and the most popular podcast on its service is – you guessed it – The Joe Rogan Experience.

But the exclusive rights to Rogan’s podcast do strain Spotify’s claim that it is only a platform, and not a media company. How that and #cancelspotify impact the streaming service’s bottom line will likely take time to gauge. “Usually when we have controversies in the past, they are measured in months not days,” Ek reportedly said on an earnings call this week.

Rogan meanwhile posted a video to Instagram in which he apologised to Spotify and the artists he offended, saying he was not trying to promote misinformation or be “controversial”.

Whatever his motives, Rogan is not a journalist. He is a comedian and reality TV star turned podcasting sensation.

Moreover, news outlets are not above profiting handsomely from broadcasting polarizing content. Look no further than Jeff Zucker.

In case you missed it, Zucker stunned the media world on Wednesday when he resigned as president of CNN Worldwide over his failure to disclose an office romance with a subordinate.

“I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong. As a result, I am resigning today,” he said in a memo to staff.

Zucker’s departure drew a line under a nine-year turn at the helm of CNN, where he delivered outsized ratings and profits by relentlessly blurring news and entertainment. And no one delivered bigger ratings or bigger profits on Zucker’s watch than the most divisive figure in US politics in living memory: former US President Donald Trump.

When Zucker was head of NBC Entertainment, he played a pivotal role in raising Trump’s profile with the American public when he greenlit The Apprentice – a reality TV show the real estate mogul hosted for 14 years.

In 2015, when Trump announced he was running for the White House, Zucker saw an infotainment bonanza in the making.

In a crowded field of Republican candidates, Trump was given disproportionate airtime on CNN. Whenever Trump spoke, a CNN camera was there to take it live. The cameras even started rolling early, showing an empty podium at Trump rallies, building anticipation, and then running with uninterrupted coverage as Trump spoke to his legions of devoted supporters.

Zucker defended CNN’s Trump coverage at the time by invoking the network’s commitment to freedom of speech. But he later admitted in a 2020 Retro Report documentary, Enemies of the People, that he may have been shortsighted.

“Donald Trump would say outrageous things, or say things that weren’t true, and it just became accepted as, ‘Oh, that’s what he does’,” said Zucker. “Not calling that out more for what it was, and then holding the other side more accountable, that was probably a mistake.”

But CNN and its viewers could not turn away from Trump, especially after the network took a highly critical tone towards his presidency, and Trump took to calling CNN “fake news” – a mudslinging match that kept eyeballs glued to screens.

In 2020, CNN had its strongest ratings year on record thanks to wall-to-wall coverage of Trump and the COVID-19 pandemic. The run continued through January 2021 – the month Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol building.

But the ratings juggernaut fizzled out once Trump left office.

It’s unclear where CNN will roam in the post-Zucker era. But its pre-Zucker founding formula of unbiased, robust coverage of important domestic and international events was not nearly as profitable.

Rogan has also pledged to his best “to balance things out” on his Spotify podcast.

In the meantime, it’s up to the content-consuming public to decide where they get their news and information. And should they tire of divisiveness, they can always choose to tune out, put on a classic playlist, and “keep on rockin’ in the free world” on a platform they find less objectionable.

Source: Al Jazeera