This week, we (and Google by way of a doodle) take note of the 90th anniversary of the first demonstration of television. Granted, it was a primitive mechanical television, but it was the precursor to the electronic tube TVs that dominated the childhoods of baby boomers everywhere.
That first image, demonstrated by Scottish engineer, John Logie Baird, was roughly 3 inches by 2 inches—a far larger screen than that of the Apple Watch, but not nearly as large as your neighbor’s 75-inch flat screen, where you’re hoping to be invited for Super Bowl 50.
The science and engineering of television have evolved in ways Mr. Baird could never have imagined. And so have its uses.
In the span of one decade (the 1960s), television was both the great uniter and divider. The nation came together in its grief over the assassination of President Kennedy and television news (in the United States) came of age.
As the 60s churned, television was the meeting place of the generational divide. The same medium that brought us tuxedo-clad crooners on The Dean Martin Show, also delivered the political punch of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in. Both shows had scantily clad dancing girls, but on one show they sold sex, on the other they sold satire.
The Viet Nam War was as regular a feature in everyone’s living room as The Lawrence Welk Show. Television learned to inform as much as entertain, and a new generation took that information and created a counter- culture and its own identity.
As television evolved from miracle technology to miracle money-maker, all networks or affiliates had to do was turn on the transmitter and watch the money roll in. Television is where advertisers went—and still go—for the most efficient corporate image building. Coca-Cola could tame Mean Joe Green. Chrysler—and Detroit—could come back from the dead. Television is still a major part of any advertising or public relations campaign or crisis management.
Cable, satellite, and Internet distribution may have “disrupted” broadcasting, but all platforms have cashed in on the irresistible, ongoing attraction people have to a glowing screen. (Hunter S. Thompson famously referred to the TV business as a “cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs,” not in the context of compromising journalistic integrity, but because once he had installed a satellite dish at his remote mountain home, he was outraged to learn he’d have to pay to decode the individual signals of channels he wanted to watch.)
As public relations specialists, we know that your television screen is no longer the only one you watch and that audiences are now fragmented among hundreds of channels and platforms. We know that different demographic cohorts go to different places for their content. An analysis of Neilsen trends from 2011 through most of 2015, shows that while younger viewers are dropping away, “traditional TV remains the primary mechanism for adults across age groups.”
TV, especially the major networks and their affiliates, is still a very big PR bang for the buck.
There are so many things that caught my eye as well as my ire from this past week, that I felt it’s time for another winners and losers listicle. Plus, I like saying “listicle.” (Rarely do I embrace made up words, but along with ginormous, listicle is fun to say.) Here is a small sample last week’s PR winners and losers.
NBC & Donald Trump
Trump’s appearance on Saturday Night Live gave SNL its largest audience since 2012, with close to 10 million viewers. Despite demonstrators and hecklers, the presidential candidate and the network were reaping mega-publicity afterwards. (If you Google “Trump, SNL, and NBC”, you get 10.2 million hits.) Added bonus for The Donald: he Trump-ed the ratings for SNL from the week that Hillary Clinton appeared in a brief sketch.
She’s a satellite archeologist. And now she’s the winner of the TED Foundation’s 2016 TED Prize, inspiring a whole generation of “Indiana Joneses” with her accomplishments. The $1 million prize will allow the Bangor, Maine native to pursue a project which will be announced next February.
Talk about your conspiracy theories! Starbucks alleged “War on Christmas,” in the form of its plain red cup, has brought so much publicity to Starbucks and so much ridicule to its accusers that I almost wondered if Starbucks wasn’t behind it from the start. (And what could warm the hearts of Starbucks base clientele more than a threatened boycott by Donald Trump?) Seriously, this is PR gold for Starbucks.
NBC & Donald Trump
The erratic quality control that makes SNL a crap-shoot regarding actual comedy was in evidence as this show was rarely funny, displaying neither intelligent wit nor clever integration of its famous host. With this Bevis & Butthead-level sexual blather, the demeaning of the U.S. Presidency continues. Why do candidates feel they must show what good sports they are by subjecting themselves to these puerile rituals? I know appearing on a comedy show is not a new campaign tactic: Richard Nixon said “Sock it to me?”, a Ray-Ban bedecked Bill Clinton played the saxophone on Arsenio, and Hillary Clinton recently tended bar with “herself.” But these appearances are increasingly embarrassing. (I know, so is presidential politics in general. Nope, didn’t even bother picking a winner or loser from last night’s debate.)
Russian Track Federation & International Association of Athletics Federation
The Cold War is hot again. The World Anti-Doping Association reported this week that Russia continues to uphold its traditional practice of doping athletes to assure a high medal count in world competition, including during the Olympics—thereby proving the inferiority of the Capitalist West. Russia apparently was aided and abetted by officials at the I.A.A.F. (Is it time to duck and cover yet?)
Comedy’s “It” girl irritated some fans during a double-header at Portland, Maine’s Cross Insurance Arena when she gave a shortened performance to the 7:30 audience citing the need for time to turn over the house to the 10:30 audience. It wasn’t a “train wreck” but her self-proclaimed “rookie mistake” generated three days of bad PR that could have been avoided by simply adjusting the schedule. (In her defense, she may have been bummed that she’s not, in fact, dating Bradley Cooper.)
No one on the “loser” list should feel too bad. As Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
The PR bonanza named Bombshell has been showering The Actors Fund in glorious news coverage and giddy Tweets since last December when it was announced that The Actors Fund would stage a major fundraiser: a one-night-only concert staging of Bombshell, the make-believe musical about Marilyn Monroe, that was the center of the NBC musical drama, SMASH.
The Actors Fund is a 133-year-old non-profit organization dedicated to providing human services to all entertainment professionals in all disciplines across the country. The Fund provides emergency grants for everything from food to medical bills and also supports nursing and retirement homes.
It’s a worthy organization. More artists and technicians in the entertainment industry live paycheck-to-paycheck than from poolside-to-penthouse.
Since the announcement, thousands of Broadway theater enthusiasts (myself included), looked forward to the chance to buy tickets. Prices ranged from $120 to $1,000. (Needless to say, most of us were planning to bring opera glasses.)
To cover the production costs, The Actors Fund launched a Kickstarter campaign, hoping to raise $50,000. Kicking in gave donors a leg up on ticket sales. Make a donation and you got a pre-sale code that allowed you to buy two tickets a day ahead of the general public.
Eager to get an edge, 1,485 people (myself included) donated. The campaign raised $318,120.
At 11 a.m. on April 13, pre-sale codes in hand, we clicked on “Buy Tickets”, typed in our codes, and many of us were told, “Your presale code is invalid.” At 11:04, I was locked out of the site completely. At 11:06 I sent an email to The Actors Fund explaining my code was apparently invalid.
Turns out the codes for many people were “invalid.”
Twitter came alive with tweeters (myself included) crying foul. Some even using the other “F” word: fraud.
The show sold out in an hour. The raging tweets continued for hours, with never a peep out of The Actors Fund, Ticketmaster, or Kickstarter.
At 8:44 p.m. I got a reply from The Actors Fund to my email:
We apologize for any inconvenience. There were issues with the Ticketmaster site due to the overwhelming response. Again, with thanks for your support and with our apologies.
At 10:57 p.m., they Tweeted that I should see their “refund offer to generous Kickstarters.”
What’s interesting—and mind boggling—about the offer to refund the Kickstarter donations is that it never mentions the invalid pre-sale codes. It was a non-apology. It was a non-acknowledgement of screwing up.
As I explained to the gentleman from The Actors Fund who apologized for “any inconvenience,” people don’t feel inconvenienced. They feel played.
From the moment this event was announced, we all knew there would be a finite number of tickets for an infinite number of buyers. We all knew the show would sell out quickly. That’s part of the fun of the game.
What The Actors Fund should have known from the moment it received $318,120 in pledges ($200,000 of it reportedly in the first 18 hours), is that Ticketmaster would be hit hard at 11 a.m. on the 13th. The Fund should have gone to Ticketmaster and said, “We’re expecting at least 1,500 people at exactly 11 a.m. Can you handle this?”
Ticketmaster has sold far more tickets to far larger venues than the 1,621-seat Minskoff Theatre. Ticketmaster is the culprit for the technical breakdown, but The Actors Fund owns the bad PR. A few no-brainer rules were broken here:
- Don’t sit silent for hours while your brand is in crisis.
- Don’t pretend the bad stuff isn’t happening.
- Own your mistakes.
- Don’t offer an apology that doesn’t acknowledge your mistake.
I did not request a refund of my small donation, but many did. The comments on The Actors Fund Kickstarter page are overwhelmingly negative. Phrases like “deeply disappointed,” “terrible job,” and “formal complaint” certainly are not what they wanted for a one-of-a-kind event meant to support a worthy charity.
In truth, the mainstream media coverage of the sold-out show is fine. It glosses over the faulty pre-sale codes and focuses on the good news, perhaps as it should. But PR is more than media coverage. It’s Public Relations. And The Actors Fund has lost not only donations but also a degree of credibility with many in their natural donor base, the theater-going public.