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Hackers revealed Sony Pictures' real secret — media companies are really boring

The Sony Pictures lot in Culver City was recently subject to a massive hack.
The Sony Pictures lot in Culver City was recently subject to a massive hack.
Ken Wolter /
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Nobody knows, officially, if the hack of Sony Pictures was carried out by operatives working on behalf of the North Korean government, though it seems both possible and likely. But after getting a look at the files dumped on journalists by the hackers, I'm more than willing to believe it.

The hackers seem to mistake typical media corporation practices — i.e., continuing to make money off of movies and TV shows you've forgotten even existed — for world-shattering information about Sony's "sales strategies." Yeah, there's been some salacious stuff uncovered in the files released, but for the most part, the hack seems to be carried out by people who don't really have any idea what they're looking for and would rather have journalists comb through it for them.

Which is fine! That's the purpose of the media, to be sure. But if the so-called Guardians of Peace were looking to cripple Sony Pictures somehow, they've done a poor job of it. Most of the files released look like this:

In case you can't tell (and I have no idea why you would instantly be able to), that's an image of a spreadsheet outlining all of the times that the film Saving Silverman played on stations in local markets in the month of October. You probably don't even remember that movie. It was a 2001 Jason Biggs vehicle that came and went, and is now mostly notable for being one of the early films in Amanda Peet's career.

Yet Sony continues to get it on television whenever it can, often via barter syndication. Barter syndication is a system whereby the syndicator essentially gives away a program, rather than having a local station pay for the right to air it. In exchange for the free programming the syndicator provides the station, the syndicator receives much of the ad revenue generated by the program. (Depending on the deal with the local station, the syndicator could even receive all of that revenue.)

The vast majority of files released so far have to do with Sony's syndication strategies. And there's good reason for this! That's the boring way that giant media corporations make money. They have lots and lots of product in their libraries. And then, relentlessly, they find ways to monetize that product, even if what they're working with is a horribly reviewed 2001 movie basically nobody saw in theaters. It seems unlikely Saving Silverman would ever be on someone's list of favorite movies, yet there it is, just waiting to be found at 3 p.m. on a Saturday in Juneau, Alaska.

There are handfuls of legitimately interesting business nuggets in these documents. For example, the cult TV show Community drew an absurdly low average household rating of 0.4, which might explain why it disappeared from syndication so quickly. (Granted, that average rating has a lot of late-night timeslots factored into it.) And Seinfeld continues to garner surprisingly good ratings, even early in its third decade of syndication.

But none of this is particularly note-worthy or new. Heck, even the supposedly damaging information mostly reveals people who work at Sony aren't happy to be working there — just like a lot of other corporate jobs anywhere in the world.

Even in an age when people know a lot about how show business works, there's a temptation to believe it's still a glamorous industry, filled with people living out their dreams. But, actually, it's just as boring and everyday as any other job, and a lot of the people working in it are compiling massive spreadsheets or doing things they'd rather not be doing.

If the hackers or North Korea or whoever really want to damage Sony, they may have the ammunition to do so somewhere in the massive troves of information they stole. But this data mostly reveals a company that is making money the same way everybody else is — by getting smaller and smaller amounts of blood from tinier and tinier stones.

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