In his new book “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in the Age of Distraction,” Derek Thompson takes issue with some common perceptions about how ideas, products and cultural offerings achieve widespread popularity — particularly the concept of virality. Rather than spreading through individual contact like a virus, he says, popular items piggyback on established networks.
Thompson, a senior editor at the Atlantic, also says quality alone doesn’t lead to popularity — effective distribution is the key.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me. It’s powered by Digital Media. That is a real company with a funny name. I am talking to the normally named Derek Thompson, who’s written an awesome book called “Hit Makers.” Hello, Derek.
Derek Thompson: Hey, Peter.
You’ve got a day job, too, right?
I do, yes.
Not just writing books. You’re a senior editor at the Atlantic?
I’m a senior editor at the Atlantic. The title doesn’t mean a whole lot. I don’t consider myself terrifically senior and I actually don’t edit anything, but I do write for the Atlantic.
You work at the Atlantic, a very fancy publication. You write very smart, brainy stuff and you’re kind of the person who terrifies me because you’re like 14 years old.
30, just turned 30.
30? Oh I feel so much better. I thought you were 25. Still, intimidatingly bright. Many of you know Derek’s stuff. He writes stuff about media and many other interesting topics. He gets passed around on Twitter a lot. Brainy people that I talk to cite him as someone they read so I thought you guys should hear from him as well. He’s got a book to talk about. Let’s talk about the book, “Hit Makers.” You are going to explain to me and everyone else who listens and reads you, how to become instantly popular. You’re going to make this enormously popular podcast even more popular if I just read the book. That’s the deal?
Yes, yes, the magic sprinkle dust is going to be sprinkled on this podcast in particular and it’s going to go absolutely wild online, I predict.
Let’s tease this out a bit before you tell us the secret to making things viral and popular instant hits. Why did you decide to write about this?
It’s a great question. By day, I’m really a macroeconomics and labor markets writer. I am fascinated by welfare states and the direction of the economy. I became an economics writer in 2009, which was a terrible time for the economy, but a great time.
You were like just out of college? Like, “I’m going to be an economics writer, that seems like a good idea.”
Well, I was really a generalist, but the economy was falling apart and so there was this massive need for people to explain what the heck was going on. A terrible time for the country, a great time to be an economics writer. As the economy recovered and got a little bit homeostatic, I went looking around for other things that I could write about with the same formula of, you do a little bit of reporting, you throw in a little bit of historical context. Then maybe you add a bit of psychological theory to explain why things happen.
Super easy. That’s why everyone does this right out of college.
It was the most fun way for me to explain all the weird things that were happening. I gradually realized that media and entertainment and cultural products were a great place to hop to with that same formula. Dash of reporting. Little bit of history. Little bit of psychology.
Unlike a lot of other people who write about media, like myself, you didn’t harbor ... you didn’t say, “Oh I want to be on ‘SNL.’ Or I didn’t want to be on ‘SNL.’” You didn’t think, “Oh I want to create this stuff and instead I’ll end up writing about it.” You sort of backed into it a different way. You thought, “I want to write about economics because I’m that kind of person. Here’s one way I can do it.”
Yeah, in an interesting way, it’s a return to what I wanted to do at the very beginning, before I wanted to be a writer. I really wanted to be an actor.
Ah, now we know.
I loved acting. I loved musical theater. I loved doing all the nerdy stuff. It just became clear to me that even as much as I adored acting and singing, that writing was the job more likely to pay the bills. I went into writing. I studied politics and economics in college and being an economics writer was repaid at 23, 24. But this book offered sort of a nice opportunity to combine my teenage fantasies to surround myself in pop culture. The way that I spent my 20s, which is to research the empirical underpinnings of economics and culture markets and stuff like that.
You guys got all that? Out there in podcast land? Is your head spinning? Don’t be intimidated. Derek’s wicked smart. It’s a very accessible book. There’s a lot going on there. Sometimes you feel a little bit dumb if you’re reading it. Derek, at one point you mentioned the famous Bourdieu 1980 sociological study, and I thought, “I’m glad this is near the end of the book.”
It is near the end of the book, I know very little about Bourdieu.
That part scared me. I know zero. If you’d invented that person, I would believe you. It’s broken up into little nuggets and basically I think of it as a series of blog posts, almost. Every couple pages there’s a new, cool idea. Here’s my main question. When I read a Malcolm Gladwell book or a Michael Lewis book or I listen to the “Freakonomics” guys, they generally have one through line. One big idea that carries you through the book. Maybe I didn’t read it correctly, but it didn’t look like there was one of them in this book. Is there one?
I think that there are probably two. I think the big idea that animates the first half of the book is this concept of what I call “familiar surprises.”
We should give the subtitle, or the subhead. What do we call this?
The subhead. The book is called “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.” The two through lines are?
The first through line is this concept of what I call familiar surprises, which is this idea that audiences are torn between two opposing forces. On the one hand, they’re neophilic. They love new things. They love new podcast episodes, they love new movies and new music. And at the same time, they’re incredibly neophobic. They’re afraid of anything that’s too new. And this is true across basically every single cultural product category.
You want things that are familiar, but not too familiar. You want things that are new but not too new.
Right. So you look at Hollywood movies, you look at the most popular films. And they’re almost all sequels, adaptations and reboots. You look at people’s appetite for music and they tend to like new songs that have really familiar chord structures. Or new songs by their favorite bands. I think this is even true for political ideas. We love reading essays that express a prior ideology in a fresh and interesting and memorable way. And don’t want to be too challenged by a complicated idea that we’re predisposed to disagree with.
You don’t really want your head snapped by a thought or a melody or an idea you haven’t processed before. But if you hear the same thing, see the same thing over and over again, you eventually get turned off by it.
That’s absolutely true. One of the most basic ideas in psychology. One of the most reproducible findings is this thing called near-exposure effect, which is the idea that the mere exposure of a stimulus to you — whether it’s a genre of music or a political idea — the mere exposure of it biases you toward it over time. You fall in love with this sneakily familiar. It turns out this is the exact same idea. That we love familiar ideas but we particularly love being surprised by this feeling of familiarity. Of confronting it where we didn’t expect to find it.
That’s the No. 1 thing, which is things that are popular are familiar, but not too familiar. New but not too new. No. 2 is?
No. 2 is that when people try to assess why a certain product is popular, we tend to overly focus on the product itself. We don’t think about the context. About the way it was distributed. About the way it was marketed.
You just got a little ...
Got a little music.
Got a little extra. It’s a preview.
And so, what the second half of the book tries to do, is to use all of the wonderful things that a lot of these interesting network scientists have looked at to say this is actually how information spreads online. This is how people pass information to each other. The idea that distribution is the most important part of a product, I think is something that a lot of audiences don’t recognize. But anybody in the entertainment media world knows all too well.
How it gets to you is just as important is what the thing is ...
Another way of saying it. It’s an ongoing debate in media, and media economics, about is content king, is distribution king? And your answer basically is both.
I think distribution is probably more important.
The way it gets to you is more important than what it is.
Absolutely. You can say that a song is the best song in the world. You can say that an idea is the best for people’s welfare. Or that a movie is the best documentary of its kind. But without a distribution strategy to reach people, nobody hears it. So distribution, I think, is paramount.
I don’t remember if you wrote it this way, or if this is my summary of your thought. Probably mine, because it sounds less bright. Popular things get more popular. That’s part of what you’re saying, right? Things are popular in part because they’re popular. It’s almost a tautology. Am I summarizing that correctly? That the internet is actually accelerating some of this?
Absolutely. I would say that popularity is a signal. It tells people that something is good. The really interesting thing, though, is that different audiences have different tastes for popularity. For example, you tell a, let’s say, Des Moines, Iowa, housewife that a vacuum cleaner is the No. 1 best-selling vacuum cleaner. She’ll see that popularity as a really positive signal. And she’ll buy it.
It’s the same way that people feel about Top 40 music. I like that song because it’s popular. Living near Brooklyn, as I do, and living in Brooklyn, as I believe you do, there are lots of people, let’s call them hipsters, who see popularity as a negative signal. If that song is too popular, they see that as a bad thing.
They would probably buy the same vacuum cleaner as the Des Moines housewife, if they bought a vacuum cleaner. But yet they take pride in going away from the edge.
That’s if they think about it a lot. A lot of this stuff you’re saying is unconscious or subconscious. There’s an experiment you talk about there, where people change the ordering of popularity. They present things people are going to say, “This is the most popular whatever.” And then they flip it around and say, “No, this is the most popular whatever.” And turns out that whatever you tell people is the most popular, is the thing they’ll like the most.
Exactly. This is one of the most famous studies of cultural products by Duncan Watts, several other people. And then essentially ...
This is the guy who worked for Yahoo, right? It was a Yahoo chief virologist?
Yes, he’s like the chief smart guy on virality. He had this famous study where, very briefly, he essentially showed people the same list of music. To some people he showed the actual list of popularity. Songs listed 1-48. And then other people he just reversed the list. So the 48th most popular song was falsely listed as the most popular. In both music worlds, people just downloaded whatever song was listed No. 1, whether it was good or not. Again, you see that most people have a positive taste for popularity. They are predisposed to something a little bit more just by thinking that it’s popular.
The notion that the hipster in Brooklyn doesn’t like to do popular things, you can counter that pretty easily by going to Williamsburg and noticing that everyone’s got the same facial hair or same variant of it. Now I assume that the fact that I watched football this weekend and Joe Buck, who’s the squarest, whitest announcer — or one of them — now has a three-day stubble thing going on. Which I assume now the Williamsburg folks will completely go bald and shaven at some point.
Yeah, isn’t this sort of the classic upside-down U hype cycle? Where the hipsters will start to do something and then it’ll be mainstreamed by some Sunday Styles article in the New York Times. Then the squares like Joe Buck will essentially try to have the same four o’clock shadow and at that point the people who don’t want to look like Joe Buck will essentially say, “Jesus, this trend has gotten way out of hand.” And they’ll go and search for something else.
I just realized that I’m freshly shaven, so maybe I’m more cutting edge than I thought.
We’re going to hear from our cutting-edge, super popular, super awesome sponsors right now. We’ll be back in a minute.
Back here with Derek Thompson, who’s written “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.” When he’s not writing awesome books, he is working at the Atlantic.
Derek, you have a day job writing for the Atlantic. You are ... I was gonna say wrote a novel. You wrote this really interesting book that talks all about the science of popularity. It seems like someone who understands the science of popularity should not be working at the Atlantic. You should be running ESPN. Or a giant media conglomerate. Or any other thing where that kind of knowledge could really help you. Maybe you’re very good at making your blog posts go viral, but I’m assuming you’ve got this question before, right? If you know so much about this, why don’t you go do it? There’s a variant of it, which is, tell me how to do it.
Right. There’s this great quote that everybody in media seems to know by William Goldman, the screenwriter for ... he wrote “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” he wrote “The Princess Bride.” Most well known, though, for his three-word quote, “Nobody knows anything.”
There’s an emoji equivalent, which is the dude sort of raising his hands.
The shruggy man, right. This, to many people, is a kind of motto of ambiguous ignorance in media and entertainment. Nobody knows anything. On the other hand, the other end of the spectrum, you have the ancient Greeks. They said, “There’s a secret to beauty. It’s the Golden Ratio.” It’s 1.618 and it explains why temples are beautiful, and flowers are beautiful, and art is beautiful. And of course this book falls somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, there is no formula. If there were a formula, eventually everyone would figure out what it was ...
There should be an asterisk saying, “There is no formula in this book.”
Sure, right. That there is no formula. If there were a formula, everyone would figure out what it is and they’d make a bunch of products based on that formula, which means no one product would be particularly popular because they’d all be self-same.
But on the other hand, it’s not true that nobody knows anything. Instead, what I found is true, is that lots of people know a little bit. What was so fun about writing the book is talking to a pop songwriter for The Weeknd and Ariana Grande, and then talking to, say, a musicologist. Of musical illusions. And then talking to a Barack Obama speechwriter. And realizing that they were all saying the same things. About repetitions and the variation of harmony and dissonance when writing either a pop song or a speech. That was the real fun of the book, taking what different experts know and putting them in a virtual room together to talk to each other.
I don’t think I have the formula. I don’t think there is a formula. But I do think that people in various industries can learn a lot about the cultural products they’re making by paying attention to industries that seemingly had nothing to do with their business.
I’m a very busy, highly compensated C-suite executive or would like to be one. So I don’t have any time. I don’t have time to read your book. I’ll pay you a lot to come put some knowledge in my brain. Give me one quick thing that will help me make my product ... I’m not a dummy, so I get that I can’t make something a hit, but I can improve my chances. What’s the best way for me to improve my chances tomorrow?
I think that there’s this concept of viral marketing that has just gotten completely out of hand. One of the chapters in this book is called The Viral Myth, about how network scientists, who’ve looked at the spread of information, have essentially said ideas don’t spread like viruses at all. And we should stop talking about virality. Instead, the products that we say went “viral” almost always piggyback on social networks that already exist. That Facebook initially went viral, not by building a product that every single person shared with five other people, like you might share a disease, but by using networks that existed. They digitized the Harvard network that already existed. The Ivy League networks that already existed.
You compare that to, say, a product like Bumble, the online dating app, which other people have said, “Oh well, it went viral.” Not really. What Whitney Wolfe, the head of Bumble did, was she went to colleges in the South ...
This is the woman who was at Tinder for a while. There was a lawsuit, things didn’t end well. She said I’m gonna create my own version of Tinder.
Right. But the way that she got this product to go “viral” is fascinating and incredibly telling for anybody trying to make their product popular. What she would do is she would go to a Southern university. And she would go to the hottest sorority that was there and she would say, “Here’s a bunch of goodies. Everyone please get on this app and I promise you that other people are gonna get on this app soon, but here’s a bunch of goodies.” So she’d get the whole attractive sorority. Then she’d go to the best-looking fraternity. And she would say, “Hey guys, look at this app. Open up your phone and look at all these attractive women on it.” And they would say, “Wow. We really have to get on this app.”
So she would get what Silicon Valley people call a bowling pin strategy. One ball, many pins at once. She would get the hottest sorority, hottest fraternity on the app at once. Then sell all the other frats and sororities on that app. Not really making the product go viral. Piggybacking on the social networks that existed in order to create a critical mass.
So two things on virality, because you touched on this a couple different times. You talk about Instagram. Which is when it launched, a million other photo-sharing apps already existed, a bunch of things come after that, and you put a lot of stock in the fact that people like ... Dorsey was the man. When Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, M.G. Siegler, some other tech [notables] all sort of endorsed it around the same time and gave it critical mass. But that’s a strategy I see people trying to emulate all the time. Same idea of the Bumble strategy. Let’s get some cool/hot kids to like this thing and other people will like it. You see that all the time outside a club. Who gets in, who doesn’t. This is the thing that lots of people know about and obviously there’s more to it than just trying that strategy. Lots of people are already using a version of the strategy.
Right. And so I think what Whitney Wolfe said that was really interesting, I thought, is she said, “You know, it used to work if I just visited a sorority. I used to be able to sell them on this. And now what I need to do is essentially find a proxy who lives inside of these networks that is trusted.” Because I think that what you find is that once people become savvy to the marketing strategy, they discount it. They don’t want to do it anymore. So what she has to do is essentially find that person who is inside of the sorority or fraternity who can act as her proxy and to get that network online anyway.
Again, it’s a very old strategy you see employed many times, if you’re old like me and you remember the idea of street teams for music in the late ‘90s and you find cool kids and pay them a little bit of money or give them free T-shirts to go out and push your mixtape, or your Britney Spears song or whoever, and obviously this goes back hundreds of years. Is there anything really new here? Or just technology accelerates all this?
I think technology accelerates it, but I also think A) that it is widely misunderstood by people who think that content is king. That you just make something that’s inherently clicky and people will just automatically share it. I think that’s the opposite from what the bowling pin strategy suggests. And then second, one of my best friends is starting a mobile money app that essentially allows people to, especially Ethiopian diaspora immigrants, to essentially have a Venmo network among each other and try to start this in Ethiopia. And the really interesting thing about following the evolution of his company is seeing how difficult it is to essentially find the equivalent of that sorority or that fraternity. Because there are some places, like some restaurants ...
Find the [unintelligible] of Ethiopia.
Exactly. Or find the network that already exists. Find that restaurant in Maryland where all these people are already congregating. Where it’s essentially like this water pump. That ends up being the most interesting challenge, finding that location, that restaurant or organization where this bowling pin strategy is most effective.
The other part of the virality thing that you talk about, which is interesting — by the way, you’re super smart because by going after virality, you’ve automatically picked a fight with a lot of prominent people, so you can have a Twitter war with Malcolm Gladwell, hopefully. People like me will ask you what Malcolm Gladwell thinks about this. You can answer that in a second. Because this was one of the very big ideas, the tipping point, that sort of the Hush Puppies example. But the thing that will make me feel better, from a C suite executive who runs a big media company or runs Facebook — a lot of what you seem to be saying is, “Hey, you know what helps things go viral, or makes them popular is they get launched from a really big platform.”
It’s cool to find the cool sorority, but if you’re the New York Times or BuzzFeed or ESPN and you push out an idea, lots of people learn about it. Or if you’re Ashton Kutcher and a handful of really important influencers, you have a really big megaphone and that’s what makes things popular, is a push from us, a handful of people or platforms. And so if I’m one of those platforms, that often feels like, “Oh, I’m gonna be undercut, I’m gonna be disrupted.” Actually, you say no, I’ve got a really powerful platform here that I can use. I shouldn’t feel that bad about it.
I think that’s exactly right. I think that one of the things you find, is that if it is true, that basically nothing goes viral in the classic understanding of viral spread, then broadcast platforms are even more important that we thought. And then if you look inside, for example, the information cascade of so-called viral videos, or viral tweets, if you can actually find a way to measure, to look at a picture of how that information is spreading from person to person, it turns out that that picture rarely looks like the way that a viral disease spreads with many, many, many generations of one to two and one to three ...
Taking it up on their own, sharing to one other person, who shares it to one other person.
Right. That information cascade actually almost always looks something more like a bomb fuse, where it’s shared once, once, once and then it hits Ashton Kutcher and it hits a million people at once. And Ashton Kutcher is a broadcaster. Justin Bieber is a broadcaster. In the book, I call them dark broadcasters because sometimes you have people who discover the YouTube video, or the tweet or the Mannequin Challenge meme, and it’s maybe one degree separated from that Ashton Kutcher tweet. But the way that that information is spreading is still through a broadcast mechanism. I think that we underrate how important these dark broadcast moments are and how powerful individual broadcasters like Justin Bieber and Ashton Kutcher are at spreading information online.
So like many smart, young people, you’re promoting yourself by saying I’m taking on an established idea that people believe and I’m saying it’s bullshit. I call you out. I don’t think you actually go after Malcolm Gladwell by name in the book, but maybe you do.
No, not by name. But absolutely the viral myth is against ideas that he and some other people have established.
Have you floated this by him? Have you gotten a response yet? I’m trying to get a beef going here.
Exactly, a little bit of a rise? Yeah. I think that Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book that was really influential for its time and that its evolution has led to a faith in free viral marketing that’s just not born out by the evidence. He and another guy who I quote a lot from in the book, Duncan Watts, have been in a bit of a cold war for the last decade and a half. Duncan Watts has had more targeted words for Gladwell’s work than I specifically have in the book. But I do think that Duncan is right, that the best way to describe how most information spreads is not virality, it is a series of dark broadcasts.
And the way that a lot of information gets really really popular, even these so-called viral means that we end up seeing, is that we see them because the information went so-called viral among the broadcasters. That, for example, something like the Mannequin Challenge or some of the weird, like, Twitter or Snapchat meme, CNN will pick up on it and then Fox News will see that CNN picked up on it. And Vox will see that, Vox saw that CNN picked up on it. It turns out that the way that tens of millions of people find out about it is through those broadcasters.
There’s actual software now that says ... there’s something called CrowdTangle that Facebook just bought. It seems incredibly simple, but it basically just says, hey, this is a thing that’s popular at other places, maybe you’d like to write about it. That’s one of the reasons ... we’ve actually institutionalized the idea that you should do it. Sometimes as a writer, it makes you feel terrible because what’s the point of rewriting a thing that’s on another site. Sometimes you think, well, actually, maybe people want to read about it.
What’s interesting about this is you mention this debate about the long tail versus the fat head. This is one reason why hits in digital media and music and movies are bigger than ever. It’s because you have all of these media organizations who are fascinated with, obsessed with, telling everybody else what’s popular. Constantly ranking things to show people, what’s the most popular meme? What’s the most popular song? People are surrounded with all of this information and are curious to figure it out. And because you have all these broadcasters constantly fixated on distributing the most popular stuff, it makes that most popular stuff more popular than ever.
There’s a cool passage at the end of your book where you go see Tony Hale, who was then the CEO of Chartbeat. This is the analytics dashboard that everyone in digital media has, and depending on the way you live your life, you may find yourself just going back to it minute after minute, like the rat and the pellet. And then you go downstairs from meeting Tony and then you go to the Strand. So you go from high tech to super low tech and you have this thought, which many of us have, which is, “Okay, Chartbeat tells me everything I could possibly want to know about how my media’s being consumed and that feedback loop is super important because I want to figure out what’s going on. I want to figure out how to respond to it.”
And then you go pick up Voltaire, whomever, someone I haven’t read, and you think, “Oh, no one would ever write a novel or anything really, anything of length, if someone was judging them minute to minute and giving that feedback that all the conventional wisdom says we want today, and is super important to have.”
This is the whole premise of BuzzFeed right now. Jonah Peretti talks over and over about all the feedback he wants and how that loop makes all the products better. I’m assuming you go back and forth on this. All that feedback’s great, all that feedback’s great, all that feedback is paralyzing. And then it eventually creates sameness and no one’s gonna do anything original.
The feedback is great. And the feedback is paralyzing. I was talking to another writer for NY Magazine while I was working on this. And he said the hardest thing about knowing what to do with all this Chartbeat information is that you can’t forget what you know. If it turns out that writing some incredibly salacious headline and some bit of moral outrage does better online than the deeply reported article, a part of your soul is telling you that deeply reported article is why I got into journalism. It’s why I do what I do. But it’s just so hard to forget that emotional appeal.
It gives readers more to talk about. It gives readers a little bit of an emblem to share on Facebook, that people I think share moral outrage. Because it makes them look morally pious. One of the difficult things that I face with writing online all the time is how much stock do you put into these feedback loops. I try to strike a balance, but there’s definitely some times when I worry that I’m over selling something just because I have a very strong feeling like that’s gonna get it more read.
In my career, the notion of getting feedback — instant feedback — in writing has gone from, “What are you talking about? Who would ever do that?” to now, the conventional wisdom, you have to be really weird to not do it. You have to be really old or if you’re that old, you’re probably not employed, frankly, at this point. To take a stance against it would be iconoclastic. But everyone says, of course you would want to know more about who’s consuming your stuff and whether or not it has an audience, and if no one’s reading it then why are you doing it? But again, you go back to CrowdTangle and everyone writing about the exact same viral video.
A way to think about this is that tastes have become transparent, whereas for the vast majority of art and journalism history, tastes were extremely opaque. What kind of art do people like? What do they look at when they open the newspaper? Even questions like, what’s their favorite music? There was no digital feedback loop to tell producers the answers to these questions and what audiences really wanted. There are some really interesting consequences to what happens when you hold up a more perfect mirror to audience taste. For example, I tell the story of the Billboard Hot 100, which came out in the 1950s and for a long time was nominally a measure of the most popular music in the country.
Deeply flawed, deeply corrupt ...
Absolute BS, yeah. They didn’t have any way to measure point-of-sales data. They didn’t have any way to measure radio airplay. So, when Billboard was trying to report on this stuff, they would call radio DJs, who were being paid by the labels. And they would call vinyl stores, who would often lie for a really simple reason: If you’ve sold out of Bruce Springsteen and you have a bunch of AC/DC, then why do you tell people that Bruce Springsteen is popular? You need to sell out of AC/DC.
There was this artificial churn that happened with Billboard where popular songs would hit No. 1 and fall right off. So in 1991, they started using point-of-sales data and they started monitoring airplay. And two amazing things happened almost overnight. First, the hair bands absolutely fell off the map. And hip-hop, which had been rising slowly through the 1980s, suddenly soared, and we’re still living in a hegemony of hip-hop-inflected music.
I think two weeks after the Billboard charts changed, NWA’s album became the No. 1 album in the country. The other thing that happened is that music taste got really repetitive. It turned out that when songs hit Billboard, they just stayed there for weeks and weeks and weeks. When people had a choice to listen to whatever they wanted, they just listened to the same music over and over again.
Let me hear that same thing again.
In Billboard, to sum up, they changed the methodology and it elevated hip-hop, but also made pop music much more repetitive, and I think that’s a good thing followed by a somewhat dubious thing.
What measure are you gonna use to track “Hit Makers”? Your Amazon ranking? Is that what’s core for you? What’s the most important metric you want to use?
There’s the Amazon ranking, there’s the NY Times best-seller list, [which] is probably the Billboard of music. The Amazon list is interesting because the NY Times doesn’t just take the Amazon list and publish it online. If they did, half of that list would be cook books. You take a smattering. But then also I’m not working for a studio, I’m not working for a label. My interest is not purely to maximize the popularity of this thing. I’d also love it if people said nice things about it. Love it if I saw it making any sort of impact.
You strike me as the kind of person that might have an influence tracker in Google Docs somewhere, where you track various ...
That’s a fantastic idea. An influence tracker. I don’t quite have that. I suppose we all in a way have our mental models for influence trackers.
An informal one, yeah.
Right, yeah exactly. Invisible ones.
One last company-specific question for you. And one other question for you. You and I are both interested in ESPN. Very important media company. You talk about the way that the current management there has revitalized SportsCenter around making it a narrative. It’s not an accident that if you go to, I haven’t checked SportsCenter today, they’re gonna be talking about Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers and they’ll talk about them all week because that’s the story. And it would’ve happened normally, but they have intentionally weighed heavily on particular story lines or the Golden State Warriors. So that’s an intentional track they’ve taken. You think it has worked for them. But they’re still under great pressure, because cable has structural issues. So do you think that that tack will be enough to keep them afloat? Or do you think eventually that doesn’t matter?
I think you said it beautifully.
All right, we’re done.
I think that in the late 2000s they did exactly what they needed to do to make SportsCenter a more popular product by really taking a lesson out of Hollywood’s playbook and saying, what people tune into time and time again are superhero storylines, so let’s pick a handful of superheroes and let’s just tell their story over and over again so people keep tuning in. I think that was the right tack. But it was the right tack in the structural environment that was not favorable to ESPN at all. ESPN is the most expensive network to carry. Which means that cable companies and the telecom companies who actually bring television to people’s homes were incentivized to drop them, to offer packages that didn’t include ESPN. They were victims of their own success in that regard.
They are also operating in an environment where the passionate new sports fan base is fleeing the traditional television model. If you read people like Matthew Ball, who is now doing strategy and research at Amazon Studios, he has all these graphs showing that traditional TV minutes have fallen something like 40-45 percent among viewers between the age of 18 and 35. That’s a bloodbath. That’s not a bloodbath where a brilliant media strategy at ESPN is going to magically save them.
But, they needed to do something, so Bob Iger reads your books, says you’re a smart dude and you apparently like football. You’re in charge of ESPN, Derek Thompson. What do you do?
Wow. What a great question. Here’s what ESPN obviously has. They obviously have unbelievable reach to audiences that care voraciously about their favorite teams, their favorite story lines. There’s a stat in the book that says that every single time they want to send a news alert about the Golden State Warriors, a phone vibrates in more pockets than the combined metro populations of San Francisco and Oakland. If distribution is primary to everything else, then that is a massive advantage.
I would absolutely encourage them to build beginning with that. Understanding that they have a lock hold on the lock screen of tens of millions of people around the country and around the world and build an advertising product. Maybe even a subscription product around news that comes straight to the phone. The problem with that being a panacea for ESPN’s problems, is what economists sometimes call a rate level problem.
Even if the level of ESPN’s popularity is still extremely high, the problem is the rate is falling from such height that they’re going to continue to be seen as a loser in the media ecosystem as long as traditional television business models continue to change, and I just foresee that they are for the next 10 years. These 31-year-olds who have gone nine years without cable aren’t suddenly going to become DirecTV subscribers, I don’t think. They’re happy with their Amazon video and Netflix.
They know that, right? They may not say that publicly. But they know that they’re gonna keep dropping. And the optimistic version is, at some point, we’re gonna stop dropping and at that point we’re gonna continue to be an enormously popular asset. So there’s a thing we need to get through that’s gonna be painful, and then some of that’s about corporate structure and who owns them and how they’re owned and their cable deals. But people aren’t gonna stop liking sports. Or not a lot of people are gonna stop liking sports. In fact, I think everyone who likes sports will continue to like it. We just may go from 90 million subscribers to 80, 70, 60 ... there’s some level where it stops.
That’s right. I would also answer the question this way. As the head of Disney, where I don’t just control ESPN, I also control the most popular movie franchises in the world. I have Lucasfilm, I have Pixar, I have all of our intellectual property from decades of awesome Disney cartoons and stuff. I don’t know why, other than contracts and those sunset clauses, but eventually, they have to offer a Netflix. An over-the-top Disney product which is the entire catalog of the most popular movies of all time, plus that ABC content, plus the Disney Channel content. So you have what Netflix and HBO really want, which is content for kids. That it’s family friendly. Nothing’s more family friendly than Disney. An over-the-top product that combined all of this plus the library. Once it was freed from ... I know they have obligations to Netflix right now. I think it’s just absolutely inevitable.
They’ve been talking about it for years. They haven’t done it. They whisper, oh we’re gonna do it. We’re gonna do it. We’ll tell you about it. They did something like this in Europe, but they haven’t really done it. They’re buying some tech that they think will allow them to so this, although I don’t think they need that tech. And they keep edging up to it. The real reason they’re not doing it is that doing that means you have to disrupt your existing business. You have to pull other, actually break that deal with Netflix or not get that Netflix money and you go from a really assured revenue stream to one that’s much more up in the air.
That’s right. It’s much more risky. Yeah. It’s interesting because for such a long time, Disney’s profits were dominated by the ESPN story. Between 2005 and 2012. Every single year it was like ESPN is Disney, Disney is ESPN. Now ESPN is in structural decline in a way that even brilliant strategy I don’t think is gonna fix in the near term. But look at the last year they had in movies. They absolutely dominated the Top 10 in movies. Disney is an incredibly well-distributed and well-diversified media product that I think has a bit of freedom, because even if their television profits come under siege, they still have eight of the Top 10 amusement parks in the world. They still have the most popular brands that they’re turning out sequels, adaptations to in the movie theaters every single year.
I would hope if I had that head of ESPN job, that I would use that as ballast to do something a little bit risky and long-term strategic off the TV product.
I think if they were privately held, they’d behave much differently. I think there’s enormous quarter-to-quarter pressure on them. So let’s not talk about public and private companies. Let’s talk about media and products and things people like. We’re gonna try something here we haven’t done before. We’re going to quiz you, Derek Thompson ...
Not quite a quiz. I’m gonna tell you what was popular this week from a bunch of different mediums. And you’re gonna explain why.
We’ll start easy. Little note here. We’re actually recording this in the past. We’re in mid-January. You guys are gonna hear this in early February. These are things that were popular in mid-January. They probably are still popular when you are listening to it right now. This is early January for the TV ratings. The most popular television shows are, you would know this anyways, football, football, football. More football, Golden Globes, that surprisingly is up this year, “Big Bang,” you got it, “Simpsons,” “Modern Family.” So what’s the through line here? The sports and some sitcoms you’ve heard of.
Right. The through line is, on a typical week — I’m really interested that “The Simpsons” are up there. They might not be in the first week of February. But basically the ratings every single week are dominated by football and CBS. I think that there’s a structural demographic reason for both of those.
On the one hand you have football, which is just the king of media, and this is why CBS and Fox and ESPN pay through the nose for football rights. It’s because they know that it’s the most popular entertainment product in the world. They know that 25 million people are gonna tune in every week. And as a result they’ve spent $50 billion over the next decade ...
And even if ratings decline they feel like that’s the right bet to make or have made, and you can debate the price because it’s the most popular thing.
Yeah, the one-eyed man in a city of the blind sort of thing. That even if everything else is declining, football still looks to remain the relative king of entertainment. And then CBS is interesting because CBS is just a genius at making [inaudible] entertainment. Honestly. No one else is so good at providing procedural catnip.
It was a $10 word there. I think I know what you meant, in case one of my listeners didn’t get it.
I was about to define it. Procedural catnip to people over the age of 55.
TV for olds.
TV for olds.
By the way, if you want to piss the CBS guys off, you tell them that. You say this is TV for people who might not know that you could cut the cord. They may not know where the remote is. They may not know how to change the channel.
You know what, if I’m Les, I’m walking out there ... if I’m the CEO of CBS, I am so proud of the fact that I am making a product that is a fit for the structural demographic decline of traditional television. If you look across the demographic line, how much TV, compared to 10 years ago, are teens watching, 30-year-olds and 60-year-olds. Everyone is flat or way, way down except for 60-year-olds.
Old people like watching TV. I’m going to make TV for old people. I’m not embarrassed about it.
It’s the most obvious thing.
Say it loud. Say it proud.
I would say it loud and say it proud if I was in his position.
Let’s talk about the book. The most popular nonfiction book this week mid-January. This is a tough one for me, but it’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” I think I know why this is popular, but you tell me.
I think it’s popular because it considers itself the Rosetta Stone of the Trump voter mindset. And this is against ...
The subtitle could be “Understanding Trump.” This came out during the summer. I remember reading an excerpt maybe in the Atlantic. Somewhere, New Yorker ... So there was an interview with J.D. Vance, the writer, explaining the Trump voter. But this book had the timing, I don’t think it was deliberately done, but basically this is how to understand Trump voters. Trump’s the most interesting, popular, consequential thing.
In the world.
So this book is a Trump proxy in some ways.
It’s your glossary to the emotions of the overlooked Trump voter ...
If you’re a blue state, if you’re a city mouse person who’s trying to understand Trump people, this is the book that everyone says you should read.
And think about the fact that the interesting thing about comparing books to television, as we’re doing right now, is the difference in scale. If you sell 100,000 books, you’re a best seller. If you have 100,000 concurrent viewers, no one is watching you, statistically. And so television has a way of leading national media and popular arts conversations in the way that books don’t. Turn on cable news television. What are people talking about? Trump. Every single segment is, essentially the subtext of it is, what the hell is going on and who can explain it? Here’s the book that we’ve decided can explain it.
Got it. Fiction? Want to guess who the author is? It’s a woman.
You got it!
Did I? Wow.
Dude, you’re good. It’s “The Mistress.” Apparently it’s a new book. Are you familiar with “The Mistress”?
I’m not familiar with “The Mistress.” Nor am I particularly familiar with Danielle Steel. What’s interesting about ...
I did not prep you. Very good.
That’s great. It’s interesting because you look at the nonfiction list. And I think “Killing the Rising Sun” might be No. 2 right now. One of Bill O’Reilly’s history books on the nonfiction list. We think of sequelitis as being a, I won’t say malady, but condition, specific to Hollywood. But if you look at the best-selling books, it is a bunch of sequels.
The thing you liked before.
It is a bunch of things you liked before, either new first-time writer or something that everybody’s talking about, or a previously popular writer about a new subject. It is familiar surprise.
Read this again.
Familiar surprise, right?
Got it. That was super impressive. We got two more. Movies? Want to guess?
Biggest movie, I think did “Hidden Figures” just top “Rogue One”?
Yeah, “Hidden Figures.” Story of African-American women involved in the space program. Weird marketing campaign or at least weird to me because I thought it was a Lifetime movie when I kept seeing the billboards. Turns out it’s an actual movie. Well-liked and people said, oh it’s doing surprisingly well. Or it’s doing very well. The Box Office Mojo number I looked at said they did 50 million. Very good. “Sing,” which no one knew what I was talking about, I saw, is very good. Came out the same time. Did 233 million. That’s a real hit.
Yeah. That’s a real hit.
But why is “Hidden Figures” popular?
That’s a good question. I don’t know a whole lot about “Hidden Figures.” But I do know that one of the themes in the last few years in Hollywood has been this idea that Hollywood studios used to operate under the presumption that the most popular entertainment was by white men for white men. A realization is that no, actually there’s a lot of women in the United States and there’s a lot of non-white people in the United States. An that’s gonna continue to grow.
It’s crazy that it’s 2016 and this is a new idea.
But it really is.
That’s the idea that Fox has a surprise hit with “Empire” because it’s about African-Americans, created by African-Americans.
Or “Straight Outta Compton” — where did that come from? Well, this is an incredibly popular story about an incredibly popular ...
It’s not like this is an audience that just was given the right to purchase things.
They’ve been consuming stuff for a long time.
Exactly. I do think that that’s been a theme that’s emerged and certainly applies to “Hidden Figures,” which is an inspirational story of black women and mathematics and science. That’s certainly a lesson I hope that studio execs take from that. I also think that you look at the best-selling or highest box office returns to movies in 2016 and it still is a list dominated by sequels, adaptations and reboots. It’s “Rogue One.” It’s “Captain America.” It’s, I guess, a couple of animated films like ...
Other things involving cartoons. “Sing” is really good, by the way. I see all those kids movies now because I’m old and I have kids and they’re all way better than they have to be. They’re all totally acceptable. And “Sing” is pretty good.
It’s really interesting, that may be because they had to have an element of simplicity and formula, but it gives them a really interesting opportunity to play with language a lot of the time. That some of the cleverest movies over the last not just 10 years, 20 years, are animated films like “Shrek” or “Zootopia,” which I like.
I went into this thinking, all right, having kids, owning kids, that all right, the Pixar movies will be good enough, that I’ll like them and I’m gonna see a ton of crappy stuff that isn’t very good. My kids will like it and that’s just part of the penance I had to pay for having kids. But even stuff like “Angry Birds” is totally amusing and there’s grown-up jokes and there’s good poopoo jokes, too.
Rather than making you guess the next one, it’s a song, straight. We’re gonna play you a clip — you ready? All right. There’s no hint of recognition so I don’t feel so bad.
Is that Black Beatles?
Good guess. That’s No. 2.
And by the way, I could not identify Black Beatles and I’m also psyched that we earned our explicit rating for this week’s show. They did have the name of the song in there. It’s “Bad and Boujee.” And it’s by Migos. Do you know what Migos is? Who Migos are?
I cannot say that I do. No.
I’m slightly ahead of you.
Is that apostrophe Migos?
I don’t think so. It’s Migos. They got a shout-out from Donald Glover, creator of “Atlanta.” At the Golden Globes; they’re featured in “Atlanta.” I only know this because I listen to the Channel 33 guys. The Bill Simmons spinoff from Grantland. That’s the No. 1 song in America. Since you don’t know what it is, you’re gonna be at a loss here but tell me why it’s popular. To my ears, to my old guy ears, this sounds like a lot of other songs. I can’t identify why it’s different from them.
The other thing I would say is the only thing that I know about this song is that Donald Glover gave them a shout-out at the Golden Globes. And I don’t know how it was performing before then, but there are several stories in the book about songs that were relatively popular and then they’ll appear in a Super Bowl commercial and suddenly they’ll be the No. 1 song of the year.
“Atlanta” is a really neat show. People like you and me, and people who listen to this podcast, it’s a big audience. Watch “Atlanta.” It’s not a giant show. I think its hitting No. 1 and Donald Glover giving it a shout-out were probably concurrent.
And you mentioned that the Golden Globes are one of the most-watched pieces of television in the last week. So that’s advertising for 35, maybe 40 million people. Which is twice as big as the podcast audience?
Migos got a Golden Globe bump, yeah, we need to get on a Golden Globe show.
You should look into that.
Derek Thompson. This was super awesome. It was great to play hip-hop for you. And that you didn’t identify it. Makes me feel less old. Thanks for coming in. Thanks, you guys, for listening. You can go help Derek by buying his book, which is out as we speak. “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.” You can also click on his articles at the Atlantic or even subscribe, pay cash money to read your stuff.
I don’t have to tell you to listen to this because you’re listening to it right now. If you want to review us on iTunes, that’s cool. If you want to tell people about this on Twitter, that’s great too.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.