Safety net
A view from Rob Norman

Safety net

To GroupM's global chief digital officer, NFL scandals may be a bellwether for a shift away from big-league entertainment in favor of innovative new celebrities on fresh platforms

Unless you live in a dark hole or were distantly obsessed with the Scottish Independence vote, you would have noticed that the Islamic State and the National Football League have been unlikely bedfellows atop the U.S. news cycle in recent days.

The NFL has been America’s alpha sport for a generation, a cash register for owners and players, and a key plank of broadcast ratings and advertiser strategy. It’s a game played by young men and followed by all men, yet the ones that play it and the ones that run it have begun to bring the game into disrepute. In the last year or so the game has been darkened by at the usual spate of firearms, drug and driving infractions: at last one murder, a player suicide in a stadium parking lot, revelations of prevalent long-term brain injury and now a series of reports of domestic violence that have (finally?) catalyzed outrage and even action by the people who own and run the game.

The response is overdue, but maybe it’s too late. There are indicators available that suggest the next generation of NFL viewers might just not show up, even if it does not show up in the ratings just yet.

In August 2014, Variety reported that the most influential celebrities among 13- to 18-year-old Americans were Smosh, the Fine Brothers and PewDiePie. The most influential non-YouTube star is the late Paul Walker, a fixture in Universal’s Fast and Furious franchise. Outside of sports and the very best (and very worst) of television and movies, the axis of entertainment may be tilting inexorably. This could be bad news for putative $1m-per-episode sitcom stars and $1m-dollar-a-game players, and better news for people who can separate celebrity (however narrow) from wealth and viewers who value a more intimate relationship with the people who entertain them.

The litany of YouTube stars is well-known but incomprehensible to many established buyers, sellers and creators of advertising. Yet, it’s not just about entertainment in the usual form.  Twitch live-streams on screen video game playing to anything from a few to tens of thousands of simultaneous viewers. Twitch (and its 50 million unique users) is one manifestation of a broader phenomenon: Live game play as both participant and spectator is now hugely distributed in countries like South Korea, where bandwidth is truly abundant.  This cannot be ignored by mainstream brands. As the behavior grows you, can’t be secure in the idea that "they will grow out of it" as a reason to ignore what real people really do.

Television as the dominant advertising medium is not confronting an imminent apocalypse; in fact, "traditional" TV distributed on non-traditional devices dominates digital video revenue. That said, advertisers will not maximize reach against younger audiences today without non-traditional video, and that situation will effect broader populations over time, as fewer grow up with the traditional TV habit. This scenario is already playing out in markets that lack the installed base of multi-television cable or satellite enabled homes. That may not maximize engagement either if they are not prepared to debate the relative merits of Smosh and the NFL in terms of brand safety.

Banality or brutality? Take your pick. Radisson Hotels took their pick in suspending their sponsorship of the Minnesota Vikings following an allegation of player violence against his son.

It may be time to re-evaluate the notion of "high common denominator" mass media, however uncomfortable that maybe for the communications industry and its clients.