Nowhere is this more apparent than in television. The photogenic twins Jonathan and Drew Scott, for example, are the center of an enormously prosperous business known as the “Property Brothers.” Their multiple programs on HGTV endlessly rework the same basic concept: They go into an ordinary home, knock down a few walls, install a gleaming kitchen or walk-in closet, and bask in the gratitude of the dazzled homeowners. I could watch them for hours. A little less than 1 percent of television viewers feel the same way — and that’s enough to make the Scotts and their hit show, “Property Brothers: Forever Home,” the backbone of an apparently very profitable TV channel.
The old business model involved huge audiences with little in common; in the digital age — the era of infinite choices — success lies in limited audiences cemented by shared passion.
Among the first to appreciate this radical shift was media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his ruthless Rasputin, Roger Ailes. At a time when the television news business was still dominated by networks offering a sort of anodyne neutrality with a Bos-NY-Wash high liberal gloss, their Fox News Channel set out to feed the nation’s passionate Republican base. Their colleagues were shocked and envious at the money this strategy generated, and the rest — alas — is our recent history.
But here is the thing about passion, as any pair of lovers will tell you: It seeks stimulation. The “Property Brothers” audience does not tune in to see the Scotts shrug and say, this kitchen is perfectly fine. They want to see the goggles go on and the sledgehammers come out. At Fox News these days, no one wields the sledgehammer like Tucker Carlson.
The son of a reporter and longtime television executive, Richard Carlson, Fox News’s star keenly understands the money side of the business, and the power of a passionate niche audience. He broke into TV on a program that epitomized the old model. “Crossfire,” on CNN, matched a vaguely liberal host with a vaguely conservative one to hash over issues from between the 35-yard lines. The hosts pretended to argue with each other before interviewing the usual cartoon spokespeople for whatever partisan issue was on that day’s agenda. The point of the show was to make money by offering a little something for everyone — rather than a lot of one thing for one group.
The latter is Carlson’s M.O., to much greater effect. The original “Crossfire” was canceled on his watch; his sojourn as the house conservative at MSBNC met a similar fate. He seems determined not to let that happen again, and will say anything — anything — to stoke his small but passionate Fox News prime-time audience — around 3 million viewers per day, typically among the largest on cable news, but only about half the crowd that watches CBS’s “Young Sheldon.”
Carlson knew exactly what he was doing last week when he embraced the “white replacement theory” made infamous by the torch-carrying neo-Nazis of Charlottesville. As prelude, he specifically predicted that doing so would rile up the partisans of Twitter. Then he let fly — and in the sputtering outrage that followed in response, Carlson heard nothing but the sound of ka-ching, ka-ching.
The theory that Democrats are “importing” migrants to be “obedient” voters as a way of “disenfranchising” citizens who “are already here” is incongruous in a nation of immigrants. It also ignores the fact that new arrivals cannot legally vote (and a fair number of Republicans have sought fervently, but in vain, for evidence that they illegally vote in appreciable numbers). Hispanic voters actually shifted toward the Republicans in the last election, not away from them. In sum, Carlson’s self-professedly brave utterance was, intellectually, a specious mess.
But when you’re a Rhode Island prep schooler in populist drag, you don’t get fussy about making sense. Carlson is making bank, instead.
Perhaps the toxic discourse of niche audiences wouldn’t matter to the weary majority of Americans except for this: Relatively small groups can cause relatively big trouble. The crowd that overran police and temporarily dispersed Congress in January numbered only in the thousands — just a fraction of the fraction that lines the pockets of Tucker Carlson. No demagogue is an island, alas.
The business model of our discontent is easy enough to understand. The psychology, not so much. Here’s a country dedicated to the pursuit of happiness. Yet, given the freedom to choose, audiences are tuning in to rage. May I suggest instead a remodeled family room?
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