Bill Maher is a Dinosaur and the Meteor is Coming
Last week, Bill Maher hosted as a guest on his show a bigot who (after his appearance) was later revealed to have defended pedophilia on a podcast a couple years ago.
Before this revelation, he had said horrible, racist, sexist things about a bunch of different groups of people. He’s a genuine scumbag that relies on getting as much attention as possible, so of course Maher lent him his platform to do just that, giving him a Charmin soft interview that did nothing but make him look like a great guy to millions of people. At the end of the day, Maher agrees with him on more things than not. Before and after the show, Maher bathed in the controversy, lashing out at anyone who dared challenge having the guest on his show. Maher’s a smug, angry old man who lives for moments when he can lash out at people with better values and judgement than him and yell at them about free speech.
Maher’s network, HBO, doesn’t primarily rely on ratings for their revenue, they rely on subscriptions. They get small fees from cable companies, but people pay them money directly and they have as close to a one-on-one relationship with their customers as anyone else in TV. Unlike other cable companies, they have a large group of people that are paying them money directly to watch their content. They’re well-positioned for a post-cable future. They don’t have to rely on maximizing the number of people watching at a given time, they rely on maximizing the value they provide to people who pay to be their subscribers.
Which brings us to where Bill Maher fits in. People like Maher have dominated our televisions in the past two decades. As cable continues to evolve, many of them will disappear completely, and it can’t happen soon enough.
Bill Maher’s show is bad. He isn’t particularly funny. He doesn’t make particularly interesting points. The best thing about his show is generally the guests he has on, which is a wildly replaceable skill set. In his season-opening show, he said Trump was a bad person because he has a small penis and had “never brought a woman to orgasm.” While both points are fairly easy to believe, that’s the kind of thing you would expect to find in a mid-tier comments thread on a liberal blog. He acts like a corny old dad who retired six years ago and derives meaning in his life by asking his son’s friends who they think the “hottest chicks” in their class are, punctuating his gross, out-of-touch rants with the occasional “fuck” and “douchebag” to try to make them think he’s cool (they hate him). Provocateurs like Bill have done well for themselves in the era of TV that’s about to end. The more ridiculous, the more outrageous, the more bombastic, the better.
This personality is a model that works really well for cable news networks. Cable networks that don’t have direct subscribers make all of their money of off cable distributor fees and commercials. Cable news relies on getting as many eyeballs as possible at as many moments as possible. If they get more eyeballs, they get more leverage on cable providers and can charge advertisers more money. And while the aim is to create spectacle and provoke outrage, there isn’t any real penalty for going too far. As a consumer, to get rid of CNN or Fox News, you have to get rid of your cable package all together. Consumers don’t have a way to punish specific networks without punishing all of them. If you love Fox, there isn’t a way to get rid of CNN and still keep Fox. If you love ESPN, you have to pay for a package that includes Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, and Nickelodeon to get it.
For consumers, our entertainment and communications networks are unbundling, offering consumers more choices and more customization, while networks and media organizations are facing a future in which they’re forced to provide quality over abundance. Endless channels to be scrolled through on a lazy Sunday afternoon that can be attached to each other in multi-million dollar ad buys will eventually become a thing of the past. This will be great for consumers — low-quality cable networks will cease to exist while channels that provide real, demonstrable value to their customers will thrive.
A category of business models that relied on abundance is shifting to focus on quality.
In the world of abundance, outrage and bombast drive eyeballs, and eyeballs attracted advertiser dollars. This isn’t a situation that’s unique to television. The banner ad industry, which propped up media organizations that were reeling from lost subscriber and classified dollars, was built on the back of abundant page views which often appeared in unviewable or untraceable locations, is collapsing because of dubious accountability and results. The media organizations that relied on it are now watching that replacement revenue grow small by the day. Abundance as we know it is ending. Websites have to deliver higher-quality experiences for both advertisers, in the form of ads that can actually be tracked and deliver results, and consumers, in the form of ads that don’t ruin your experience on their site. Media organizations are going to have to figure out how to deliver a product that’s good enough to charge people subscription dollars on an ongoing basis. As that happens, clickbait will continue to become more irrelevant and real, quality journalism will be the only way they survive. Cable is next.
There is no reason for Bill Maher to be on cable, and there’s definitely not a reason for him to be on a subscription-focused channel. He’s a product of cable news in a world that sees him as less relevant every day on a network that’s closer than any other to getting rid of the slop that cable execs pour into our trough. I don’t think anyone out there is making the decision about whether or not to subscribe based on Maher, but at some point, HBO will need to get more subscribers (or raise their fees) to keep up with the crazy amount of money tech companies like Amazon and Netflix are throwing at original programming — and that’s when the meteor will hit. If you gave someone who was actually interesting or funny Maher’s time slot and guests, you would get a much better show that delivered better value to HBO subscribers.
The future is going to look a lot more like how HBO makes their money, and HBO will completely eliminate the need to maximize their viewers at each and every moment at the expense of creating quality content for their subscribers. While CNN is putting up a “BREAKING NEWS” banner to announce that Donald Trump decided to use a bidet, HBO is investing in things like Vice News, which is hands-down the best news program on TV right now. HBO’s audience is also getting younger as they provide more options on more screens for a generation that may never pay a bill to Comcast or Cox. HBO doesn’t need to chase ratings, and it’s a much better network than the product that Maher has put on the air the last few years. He should be gone from HBO soon, and the cable news networks would be wise to get rid of their own Bill Mahers before they get caught with their pants down.
I think we all know how this ends, with Bill Maher spitting out a racial slur on his mid-day MSNBC talk show in 2019 and resigning in disgrace before joining Larry King’s show on the Russia Today network. I hope some executives can put his career out of its misery before we get to that point.