If you make your living as a program director or air personality, you know that every once in a while that truly big moment comes along. Maybe you get some information about a local newsmaker that no one else has. Or a big new music release ends up in your in-box, giving you the chance to break an important song. Or you score an interview with a huge celebrity.
How you play out the situation is important in the moment, but may also turn into an event your audience may remember for years and years – good or bad. Listeners and viewers often play back these milestones for me when I moderate focus groups, often recalling fine details from a decade (or more) ago.
I was thinking about those mega-moments while watching one unfold on cable TV two nights ago. It started on Twitter when MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow fired off the tweet Tuesday night at 7:36 that you see pictured above, and I happened to be looking at my phone. When I saw “Trump tax returns” plural – and then “Seriously” – it was an indicator this was no stunt. It was a huge story. In seconds, the social media world blew up, getting a little nuts with anticipation.
That tweet sent the other cable news networks scrambling because none of them had the story – or the tax returns. For nearly 90 minutes, there was a rush to figure out exactly what MSNBC had, not only in newsrooms, but also in the White House where they rushed out their own statement about the President’s tax returns.
When the big moment arrived, however, it took Maddow a good 20 minutes to get to Trump’s tax return(s). And as we know now, it was just one return from 2005, and only two pages from that year’s filing – not the entire package.
Maddow’s handling of the story was like watching quarter-hour maintenance right before your very eyes. We programmers have been there before. You promote a contest or a new release at 7:10, but you don’t get around to actually making good on it until 7:20 in the hope you’re able to squeeze two quarter hours out of lots of listeners.
That’s sure what it felt like not to just me, but to many, many people on Twitter, disappointed with Maddow’s long, rambling 15 minutes of Donald Trump tax return history, and then the obligatory commercial break.
By the time Maddow did the reveal of Trump’s 2005 1040 form, it felt very anticlimactic. It just didn’t live up to the hype.
Because just about every broadcaster experiences one of these potentially mega-moments at one time or another, here are six considerations Maddow and the MSNBC team might have taken into account to handle this big moment more effectively and strategically.
Don’t overplay your hand
With that piece of Trump’s 2005 return in hand, Maddow had an exclusive. That should have been enough. But the ambiguous nature of the tweets and the on-screen countdown bug during Chris Hayes’ show made it seem like a whole lot more. “Trump tax returns” was the trigger that signaled to viewers there was more here than there really was.
Don’t set occasions too far in advance
Sure, it’s about tantalizing and teasing the audience, but working nearly 90 minutes in front of the big announcement gave everyone – the other news networks and the White House – a chance to react to the moment. Even though MSNBC had the exclusive, all the other players had a chance to dilute it and grab some of the spotlight for themselves. And it gave the Trump team ample time to issue their own statement, putting their spin on the story.
During an era characterized by “fake news” and “alternative facts,” the media need to hold themselves to an even higher standard of behavior. The handling of this big moment only caused more doubt and even indignation toward journalists among already skeptical viewers. Maddow and MSNBC could have been less dramatic and more transparent about what they had and how they intended to expose it.
Respect the audience
People are feeling manipulated and used as it is – no matter which side you favor. When audiences feel gamed by politicians or the media, it simply widens the credibility gap. Maddow and MSNBC may have had something special, but the way it rolled out cheapened the moment.
Elevate your brand
It’s the moment when attention is on your show or your station. That means you have to deliver on a very big promise. Tuesday night’s Rachel Maddow Show turned out to be titillating but it wasn’t close to being the electric moment it might have been. Simply put, it was not good TV.
Don’t program to the ratings
When you’re focused more on meters and diaries and less on the audience experience, bad things can happen. If Maddow’s producers had been checking Twitter five minutes into the show, they would have quickly realized things were quickly heading south. There were lots of tweets like this one flying around the socialsphere:
On an evening where I could have hung with MSNBC and other cable new outlets for at least another hour or more, I was bored, disappointed, and feeling had by 9:30. Soon after, I was watching the next episode of Billions on Showtime – far more entertaining and fulfilling.
There’s a lot to be said for that famous Latin phrase – “carpe diem” or “seize the day,” especially when a big moment falls right into your lap. But just because you have what looks like, talks like, walks like, and smells like a scoop doesn’t mean you don’t apply an extra level of strategic thinking and common sense to the process.
And if you go back to the entire phrase, it reads:
“Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero.”
And the translation:
“Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.”
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,000 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.