A long time ago, in a network TV world far, far away from “Squid Games” and “Ted Lasso” was a Sunday night variety program – “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Ed had no discernable talent, save for his expertise in discovering and attracting whoever was hot and entertaining at that moment.
The term “trending” did not exist yet, but that's what made Ed a successful impresario. Every Sunday night at 8 o'clock, CBS-TV carried “The Ed Sullivan Show.” And America watched. In droves.
As most know by now, the Beatles made their U.S. television debut on Ed's show – on three successive Sunday nights in February of 1964. While Ed came off as a very mainstream, establishment host, he had that knack for finding – and securing – the biggest names in entertainment.
And in addition to the mega-stars of his day, Ed presented a cavalcade of weird guests – people who did bizarre stunts. They were novelty acts, but very respectable. Think of them as “benchmark bits” – viewers in droves looked forward to their appearances on the show.
In Ed's stable was Senor Wences and Topo Gigio – a couple of corny bits that made America laugh, and repeat their lines the next day – much like many of still do with “SNL.”
But my favorite was Erich Brenn – “the plate spinner.” He is pictured in the GIF at the top of today post. His schtick was to get five glass bowls spinning on sticks at the same time, while also spinning eight plates.
There was a manic quality to Brenn's act. He ran back and forth, giving those bowls and plates a last second spin as they were about to succumb to those gravitational forces. Just watching the guy was enough to make you nervous. Could he pull it off?
Could he miraculously keep those precious plates and bowls all spinning at the same time?
I have thought about Erich Brenn a lot over my years in radio – in fact, every time the ratings come out. Since deregulation allowed for companies to own five or six stations in a market, I think of managers and programmers like the plate spinners of radio – it's one thing to have a couple of highly rated stations – it's another when the entire cluster is in the winner's circle.
While it was possible for Erich Brenn to pull off this improbably feat, radio operators have generally found it elusive – like achieving a perfect game in bowling.
Last month, Cox Media Group's San Antonio stations pulled it off – all five FMs occupied the top 5 positions in adults 25-54 – a very Brenn-like accomplishment.
These rare successes usually aren't due as much to what those winning stations may have done last month or even last year. Much of their ability to have multiple cluster stations in the winner's circle dates back to the strategic approach they took way back when as they selected complementary formats with intermeshing strategies. The idea is to align multiple brands to bring benefit (and protection), not just to one station in the group, but to several of them.
That's what makes radio people so special. They often think in terms of clusters of stations, and how each might work in confluence with the others to collectively win the most valuable pieces of demographic real estate in their markets.
And that bring us to Mark Zuckerberg – not a smart, savvy cluster programmer. How do I know that? He is letting his own hubris interfere with his company's strategic goals, throwing his “cluster” of social platforms out of sync.
Let's look at how he's built his social media portfolio since starting The Face Book at Harvard in 2004, originally an idea to meet girls.
Back then, social media was a very nascent digital platform. MySpace was the big dog, and there was also Friendster, Hi5, Orkut, and other scrappy players, most of which went belly up.
Zuckerberg's Facebook – as we now know it – quickly became the biggest thing out there – like being #1 12+ with a 20-share. Us radio veterans remember dominant radio stations like this in the pre-FM days.
In Detroit, it was WJR, “The Great Voice of the Great Lakes.” It New York City, WABC – “Musicradio 77” – ruled. KMOX was “The Voice of St. Louis,” a roost it ruled for decades. All these stations achieved monster success up and down the generational spectrum.
But with the advent of FM radio popularity came fragmentation. Soon, there were several different varieties of AC, CHR, Rock, and Urban stations. The entire programming spectrum splintered.
When it became possible in the 90's to add more stations to a market portfolio, most owners looked for ways to group stations together by format, demographics, or both. That's when “cluster strategy” – as we now know it – came into being, in virtually every market in the country, from Los Angeles to Louisville to Lansing.
We worked for a number of clusters that built “rock walls” – that combination of mainstream, classic, and alternative rock that covered the genre from 18 to 54 year-olds. The bet was these groups were solid individually, but even stronger collectively, able to squeeze out those who dared to encroach on their rock turf.
Zuckerberg realized early on that in spite of its heft, Facebook was fragmenting. He could see the stress cracks as Facebook grew among AARP members, while its original constituency – college students and teenagers – were asking themselves, “WTF?”
The question of whether a single social media platform could hang onto the whole market was answered when Facebook bought Instagram in 2012. It became a social media “duopoly” – an acknowledgment that young people were already moving on from Facebook, turned off by their parents and grandparents invading their sacred social network.
When Facebook added WhatApp two years later, these holdings became a “cluster.” And it became even more obvious Zuckerberg's strategy was to expand by portfolio addition, allowing the company to capture different demos with its more diverse social holdings. Now known as “Meta,” the cluster has been officially branded. Who else in the social piece can truly compete with Zuckerberg's collection?
But seemingly, his move to “meta” has gone to his head. Zuckerberg is talking about ditching older Facebook users, and retrenching in a young direction. The New York Times' covered this land grab in a story last week aptly titled, “Facebook Wants the Young People Back.”
Writer Shira Ovide notes Zuckerberg's Facebook is willing to “turn itself inside out to get more young people.”
But if that's not enough, take Zuck's own words at face value. In a conference call reporting Facebook's financial status, Zuckerberg explained his new master plan:
“We are retooling our teams to make serving young adults their North Star rather than optimizing for the larger number of older people.”
Zuckerberg has a reputation for bloviating. And like most PDs, he's got a very apparent paranoia streak. Still, going after America's youth 17 years after forming Facebook? That's like trying to make New Kids On The Block competitive with BTS.
But Facebook's hold on young consumers dissipated long ago, as the social media platform enjoyed its mass appeal status. And the company has made untold billions from its mature, adult base with no end in sight. Meantime, younger people are rejecting Facebook in growing numbers.
Is it realistic to get them back? Like a Classic Rock station playing the new Olivia Rodrigo single next to the Stones, it is hard to imagine Facebook can simply pull off a double-reverse, even if it intends to play a long game to win the youth market back.
Why would Zuckerberg start to skew Facebook younger, risk alienating its Boomer and Gen X base, while potentially harming Instagram's popularity among the world's youth?
Journalist Ovide seems to be perplexed as well, noting that Facebook “can stay rich for a very long time without (younger people).”
Nonetheless, hot tech startups almost always focus young, at least at first. Zuckerberg is well aware of that trajectory, and may be frustrated by Facebook's inability to have cred among today's youth corps, the same demographic that put “The Social Network” on the map.
And Ovide provides another theory, culled from those leaked papers from whistleblower Frances Haugen:
“…Facebook is worried that teens are spending less time on Instagram this year, that its user base is aging fast, and that young people who love Instagram aren’t gravitating to the Facebook app as they get older.”
It is truly challenging to make a cluster strategy work across all those different brands. Like trying to get those plates all spinning at once with none of them breaking.
Where is Erich Brenn when Zuck really needs him?
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