Editorial: We Are On to You

With stars, athletes and even Rupert Murdoch talking directly to the masses via social media, transparency has become the new black, and TV execs better get used to it

We’ve had some time to digest what was said by executives at
the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena,
Calif., and as we’re now heading into NATPE and several other
upcoming industry events, we thought it a good time to pull up
and let television execs in on a little secret.

We’re on to you. When you go up on stage, we
can tell when you are lying. OK…actually, no,
we can’t. But we can at least tell when you are
skirting an issue or ducking a question. In this
day and age of stars, athletes and even Rupert
Murdoch talking directly to the masses via social
media, transparency has become the new black.
And you’d better get used to that.

Granted, some of you already seem to get it.
Take, for example, the broadcast network presidents
that spoke to TV critics
earlier this month. They all
seemed very comfortable in
their skin, confi dent, poised and
honest. NBC’s Bob Greenblatt
started the week off by saying
worse things about his network’s
performance than most anybody
had written. That level of honesty
works. It means everything
else that comes out of his mouth
has loads more credibility. It
won’t make a single additional
viewer tune into his beloved
Smash, but it absolutely helps
the network in the long run because
that tact is disarming and endearing to the
media. And if you don’t think that matters, you’re
nuts. Whether consciously or subconsciously,
journalists who cover TV (while we won’t admit
it) probably go a touch easier on someone they
like or respect. That’s why you should hug your
PR person today if they are any good.

The rest of the network chiefs followed suit, with
Paul Lee (ABC), Kevin Reilly (Fox) and Nina Tassler
(CBS) all pretty up-front about what their nets were
doing. And cable held its own as well, led by FX
chief John Landgraf, who usually gives the best executive
session every TCA. As one of us wrote on
Twitter, Landgraf gives a “master class” in TV as he
tells you exactly why he did everything he did—in
success or failure—and what he is thinking next.

So given all of this, when you don’t simply talk
like a human being, you stick out like a sore thumb.
That pattern was also in evidence at TCA, like when
the head of MSNBC didn’t want to answer Keith
Olbermann-related questions. Instead of just saying,
“Guys, he doesn’t work for us anymore, and I
really don’t gain anything talking about it,” he went
with the coy pretending he didn’t know what the
questioner was talking about play. The former tack
is real and understandable; the latter wins no points.

And then there was Current, which spent a
(loud) session doing such unadvisable things as
trashing the mainstream media and calling CNN
anchors “robots.” Punching up to try and attract
attention is a very transparent strategy, and one
the media sees right through every time.

So, when you take the stage at NATPE this week
or (shameless plug alert) one of our own events, or
any time you engage the media or the public, please
do know that you are talking to a constituency that
is quickly getting used to a new level of less-filtered
back-and-forth—or at least the appearance thereof.
In a world where Rupert (apparently) tweets his
direct thoughts about Google, it’s best to acknowledge
that things have simply changed.

If you can’t talk about a specific issue or answer
a question, say you can’t talk about it, and say why.
The media is going to find out eventually anyway,
so why hurt your credibility? Instead, take the opportunity
to do the opposite. It helps both you and
your company to come across as honest.

We are not out to get you. Well, most of us
aren’t. You can talk to us like grown-ups. When
you don’t, I promise you not only will we know,
but it won’t help your cause in the long run. So
consider yourself warned. We’re on to you.