Last Sunday, Hollywood, a cess-pit of sexual predation, chose to beg the world’s forgiveness by spreading its guilt around. Or as the Oscar’s host, Jimmy Kimmel, put it in his opening monologue:
“The world is watching us. We need to set an example, and the truth is if we are successful here, if we can work together to stop sexual harassment in the workplace, if we can do that, women will only have to deal with harassment all the time at every other place they go.”
Running to almost four hours, the 90th Academy Awards followed a predictable pattern. There were sermons from A-listers about the importance of women, odes to the importance of racial and sexual diversity and far more besides, including taunts at the President and Vice President. Hollywood was responding to its own exposure by preaching a version of the modern gospel: be whatever you want to be, so long as it’s something we agree with.
The public responded in kind – by turning off. Twenty per cent fewer people tuned in to see Kimmel host the Oscars this year than tuned in to watch him host it last year. And it lost nearly 40% of its viewers from the same ceremony just four years ago, with a low of just over 26 million people tuning in.
There are plenty of explanations for this. One is that Hollywood’s politics have in recent years pulled away from those of the rest of the country, to the extent that it is impossible to imagine – let alone witness – any major Hollywood star using the occasion even to talk obligingly of the person voted in to the office of President the year before last. Political slants are one thing: political homogeneity is quite another.
It is also possible that some fall-away has been caused by public disgust at the obvious hypocrisy of Hollywood. Over the past six months the public have had the opportunity not just to dislike the ideals of Tinsel Town, but to see through them. Something which is disastrous for a business where image is everything. In many ways Sunday’s ceremony appeared to constitute a desperate effort to scramble back onto the moral high ground.
But the fall-off is caused by something else as well. The same thing that has caused box-office takings to tumble in recent years. People do not need to go to the cinema or rely on Hollywood to be entertained. We do not need the gatekeepers we once did and nor do we need to rely on the content producers who used to be our only option.
As it happened, in the week before the Oscars ceremony, I was in California speaking with some of the new media ventures which are starting to break through the consensus that Hollywood and other media formats once dominated and indeed dictated. Although it retains its reputation for impeccable (US style) liberalism, in recent years the state of California has started to become identifiable as the home of a range of independent voices and independent outlets which are transforming the way in which people access new content and new ideas.
In the course of one day I witnessed the range and reach of some of this new media. I travelled, for example to the headquarters of Prager University (Prager U) set up by the conservative columnist and talk-show host Dennis Prager. Among other activities, Prager U makes high quality, punchy, 5-minute videos which puncture through the prevailing attitudes of the state in which they are made. Participants range from the British historian Andrew Roberts talking about Winston Churchill to journalist Guy Benson on being a gay conservative. These videos are slickly and tightly made and very professionally edited. On YouTube alone they regularly gain up to 5 million views. Meaning that a handful of Prager U videos easily match the total viewing figures for the 2018 Oscars.
Later that day I travelled to the California hub of someone from a very different place on the political spectrum. Joe Rogan is best known as a stand-up comedian, whose shows can be seen on Netflix among other places. He has a background in martial arts, is an advocate for the legalisation of marijuana and – if he fitted on any political spectrum – would probably be described as a naturally left-wing libertarian.
Nine years ago (around the same time Prager set up Prager U) Joe Rogan began a podcast. Since then, he has hosted hundreds of guests. They range from cage-fighters and martial arts devotees to political thinkers, professors and neuroscientists. Whereas Prager U’s videos stick to a short format, Rogan’s podcasts can go on for up to two hours. When I visited him in his studio he suggested we go on air to talk live for two hours.
It felt like a matter of minutes. Rogan can dart with an extraordinary natural agility between subjects while also retaining an extraordinary facility at focussing down on them. He lets guests speak but interjects whenever he has something to say, or a point that wants clarifying. He leads but doesn’t seek to dominate. He is painfully sharp as well as unbelievably funny, but can just as easily shift gears – without drawing attention to the fact – onto any of the deeply serious subjects going on under our culture and politics today.
Most important of all, he is open-minded. Whether it is Russell Brand or me, when he hears something he wants to hear more about he asks openly for an extrapolation of the thing that has been raised. Not in the manner of a Newsnight or Channel 4 interviewer hoping that the subject will fall into a carefully pre-laid trap, but in a spirit of genuine inquiry.
While the ever-more bite-size traditional media prepare their predictable carousel discussions, Rogan’s can go in whatever direction the interviewer and interviewee wish to take things. He trusts his own instincts and he trusts his guests, something that traditional media have now entirely abandoned. The rewards in viewing figures speak for themselves. Within a week of going out live, the video of our discussion was watched almost a million times on YouTube alone. One of the world’s most downloaded podcasts, there are now tens of millions of downloads of Rogan’s podcast every month.
So here is a strange, but positive development. Like much of the legacy news media, Hollywood and other parts of the traditional entertainment industry appear to find themselves trapped in formats, political blinders and echo-chambers of their own creation. Struggling to find a way out, their immediate solution appears to be to double-down. And yet at the same time, in the very same town, an altogether different way of communicating is emerging. Hollywood may be dying. But out there in the rest of California something else is rising.