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How our year of isolation changed entertainment

Welcome to Buy/Sell/Hold, Marker’s weekly newsletter that’s 100% business intelligence and 0% investment advice. Each week, our writers Steve LeVine and Rob Walker make sense of the most important developments in business right now — and give them a Buy for clever moves or positive trends, a Sell for mistakes or missed opportunities, or a Hold if they’re noteworthy but too early to call.

🏆 Awards shows are officially past their peak 🏆

The Buy/Sell/Hold Analysis

If an organization started handing out trophies for the most astonishing collapse in cultural relevance, this year’s top prize would have to go to — awards shows. The ratings plunges for recent awards shows are staggering, suggesting a major turning point for a ritual that has been vital to the business of entertainment for decades. At long last, it appears the traditional mass-audience awards spectacle is over.

This week’s CBS broadcast of the Grammys is the freshest example. The ratings fell a stomach-churning 51% from last year to a record low 9.2 million viewers who tuned in or streamed the broadcast. (The prior all-time low, in 2006, was 17 million TV viewers.) Incredibly, the ceremony wasn’t even in the highest-rated show of the week, coming in second behind an episode of NCIS. This ratings humiliation came just weeks after a similarly gruesome showing from the Golden Globes, whose audience shriveled by 62% to a measly 6.9 million — its smallest ever by a long shot.

The collapse of the awards show is a side effect of a bigger shift that, as the cliché goes, happened gradually and then all at once. It’s been a generation since cable and the internet began eroding the mass-market paradigm that coaxed society to turn its cultural gaze in the same direction at the same time. Entertainment became more about infinite choice serving niche audiences on their own terms: My Spotify or Netflix experience may have no overlap with yours at all, and that’s the point. Rapidly expanding new entertainment forms like live streaming, massively multiplayer online video games, and TikTok just underscored that shift.

Along the way, the role of the awards show specifically as a campfire for the culture to gather around has been undermined by audiences’ impatience and disgust with ongoing under-appreciation of minority and female cultural creators. Add to that the dated and stuffy awards show format, established decades prior when producers could expect tens of millions to tune in to watch a several-hours-long ceremony.

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It seemed that some of these broadcasts had made progress with the format issues at least — critics actually praised this year’s Grammys as a surprisingly successful production — and you could make an intuitive argument that 2021 should have been a much better year for awards shows: Pandemic isolation had more of us binging on digital entertainment than ever, craving any excuse for virtual gatherings and shared experiences. The ultimate captive audience.

Instead, what lockdown culture revealed — all at once — is that our interest in virtual gathering depends on real-world interpersonal ones: the watercooler chats, the dinner parties, the random interactions in bars and on beaches that quietly fuel our interest in what everybody else is consuming, and how that informs what we want to cheer for or root against as the recipient of some culturally sanctioned prize.

The final collapse of the awards show as a cultural campfire shows how a year in isolation taught us that we don’t really care what everyone else thinks is the must-see movie or the song of the season. For better or worse, we’ve learned to entertain ourselves.

Verdict: Sell

— Rob Walker

⚡Lightning Round⚡

Robinhood grows so fast, it buys its own recruiting firm. Fresh from the fallout, free publicity, and surge in downloads following its GameStop meme stock controversy, the stock trading app announced Monday that it is acquiring Binc, a well-regarded Silicon Valley recruiting firm with 80-plus employees, to help “rapidly scale” its team. Not only will the acquisition dramatically increase its efforts to aggressively hire at the peak of its dominance, but it also doubles as a braggy rebuff to rival tech companies who can no longer use Binc for their own expansions. Buy.

Lyft becomes an indicator of our return to normalcy. On Thursday, the ride-share company said it had the highest number of riders in its previous week of business since the pandemic began. Wednesday also marked the first time in a year that the volume of daily rides was higher compared to the same day last year. It’s a promising sign that Lyft may regain some lost ground after its 45% drop in monthly active users and $1.8 billion in losses in 2020. It’s also an optimistic barometer for the return of the travel industry — especially when paired with a report this week that JetBlue’s founder has the chutzpah to soon launch a new airline. Hold.

Volkswagen is enjoying a Tesla-style boom: On Monday, the German automaker held an almost two-hour webcast detailing ongoing plans to transform itself into an electric vehicle company. Automakers have seen the shift to EV and autonomous driving as a way to transcend their rock-bottom multiples and get Silicon Valley-heights of valuation. And that’s what happened after Monday’s event: The company’s shares rose 7%. The next day, they surged another 10%. Then, on Wednesday, traders pushed them through the roof, bidding the price up 29%. The share price corrected a bit yesterday, but was still up 27% for the week and 74% for the year. Suddenly, the EV craze has engulfed even the legacy players. Buy.

Toys ‘R’ Us lives to play another day. After years of being decimated by online competitors, the retailer filed for Chapter 11 in 2017, closing all its U.S. stores the following year. But on Monday, brand management company WHP Global announced it had acquired a controlling stake in Toys ‘R’ Us’ parent company, with plans to open new stores in the U.S. before the holidays. Like so many other retailers who’ve gone through Chapter 11 the past few years — even during the pandemic — bankruptcy rarely functions as the end of a chain’s story, but rather the start of its new life as a smaller, restructured, more modest incarnation. Hold.

📈 The Number: $18,000

The approximate sale price of a non-fungible token (NFT) created and sold by Taco Bell, according to Rarible.

A limited edition digital collectible created by Taco Bell sold for 10 Ethereum — equivalent to roughly $18,000 — on the NFT trading platform Rarible last week. The fast food chain had issued a series of four different collectible GIF depictions of tacos in different art styles, each in a collection of five, all of which have been sold. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are records of ownership of digital assets on the Ethereum blockchain, providing a degree of uniqueness and scarcity to otherwise endlessly reproducible digital items. Although the buyer who paid $18,000 for one of the Taco Bell NFTs bought it in a resale and not directly from the fast-food chain, the NFT allows Taco Bell to earn 0.1% of every resale, the proceeds of which it directs to its foundation for youth empowerment. (It’s worth noting that Taco Bell’s other NFTs have not sold for nearly as much — the next highest sale as of this writing was around $4,000 — although some of their owners are presently trying to flip them for several times what they paid.)

Taco Bell is not the only corporate brand to jump on the NFT bandwagon. Pizza Hut has issued some NFTs of its own, tied to pixelated illustrations of pizza slices, and so has what might be the unlikeliest brand you’d want to buy a digital collectible from: the toilet paper brand Charmin, which is selling cartoon illustrations of its product and mascot, and calling them NFTPs (you figure out what that stands for). Like the viral TikTok Ocean Spray video or brands fawning over Baby Yoda before it, it seems inevitable that, as with every internet trend that reaches a degree of popularity, marketers will swoop in to get a piece of the attention. As Adam Bluestein recently explored in Marker, massive fast food and consumer goods brands have found that selling branded merch can be the most effective marketing strategy to capture the imagination of sneaker-flipping, YouTube-watching Gen Z. Now, with NFTs, they’ve discovered that collectible, limited-edition merch doesn’t even need to be limited to the world of physical objects.

— Kaushik Viswanath, Senior Editor, Marker

📖 Marker Read of the Week: The definitive story of the private club chain Soho House, which is gearing up for our hedonistic, champagne-soaked post-pandemic boom — and an IPO.

💻 💼 Introducing Index: A new publication about work. 💼 💻

This week, Marker was thrilled to debut Index, a new publication committed to creating a home for the voices, experiences, and real people behind jobs and careers of all kinds. At Index, we’re digging into the most pressing issues surrounding modern work: the office, the future of work, identity, representation, and support in the workplace, entrepreneurship, work-life tension, and navigating an ever-shifting economic landscape. We welcome your stories, comments, and suggestions as we build Index together; our goal is to be here for every twist and turn as you navigate your career — whether you’re reading other people’s stories or feel inspired to share your own.

➡️ Click here to read and follow Index, a publication for professionals from all backgrounds to share their own stories.

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Bylines in Vox, VICE, The Paris Review, BuzzFeed, and more. Contributor to The Onion. Check out my work here: jeanlucbouchard.com.