2020 candidates need multiple media, not a 'Brady Bunch' approach

The Brady Bunch isn’t coming back.

The interest is certainly there. Up the freeway from my home in Los Angeles, a cable channel spent almost $4 million to buy and restore the house where the iconic 1960s sitcom was shot. It’s a pop culture tribute to the days when Mom, Dad, and the kids ate together, played together, and watched television on one big couch.

But none of that happens anymore. Families don’t blend Brady-style — each generation now goes its own way, and gets there with its own form of media. Fresh shag carpeting won’t change that.

Tough news — not just for nostalgia fans, but for any political campaign’s media manager signing on for 2020. A smart campaign can’t ignore one kind of media over another. It has to hit them all, with all the money it can get.

The problem is not that our media world is in transition. The problem is that the transition hasn’t finished yet. While everyone focuses on booming social media and digital, traditional media clings to life. Sure, it’s breathing heavily and needs help getting up the stairs — but it’s not gone yet, and it can’t be ignored.

Traditional media numbers are getting grim. Broadcast TV ratings last November were down 22 percent from the year before. Satellite TV lost 2.4 million subscribers in 2018; the top cable providers saw close to 1 million people cut the cord last year. But those lost customers are younger; a lot of older viewers are happy sticking with what they’re accustomed to.

Consider this: About 13 million people still watch “NCIS” on CBS each Tuesday night. It’s an older audience, but that only matters to a Korean car company trying to sell a sporty new SUV to recent college grads on a budget. To a political campaign’s media strategy, a 60-year-old in the voting booth is just as valuable as someone half his age. 

Of course, you can’t put all of your money into broadcast television. Cable TV, also in decline, does allow some audience targeting: The Hallmark Channel viewer is different from FX’s. And these audiences tend to be a bit younger than broadcast. In the updated home for our modern, atomized Brady family, Grandma and Grandpa are in the formal living room watching traditional TV, while Mom and Dad are in the family room with Lifetime — they grew up wanting their MTV, so cable is their comfort zone.

The younger voters, up in the bedrooms, are each staring at his or her own screen: Facebook is where they used to be, but they began to move away from it when Mom started sharing recipes there with Aunt Janet. Meanwhile, thanks to Russian hackers, Facebook has gotten jumpy when it comes to political content — it will likely be a very different outlet for campaigns in 2020. Social-media money may move into the pockets of various young “influencers.” But just who they are and who they reach shifts constantly.

More than that, young voters are not monolithic: My 25-year-old and my 20-year-old have different habits. The older one tends to focus more on essays, podcasts and long-form video. The younger one does almost everything on her phone in short bursts in between classes, tests and research papers. They both vote.

This all matters even more in 2020, thanks to the primary calendar. For the first time, California is in the early running: Super Tuesday, March 3, has moved up from the state’s usual “It’s June, is anyone still paying attention?” slot. Our nearly 40 million people fill every corner of the renovated Brady house: older, traditional voters inland and in agricultural centers, mid-range voters in suburbs like Orange County and my part of Los Angeles, media-savvy citizens in the major urban centers along the coast and in Silicon Valley.

Because of that, California campaign spending in 2018 crossed over the $1 billion mark — $20 million of it just in the Senate race, $366 million for various statewide proposals. Most of that was for media, every single form of media.

No medium can be kicked to the curb, not just yet, and new forms keep coming along — and that makes media planning an ever-changing game, with ever-changing (and increasing) costs.

As a television programmer, I got accustomed to finding sure-fire solutions to viewership problems that some new technology made obsolete about six months later. There’s a lot of time left before we reach November 2020 — and the media changes, shifts and scrambles between now and then will deliver the best drama that any channel has to offer.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and has worked for ABC News and as a reporter or essayist for such publications as Rolling Stone magazine, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.