‘Red Table Talk,’ ‘The Shop,’ and the Viral Content Trap

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Dan Runcie

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Both Jada Pinkett Smith and LeBron James’ shows need to balance their desire for evergreen content and the urge to cover the hot story.
Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith (via Shutterstock)

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In the past year, Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk and LeBron James’ The Shop have made their presence known in the media landscape. Jada’s show just got renewed for 20 more episodes, and both shows were nominated for NAACP Image Awards. The hosts get compared to Oprah Winfrey for their ability to draw in celebrities for deep conversations. Jada plays the understanding Auntie role in her heart-to-heart talks on difficult topics. LeBron welcomes rappers and athletes in a black barbershop setting that’s often known for real talk and hot takes. Both shows have been praised for their formats. But recently, both have relied on timely pop culture drama. It’s an understandable but difficult strategy to maintain.

Red Table Talk’s most-viewed episode on Facebook Watch is the recent one with Jordyn Woods. The 21-year-old got all tied up with NBA player Tristan Thompson and reality star Khloe Kardashian’s ongoing relationship. The subtweets, blame game, and memes dominated social media for a solid five days (which is an eternity in 2019). In a prior episode of Red Table Talk, Smith hosted a survivor from the recently-aired Surviving R. Kelly docu-series.

Meanwhile, HBO has not released stats for The Shop, but the highest-rated episode is definitely the one with Drake. In October, the Toronto rapper came clean on his beef with Pusha T and Kanye West. It seems like the show’s producers are still eager for drama. Last week’s episode featured NBA superstar Anthony Davis and NFL all-pro Antonio Brown. Both athletes were at odds with team management and requested trades. This episode also had 2Chainz, who’s been on a promo run for his new album Rap or Go to the League.

It’s clear to see why Facebook Watch and HBO want their respective shows to cover these gossip-worthy stories. If the dirty laundry isn’t aired on their platforms, another outlet gets those views. The ratings game is real, but it’s also a trap. It heightens the urgency to create content that has a chance to dominate Black Twitter. This strategy has plagued talk shows over the years. It also steers well-crafted shows like Jada’s and LeBron’s away from the strong niches they have both identified for themselves.

Right now, Facebook needs Jada more than Jada needs Facebook.

Viral content usually has a short shelf life

The first few episodes of Red Table Talk focused on topics like motherhood, loss of loved ones, and body images. The Shop’s premiere episode followed a similar approach when it explored the double standards of how elite white and black athletes are treated. These topics have a long shelf life.

This is a stark difference from the most recent episodes of both shows. Chasing viral content has its challenges. The episode may get a high spike in initial views, but it usually has a shorter shelf life. It’s harder for the show to build equity with audiences.

There are a ton of shows that are already designed to chase the hot story and follow the 24-hour news cycle. Those shows pump content out early and often. Think about the shows that fit this mold: The ViewThe Breakfast ClubThe Ellen DeGeneres Show. Each is a stop for celebrities on promo runs, scandalous confessions, presidential candidacies, and tell-all moments. These instances are built into the show’s business model.

While Red Table Talk episodes do drop weekly, The Shop is much more sporadic. A new episode comes out once a month—if that. What are the chances that a celebrity can keep a noteworthy story on the low until it’s time to sit down with LeBron and Maverick Carter?

It worked out with Drake. He kept his thoughts to himself until the episode aired. But with all the outlets available for celebrities to share stories, the chances are slim. Before The Shop episode, both Antonio Brown and Anthony Davis had already been interviewed by ESPN about their trade requests. AB had been active on Twitter and Instagram about his feelings too. Neither athlete shared anything new on The Shop. Their language was rawer, but the message was identical. The only unknown, for me, was whether the barbers on The Shop would ask Antonio Brown why the hell he went and bleached his mustache.

To be fair, it’s commendable that both Jada and LeBron’s shows are popular enough to compete with longstanding programs for celebrity tell-alls. This should not be a surprise though. Both have stars have established brands and brought their followings with them. The issue is maintaining that consistency, which is tough.

The broader question is whether Facebook and HBO will push for these shows to veer back toward their initial concepts or continue chasing ratings at the expense of long-term value.

The networks have their own goals

The future of each show will be heavily steered by their respective networks. Red Table Talk is the brightest star on Facebook Watch’s dim platform. Last month, the social network announced that it will cancel two-thirds of its existing shows. And according to Bloomberg, Facebook Watch accounts for just a mere slice of overall video revenue. The service gained initial interest because of its massive user base, but it’s tough to counteract the trend that people have spent less and less time on Facebook.

Right now, Facebook needs Jada more than Jada needs Facebook. Popular shows switch networks often. Brooklyn Nine-Nine was scooped up by NBC less than two days after Fox canceled it. Don’t be surprised if Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon have already reached out to Overbrook Entertainment—the Smith’s production company— to lure the show away.

Competing networks may also seek out other stars who can lead a similar show. For instance, Jada’s friend and fellow Set It Off co-star Queen Latifah has had a couple short-lived talk shows. Here’s a quote from The Hollywood Reporter after her most recent show ended in 2014. “But despite the star power behind it, Latifah also failed to attract a steady stream of the biggest stars to help pump up viewership numbers.” Sound familiar? Latifah could thrive on a talk show with a more unique concept. She has worked closely with Overbook Entertainment in the past, so there’s an opportunity to continue that partnership.

The Shop has a different challenge with HBO. The premium television outlet has undergone several changes. AT&T has a brand new head of HBO, Bob Greenblatt, who has already thrown shade at Netflix. He said the competitor has no brand and compared it to Encyclopedia Brittanica. Dated reference aside, he has a clear stance on quality over quantity.

But HBO should be far more concerned with quantity than it lets on. REDEF’s Matthew Ball wrote about how HBO’s limited catalog makes it easier for Netflix to eat HBO’s lunch. Here’s a segment from his article:

Today, for example, Netflix will often release B-grade shows to greater success than its primary competitors (Amazon/Hulu/HBO/Showtime/Starz) do with great ones (which are far harder to find and make). … In today’s blockbuster-driven media environment, the number of “at bats” is a significant advantage; one “home run” (e.g. Game of Thrones) can be worth dozens of singles or doubles, if not more.

And since Game of Thrones and Veep are both in their final seasons, HBO’s feeling some pressure. The Shop, like HBO itself, is a bit conflicted in its own balance of quality and quantity. There’s a clear emphasis on high production value with each episode, but a monthly show will have a hard time sustaining promotional runs and high-profile drama.

The biggest blessing in disguise for HBO is that the Los Angeles Lakers will likely miss playoffs. LeBron will have more time this spring to film episodes. However, this is hardly a sustainable goal for either party.

The path forward

The problems that both shows may face are similar, but the ideal solutions are different. Red Talk Table values that its Facebook community can interact through comments on a platform it owns. YouTube offers that same functionality on a stronger platform with less pressure on one particular show. The streaming service plans to release 50 new shows this year.

YouTube’s leadership is more clear about where it stands in the media landscape. Here’s a 2018 quote from Susanne Daniels, the company’s head of original content. “I’ve always been a believer that you could make great shows for less money, and it’s not the episodic spend that makes something great.”

For The Shop, the answer is a bit more pragmatic. It needs more consistency and frequency. Ideally, a new episode would drop every other week. This would keep the show top of mind, and it follows the cadence of how often many men hit up the barbershop. Scheduling may be difficult, but evergreen content can be filmed in advance. It’s also easier to schedule with fewer guests per episode. With a bit more intentionality upfront, this format can succeed on HBO or other networks.

A lot of folks look at Red Table Talk and The Shop as female and male counterparts. The comparison is a bit reductive and not entirely accurate, but its a signal of how the content is valued. Celebrities are usually expected to increase ratings on their names alone. Both these shows were unique cases where the hosts and concepts have strong appeal.

If either series ever got canceled, there’s little to worry about. Another network would pick it up quickly. The risk is that either show may veer off its critically-acclaimed course before it’s too late to steer it back.

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Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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