Media Magnates: Does the Man Make the Brand?

Rock Center
Rock Center

This past week, the world of broadcast media was sent through the wringer when the beloved Jon Stewart announced he was leaving The Daily Show and NBC suspended Nightly News anchor Brian Williams for six months following his absurdly unnecessary string of lies.

What Stewart and Williams have in common is that they’re arguably broadcast television’s most famous faces. Their shows don’t support their personal brands; their personal brands make their shows. Without these two as the titular hosts, both nightly segments are at a crossroads in terms of future popularity.

Obviously a certain level of iconic, untouchable celebrity does wonders to preserve and grow a media program’s audience. Even when John Oliver took over for Stewart one summer, the show famously kept the name The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. So just how important is a central personality to a media brand’s appeal? And how far can one person carry (or in Williams’ case, sink) an entire news institution?

Ultimately, it depends on the diversity of the program’s offerings. Is there more to the show than the person delivering the news? Are there classic segments or consistent running themes? How strong is the brand’s personality and how unique is the reporting?

If I were an NBC executive right now, I’d be concerned about this in regards to Nightly News. I don’t know about you, but I can’t name a single thing about that show other than, “It’s hosted by Brian Williams.” Well, was. The news delivered on that show isn’t exactly magical content that you can’t find in thousands of other media outlets. And it doesn’t help that viewers, especially we the coveted millennials, now trust the whole program less, if we even cared about it in the first place.

I think The Daily Show, on the other hand, will be fine. Losing Stewart will be a blow to the brand, for sure, but audiences loved the show before Stewart joined years ago and they will continue to love it in the years following Stewart’s departure. Why? For one, it has a stellar supporting cast that’s produced countless other fan-favorite personalities over the past few decades. And its award-winning production staff isn’t just going to give up on the masterful program they’ve spent years refining – and to which they’ve consistently added relevant content that appeals to a wide range of viewers across different mediums. In other words, consider the number of Daily Show YouTube videos that have gone viral compared to the number of Nightly News ones.

So what does this all mean for media brands? Well, if you work at a company like The Economist, you’re pretty set. The brand delivers intelligent, varied and consumable content across print, Web and social channels (and events – that’s where a lot of the money is). It’s also such a trusted source that it doesn’t even need to attach the names of reporters to its articles. But if your journalism brand relies entirely on content produced and delivered by one key celebrity, just remember that person could always lose that clout in a matter of seconds – or move on to something new – and seriously screw your whole program.