I want to note right at the outset that this is not confirmed, nor is it even rumor. It is speculation on the part of the original article writer that I am responding to. There has been no announcement that WarnerMedia, the AT&T merger between itself and the Warner Brothers juggernauts (like HBO, which may be what AT&T is really interested in) that has only been in place a few months. Warner Brothers of course owns Hanna-Barbera and its libraries, including the Ruby-Spears library HB bought before being purchased by Time Warner, which was Ted Turner’s running of…you know what, never mind. If we’ve learned anything this year is that media copyrighting was crazy long before all these different mergers and splits and re-mergers. Trying to follow it is either the job of a genius or a lunatic. I rank somewhere between that so let’s move on.
At issue is this article by Forbes contributor Rob Salkowitz, who I think also writes for ICv2 come to think of it. In the article Salkowitz discussed DC Comics’ placement at this year’s San Diego Still Vaguely About Comics-Con. (Comic Con has been more about sci-fi and fantasy genre movies and TV shows, with the comic appearance more out of tradition. At least that’s how it feels these days.) It made the writer wonder if maybe AT&T/WarnerMedia is questioning holding on to the sinking comic company. While DC and co-publisher Dan DiDio have certainly damaged the brand with his approach to the DC Universe over the years and the writers he’s brought in to steer the direction of the DCU away from what made their universe so popular, I’m not so convinced by the actual “evidence” involved. Still, if DC isn’t fixed soon that prophecy might come to pass.
Earlier this month at San Diego Comic-Con, returning attendees noticed a major change on the show’s massive exhibit floor. The booth for DC Comics, which had been a massive standalone pavilion in the center of the publishers’ area in the center of the hall, was gone. America’s oldest and second-largest comic book publisher had retreated to the far back corner of the hall, where it was incorporated into the multi-level WarnerMedia exhibit, in the shadow of banks of giant monitors previewing upcoming shows and cast appearances.
This is his primary piece of evidence, but I’m not so sure. Like I said, WarnerMedia is still fairly new and it is possible that they wanted all of their brands under one “roof” to show off just how big they are and what they bring to entertainment industry and fans of storytelling and other media. However, there’s more evidence and the more you read the more convincing he sounds.
The subtext of this move could not have been clearer. AT&T—now the parent company of WarnerMedia and its divisions, including DC Comics (previously known as DC Entertainment), HBO, Turner, and Warner Bros.—does not seem terribly interested in being in the comic book publishing business. It’s telling that in a long profile of AT&T CEO John Stankey this morning in Variety, DC was one of the only WarnerMedia brands that was not mentioned. To the extent that DC matters at all in the company’s future, it’s as a source of owned IP for other media channels and as a lifestyle brand to serve as an ambassador to geek culture.
I went and looked at the profile. It’s not an interview, just a profile of Stankey and not a very flattering one. Apparently Time Warner treated Warner Brothers, Turner, and HBO like separate businesses with their own way of doing things and they aren’t happy Stankey is going to change that. They also talked about Otter Media, the online entertainment group. However they indeed did not mention DC Comics.
Then again, this is Variety. They NEVER mention comics. Both their site and mine are hosted by WordPress.com. I can follow any WordPress.com hosted site and I do follow Variety for potential discussion topics and Morning Article Links. I can tell you straight out that they don’t care about comics. I’m surprised they talk about video games, but they don’t talk comics, magazines, or even books. All they care about is what’s playing in theaters, on TV, or on websites like Netflix, Hulu, or Pluto TV who act like TV and movies. It would be bigger news if they even acknowledged a comic exists beyond mentioning in passing that this movie or that show is based on a comic. They’re part of that elitist media that only cares about movies and TV so their not mentioning DC Comics, which is owned by Warner Brothers and now WarnerMedia, isn’t evidence that they’re dropping DC but just par for the course with entertainment news media. We went over that in Sunday’s Jake & Leon.
(For the record we are not owned by them; it’s a hosting service although since they have money coming in–the ads you see here at the Spotlight only pays WordPress, not me, while Variety gets to put in their own ads plus makes money from the print edition–they paid for a bunch of extras. If I wasn’t on WordPress myself I wouldn’t even know we share a host. WordPress.org is their software you can put on any other host but I use their own hosting service, where we can’t do plugins and stuff.)
In terms of pure economics, this makes sense. The entire comics publishing business in the U.S., including periodicals, digital and trade, adds up to around $1.1 billion, according to 2018 estimates by industry analyst ICv2. On a good month, about 35% of the revenue from the direct market goes to DC, along with a chunk of trade book sales for perennial titles like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. That wasn’t ever very much in the Time Warner days, and it’s a smaller drop in an even bigger ocean following the AT&T acquisition.
That’s due to a number of factors. Comics pulled themselves from the outside world, selling comics only through comic stores and trades through bookstores (as well as the occasional original graphic novel). Additionally, Dan DiDio has not only steered DC Comics away from the asperational and hopeful into something darker and less fun, then allowed their characters to go to Hollywood creators that do the same. He’s busy getting new readers while chasing off the old ones. The comics are also not priced for a casual reader while the kids that used to be at least part of the fan base (and the reason Superman became a cultural icon in the first darn place) have been pushed aside. So it’s no wonder DC and comics in general are doing so poorly.
One place that AT&T does not seem to see any value is in sub-brands. One of the company’s first moves following the acquisition was to shutter several of WarnerMedia’s niche streaming services, including the beloved cinephile outlet Filmstruck, seen by many as a prelude to rolling as much of the company’s media artillery as possible into a mega-streamer to compete with Disney, Netflix and the rest—a move that seems essential given the precipitous drop in subscribers to AT&T’s satellite TV service DirecTV.
There are a lot of reasons for that as well. I’ve noticed a backlash against niche TV for years. A&E used to stand for Arts & Entertainment, and promoted itself as being all about “comedy, drama, documentaries, and the performing arts”, little of which they have anymore. The Sci-Fi Channel is now SyFy while gaming channel G4 was becoming Spike TV lite long before it was rebranded as Esquire Channel. AMC no longer stands for American Movie Classics and streaming is the only competition Turner Classic Movies currently has without smaller channels like Movies! (yes, that was the creative name they came up with…add an exclamation point). I’m guessing WarnerMedia didn’t want Flimstruck to compete with TCM or their planned streaming prospects moving forward. It’s easier to have everything on one service to get the older and newer movie and TV fans in. That puts Hulu’s future in doubt now that I think about it, since Disney is pushing their Disney+ service and owns two of the companies that started Hulu, Fox and ABC.
Cable and satellite themselves have a problem. On TV advertisers have demanded more and more air time, not realizing that we came for the show and usually skip or ignore their ads, which can sometimes last almost as long as the show segments. On ad-supported sites like Pluto TV or Sony Crackle you get maybe four ads while YouTube or the ad-supported side of VuDu only has two, sometimes poorly placed. Meanwhile those same stations and networks keep charging the cable and satellite providers more and more for the rights to broadcast their channels whether the provider can afford it or not. CBS and Fox have been the worst about this on the network side and more than once a provider has considered dropping the local channel and extended franchise, which the networks responded to with a half-truth call for their viewers to call said provider and demand they cave. This has raised cable and satellite fees even before the government steps in and it’s costing viewers more and more, so they go to streaming sites. Not that this is going to be a good option at some point but that’s another conversation. The point is non-streaming networks and providers are having a hard time keeping up and this hurts DirectTV and other services. I honestly don’t know how Pluto TV, Stirr, Xumo, or other cable-like live streaming sites do it.
But that sentiment has also crept into the publishing side. In recent months, DC has dropped the axe on its prestige imprint Vertigo, the creative engine behind hits like Sandman, Preacher, Swamp Thing, Doom Patrol and Fables. On the eve of Comic-Con, the company announced the cancellation of MAD, the venerable humor magazine that changed the face of American satire and has been continuously published since the mid-1950s. Neither of these was a big moneymaker in terms of month-to-month sales, but both brands occupy some valuable real estate in the psyche of fans. Even if the properties built on that land are in disrepair, it seems shortsighted to vacate the premises entirely.
Swamp Thing and Doom Patrol started as DC titles, and just moved to Vertigo because it was the home for more adult-oriented science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Recently it decided to act more like an underground subversive indie company than a science fantasy horror publisher and under Zoe Quinn gave us, among other things, a comic where God sends his slacker sun Jesus to learn how to be a better person via a Superman ripoff with relationship problems and a comic that was a heavy-handed commentary about illegal immigration (as in being all for it) until the writer was fired or arrested or something for being a horrible person. (I think it was sex-related.) Vertigo collapses because for all the reasons DC has lost readership plus a little more.
There was also the half-hearted attempt as a kids imprint, DC Zoom, and teen imprint, DC Ink. Neither were really promoted well and were designed more for libraries than comic fans. Not that there are many young comic fans because many of them haven’t seen a comic book unless someone they know was already a fan. As far as MAD, that one kind of surprised me but I don’t know if the humor there devolved as well. I was more into Cracked as a kid but now it’s just a website dedicated to humorous lists that killed their own video offerings. I used to really promote that site and I haven’t visited it in years.
From there the writer talks about DC as a “lifestyle brand” and apparently I don’t know what the word means because based on what it sounds like to me that better describes Marvel. DC’s talk shows are basically promotion for DC’s comics, shows, movies, and merchandise and their Twitter feed promote the comics. Meanwhile Marvel, who has outright said they want to be a lifestyle brand according to editor Sana Amanat, puts out cooking shows about making a Galactus-sized cake or something. DC has a crafting show on their kids channel and even that channel is more interested in promoting DC’s few kid shows. Marvel’s movies are better as the writer also notes before getting into one of my current interests–logos!
DC also has an edge that few people talk about in terms of logo design and iconography. Superman’s “S,” the Bat signal, Flash’s lightning bolt, and the other distinctive marks associated with DC characters dwarf almost everything that Marvel has on offer with the possible exception of Spider-Man’s insignia, and even gives main Disney a run for its money. This gives DC a permanent structural advantage in the lucrative fields of licensed merchandise and apparel that the company has never fully exploited.
Too bad their comic logos are a bit questionable. However, while they do have better logos (most of Marvel’s characters and any superhero not trying to imitate or parody DC superheroes) it’s the characters themselves that have become iconic and that’s what DC has been messing up lately. The cover logos have been terrible. Need I again bring up the Justice League Of America logo from the New 52? I think they finally got rid of that lazy thing and went back to the shield, and if they haven’t they darn well should.
So where does all that branding leave the publishing business? A generation ago, faced with a similar situation, DC’s then co-President and Publisher Jenette Kahn appealed to Time Warner management that wanted to dramatically cut back on DC’s current publishing in favor of reprints, saying that the company’s new material was the lifeblood of the company, a source of new fans and new IP without which the characters and related merchandise would decline into obscurity. She won that argument and DC, under her stewardship, ended up minting many of the golden coins in which it still trades, including The Dark Knight, Watchmen and Sandman, despite never being a gigantic engine of revenue within the Time Warner corporate umbrella.
As the writer notes DC is still obsessed with these not only in the reprints but in the direction they’ve taken the DC Universe and that’s a problem. You can have those kind of stories but that’s not what brought DC Comics to the dance hall. Now it’s doing slam dancing while everyone is trying to imitate something they saw in Fortnite, something more fun and light in tone. That’s because at that same Comic Con DiDio spelled out his exact failing without realizing it.
Recently, DC co-President Dan DiDio publicly fumed that reissues of comics 30 and 40 years old were outselling current stories featuring the same characters, calling that a “failure on us.” Echoing his predecessor’s warning from years past, he added, “We should be focused on moving things forward, always pushing the boundaries and finding new stories to tell. That’s how we’ll survive and grow this industry.”
What he should and won’t do is figure out what people liked about the old stories and deliver that in new stories. However, his idea of “telling new stories” is ignoring continuity and the qualities about the DC Universe that used to have such a strong fanbase.
Faced with a cash-starved corporate master with an unsentimental, “what have you done for me lately” approach to legacy sub-brands and an urgent need to monetize its new media empire through streaming and licensing, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if even Superman himself is capable of rescuing DC Comics as we’ve known it for the past 80 years.
I think it can be done. Many, many fans and commentators have gone into how. DiDio just doesn’t want to listen. With any luck AT&T and their WarnerMedia will succeed where Disney has thus far failed with Marvel. Go back to what works, like DC did with the Rebirth initiative. Bring the characters back to their iconic selves, make sure any writer and editor who takes over those characters understand the characters involved and actually wants to write those characters, stop “writing for the trade” and just make good stories whether they last one issue or ten while actually pricing them so both hardcore and casual fans can afford to buy them, then get them out to the causal readers of all-ages while offering special stuff to the comic stores for hardcore fans who will subscribe through their store, meet other fans, and maybe hunt down back issues because the new stories were interesting enough that they wanted to see what happened before. It’s really not that hard, and WarnerMedia can fix DC Comics. They just have to want to, and given even comic companies and far too many creators look down at their own medium and what made them and their characters popular there is already a steep hill to climb.
Good luck, AT&T.