Brainiac On Banjo: Publish and Perish?

“I need you, but I hate to see you this way / If I were Superman then we’d fly away / I’d really like to change the world / And save it from the mess it’s in / I’m too weak, I’m so thin / I’d like to fly but I can’t even swim” — Ray Davies, (Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman, 1979.

You might have heard the news. It’s been bombarding El Casa de Oro all week, and it’s been blitzing the interwebs to the point where I’m thinking of upgrading my dial-up. But just in case you’ve been away chasing after the Perseverance Rover, I’ll make my journalism teachers happy.

This past weekend, AT&T sold control and most of their ownership of their WarnerMedia division to Discovery Networks, owners of the many, many Discovery “cable” channels, HGTV, the Food Network, TLC, ID, Animal Planet, the Magnolia Network, and the Discovery+ streaming operation. They call this stuff “reality programming” but, as we all know, reality is in the mind of the beholder. As far as I’m concerned, that million-dollar vaccine lottery is the only reality show.

AT&T had only recently bought what they now call WarnerMedia — Warner Bros, CNN, HBO, Cinemax, the Cartoon Network, TCM, TBS, TNT, and a bunch of other stuff. If you can read the six-point type, you’ll discover they own some publishing as well, such as whatever is left of Mad Magazine and the meandering DC comics. Ma Bell went into so much debt to do this deal that, upon reading the report, King Midas reflexively picked his nose.

After acquiring that Denali of debt load, AT&T came down with a severe case of buyer’s remorse. I’m sure the stay-home-or-die principle that governed most thinking humans these past fourteen months did not help one bit, but it wasn’t a very good deal in the first place. After all, what does AT&T know about running the Home Insurance Building of media (sorry; “I.P.”) companies?

Well, this week that question became “What does Discovery know that AT&T never figured out?” Well, their needs are different: they want to be a major player in the ocean of streamers. But for readers of this slice of bandwidth, I suspect the prevailing question is “What does this mean for DC Comics and its hundreds of readers?”

Sigh. Probably nothing, and that is very bad news. Only lunatics — also known as most of my closest friends — would ever get into publishing. It’s a lot of work with very high risk and overall a pretty low success rate… and that was back when we had newsstands, magazine and newspaper racks, bookstores, and a desire to get our entertainment from the corpse of dead trees. Most print-on-paper operations are either gone or in desperate need of a food drive.

The internet has not filled that vacuum. When it comes to reading stuff online or onscreen that we used to read on paper, it’s not generating enormous profit. There are less stressful entertainments available online in the form of movies (which I now conflate with “television”), pornography, games, music, pornography, “social” media — arguably the greatest misnomer in history — and, now, zooming. And pornography. Reading opportunities abound, but when you look at the balance sheets, they don’t mean shit to a tree.

AT&T didn’t buy Warner in order to publish DC comics, just as Disney didn’t buy Marvel in order to publish their comic books. They bought ‘em in order to make movies and whatever else you want to call that stuff that stuff that comes to your home screens, including the ones on your laptop and in your purse and/or pants. The annual profits from that product are in the billions of dollars and then they mutate into annuities. If costumed hero fodder goes the way of The Lone Ranger and Buck Rogers, they’ll simply make less of that for a while. It’s worth having the properties — they are cheap to maintain, as long as you don’t do anything financially foolish like maintain a hardcopy publishing program.

It is doubtful that DC could do much for Discovery in terms of “publishing” that would encourage them to give them the money and attention they need. Comics is and pretty much always been a decent mom-and-pop operation, and we’ve got a number of such publishers producing a lot of very good material these days. It’s high-priced; reading a comic book costs about a half-a-buck a minute.

Just don’t tell them that even if they stop making comic books, they’d still have their Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman media. Who knows. Comics fans seem to be everywhere these days. Maybe we can squeeze another decade or so out of nostalgia for stapled stories.

(Thanks and a tip of the hat to my late, great friend Snappy Skippy Williamson for the killer booger reference.)