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Get Ready For Increased Media Coverage of the XBB 1.5 Variant

The latest sequel, or more accurately, the newest Omicron variant, is XBB.1.5. The first samples of the new subvariant were found last October in New York state.

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When Hollywood tells stories about mass murderers, it gives them names like Jason or Freddy Krueger. Hollywood wouldn’t come up with names like Covid-19, SARS-2, or the Corona Virus. And it certainly wouldn’t name anybody in its sequels, Omicron. Let alone BA.1 or BQ.1.1.

But those are the names we’ve come to learn in a three-year worldwide pandemic that has killed nearly seven million people and caused almost three-quarters of a billion infections. 

It’s baaaack. The latest sequel, or more accurately, the newest Omicron variant, is XBB.1.5. The first samples of the new subvariant were found last October in New York state. Since then, it has spread rapidly in the Northeast.

If you haven’t noticed the coverage of XBB.1.5 yet, you will shortly. What should responsible media members report?

Let me be clear about a few things before continuing. 

  • I am not a doctor or clinician. I have no medical training.
  • I am NOT an anti-vaxer. I am fully vaccinated against Covid, as is my entire family.
  • I am not trying to make a political point for or against Covid vaccines. Individuals should make their own informed decisions based on consultation with their doctor. 
  • I am only concerned with facts and data. I believe in science.

The White House COVID response coordinator, Dr. Ashish Jha, fired off a series of Tweets last week. He Tweeted XBB.1.5 went from “4% of sequences to 40% in just a few weeks.”

CDC data for the week ending January 7 projects that 27.6% of new cases are XBB.1.5, compared to 18.3% the prior week. In the Northeast, the figure rises to 72%. One thing experts agree on is that this is a highly contagious variant of Omicron. 

In his series of Tweets, Jha adds: That XBB.1.5 may be more inherently contagious. That is a reoccurring theme in news reports quoting other doctors, scientists and researchers share.

If there’s good news about this variant, it’s that the early data suggests that for most people, it will not be as deadly as the original COVID-19 strain. The variant is not causing increases in hospitalizations or deaths. What it may lack in its ability to kill younger, healthy people, it makes up for in transmissibility.

A USA Today article states the variant “is so contagious that even people who’ve avoided it so far are getting infected, and the roughly 80% of Americans who’ve already been infected are likely to catch it again.” It quotes Paula Cannon, a virologist at the University of Southern California, saying, “it’s crazy infectious.”

Two additional quotes from Cannon in USA Today are worth noting:

“All the things that have protected you for the past couple of years, I don’t think, are going to protect you against this new crop of variants.” Cannon also said, “Essentially, everyone in the country is at risk for infection now, even if they’re super careful, up to date on vaccines (emphasis mine), or have caught it before.”

Most experts are instructing everybody to get a booster of the new bivalent shot. A new advertising campaign is about to begin urging people to get boosted. 

The media needs to report on the bivalent booster, its effectiveness, and who should get it because of the XBB.1.5 variant.

Right now, nobody knows how effective the bivalent booster will be against XBB.1.5. Despite the claims that the booster will protect people, the answer is less evident in the published studies. There are several factors that individuals should consider.

Again, I am not an anti-vaxer. I am fully vaccinated, as is my family. It was an easy decision to make at the time because the mortality and hospitalization rates of the initial COVID-19 virus were quite high. Further, hospitals were filled beyond capacity, lowering the chances of getting adequate medical treatment if contracting the virus. At that time, trusting that the vaccines were sufficiently tested and didn’t have significant side effects were worth the risk.

Each mutation of the original has proven less deadly, which is one factor that makes it less imperative to get the bivalent vaccine – except for people with higher risk factors.

Dr. Jha Tweeted, “If you had an infection before July OR Your last vaccine was before the bivalent update in September, Your protection against an XBB.1.5 infection is probably not that great.” No doubt that’s true, but will the vaccine help protect against the latest variant?

Jha adds that “All the evidence (the tests) says that they (the vaccines) should work just fine.” Most experts agree. They also concur when Jha states “that it (XBB.1.5) may be more immune evasive than other Omicron variants.”

People will have to weigh these dualities when considering whether to get additional vaccines. Although each mutation has become less deadly, each variant gets better at evading immunities. 

The New England Journal of Medicine published the most recent study on the efficacy of vaccines on COVID-19 and Omicron subvariants. 

Neutralization against BA.2.75.2, BQ.1.1, and XBB from mRNA Bivalent Booster/

The key paragraph:

“neutralization titers against BA.1 and BA.5 that were 4 times as low as that against WA1/2020 and neutralization titers against BA.2.75.2, BQ.1.1, and XBB that were 12 to 26 times as low as that against WA1/2020.”

A picture is worth a thousand words:

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The graphs show that receiving additional vaccines are more effective against all strains. However, the added bivalent booster appears to be less effective against the XBB variant than the two doses against the original COVID-19 virus. 

Although it should provide some additional protection for a few months, the next variant is likely right around the corner. People have to consider how often they are willing to get another booster.

As people weigh the benefits and risks, they should consider the possible side effects. The process of bringing new treatments to market in the U.S. is stringent – far more difficult here than in any other country. 

Most drugs go through multiple years of clinical trials. COVID vaccines received approval through emergency measures with much lower clinical trial thresholds than usual. 

Pharmaceutical companies must include a disclaimer with ”possible” side effects for every new medication released and advertised. The copy often says, “up to and including death.” However, after lengthy clinical studies, the risks are considered minimal. COVID vaccines are the only medication not required to include a disclaimer about possible side effects.

Thus far, there’s no evidence of widespread adverse side effects or substantiating claims made by anti-vaxers. However, sometimes it takes years for side effects to manifest fully. 

In the coming days, media coverage of the XBB.1.5 variant will increase. There will be enormous pressure on the press to tell people they must get an additional booster and also to mask up again. 

As the media reports on the latest phase of the pandemic, it should be honest about the data on XBB.1.5. and the bivalent vaccine. For some, it will make sense to get the jab again. When weighing all the factors, others may decide it’s not necessary. Let’s give people all the data and respect their informed, science-based decisions.

And that is not misinformation.

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BNM Writers

Market Still Finding 2023 Footing

After some rigorous data analysis, the thoughtful, numbers-based host was able to formulate some potential conclusions.

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While it’s hard to imagine 2023 being as painful for investors as 2022, experts still cannot say for certain we are destined for blue skies ahead. Many in the media are starting the year by sifting through the stock market tea leaves; trying to figure out what historical data can tell us about probabilities and expectations for the next twelve months.

Some think the United States is poised for a market rebound, while others remain quite bearish, feeling that negative policy implications have yet to be fully realized.

Peter Tuchman of Trademas Inc. joined Neil Cavuto on his Fox News program Friday, to offer his thoughts about where the American stock market might be headed in light of the newly-divided United States Congress.

“Markets have a sort of a gut of their own,” Cavuto opened. “Today’s a good example. We’re up 300 points, ended up down 112 points. What’s going on?”

“Markets don’t like unknowns, and markets need confidence. The investing community needs confidence,” Tuchman said. “And I think it’s going to take a lot of work to rebuild that. And as we saw the other night with what went on in the House, it feels like people should get busy governing as opposed to all this posturing.”

Six months ago, Tuchman didn’t have a solid feel for the direction of the market. And just two trading weeks into the year, he still doesn’t believe any real trend has been established.

“The market has yet to find its ground. It’s yet to find its footing,” Tuchman told Cavuto. “And still, even coming into 2023, the first week of trading we have not found our footing. We have come in on a couple of economic notes that were a little bit positive. We opened up with a little bit of irrational enthusiasm. By the end of the days we were trading down.”

Meanwhile, some financial outlets, such as CNBC, have dug into the data showing what a market rise during the year’s first week – such as what we experienced this year – potentially means for the rest of 2023. They published a story last week with the headline, Simple ‘first five days’ stock market indicator is poised to send a good omen for 2023“.

On an episode of his popular YouTube program late last week, James from Invest Answers dug into 73 years of stock market data, to test that theory and see if the first five days of yearly stock market performance are an indicator of what the market might do over the full year.

“Some analysts pay attention to this, the first five trading day performance, can it be an indicator of a good year or a bad year,” James began last week, “I wanted to dig into all of that and get the answer for myself. Because some people think yes. Some people swear blind by it. Some people think it’s a myth or an old wive’s tale. Some people think it’s a great omen.”

After some rigorous data analysis, the thoughtful, numbers-based host was able to formulate some potential conclusions.

Based on James’ analysis…

If the gains from the first five market days of the year are negative, the market rises 86 percent of the time over the full year, with an average gain of 6%.

If the first five days are positive, the market increases 92% of the time, with an average yearly gain of 16%.

Most importantly, in this year’s scenario, where the first five days saw a jump of more than 1%, the market traditionally ends positive for the year 95 percent of the time. Those years see an average yearly gain of 18%.

“Is it a good omen, does it look bullish?” James asked. “Well, yes, based on history. But remember, there are factors like inflation, interest rates, geopolitical turmoil, supply chains, slowing economy. All that stuff is in play. But history also says that the market bounces bounces back before the market even realizes it’s in a recession. That’s an important thing to know.”

On his Your World program, Cavuto wondered if the recent House speaker voting drama has added to the uncertainty facing markets.

“Historically, Wall Street definitely is a bit more friendly to a Republican administration,” Tuchman said. “We’re in new ground, there’s no playbook, Neil. And I went over it with you the last time. There’s no playbook for coming out of a pandemic. No playbook for what’s gone on over the last two and a half years. Let’s think about it. March 2020, the market sold off so radically. We had a rally of 20 percent in 2020. 28 percent in 2021, in the eyes of a global economic shutdown due to the Federal Reserve’s posturing and whatnot.

“And now we’re trying to unwind that position. In tech, and in possible recession, and inflation and supply chain issues. So, there’s no way historically to make a judgment on what the future looks like in that realm, let alone what’s going on in the dis-functionality of what’s happening in Washington. I would like to disengage what’s going on in Washington and try and rebuild the confidence in the market coming into 2023.” 

So while the data might indicate a strong year ahead, the fact is that many analysts still won’t make that definitive call amidst such economic turmoil gripping the country. 

Along with U.S. markets, they remain steadfast in their search for solid footing.

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BNM Writers

Does Radio Need A Video Star?

If there’s revenue attached, the debate is over. If there isn’t a deal on the table, and there aren’t already orders to monetize a video stream, it’s likely coming soon.

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Last week numerous stories about using video with broadcasting or audio podcasting became a hot topic of discussion.

A Morning Consult poll found that 32% of Americans prefer podcasts with video, compared with 26% who like just audio better. Among podcast listeners, 46% said they favor them with video, compared with 42% who said they would rather listen without video. It’s worth noting that these are podcast listeners, not radio listeners.

Video has become the latest trend in audio. Almost everybody is trying to do some form of video. Many shows already stream online. A few others simulcast on a television or cable channel. It seems nobody believes in pure audio anymore. It’s a wonder everybody didn’t go into television instead of radio.

Before everybody else starts adding webcams in the studio, it’s worth weighing the reasons to move ahead versus slowing down.

The first person to realize they could use video of their show may have been Howard Stern. In June 1994, Stern started a daily half-hour show on E! network, featuring video highlights from his radio show. Stern added slick production values and faster pacing on the E! show.

Don Imus started simulcasting on cable during the same month. It’s possible others that I’m not aware of started earlier.

Stern’s E! show made sense. It answered the most common questions people asked about the show, in addition to what’s he really like; the first questions people usually asked were: 1) Are the women really as good-looking as he says? 2) Do they really take their clothes off? The E! show answered those questions. In addition, it gave a backstage glimpse of the show.

The same month Stern’s E! Show began, Imus began simulcasting his show on cable networks. I would have feared losing ratings. In fact, Imus’ program director did!

I spoke to my long-time friend and colleague Mark Chernoff (Current Managing Director of Mark Chernoff Talent and on-air talent 107.1 The Boss on the NJ Shore, Former Senior VP WFAN and CBS Sports Radio, VP Sports Programming CBS Radio) about the impact simulcasting Imus’ show had on WFAN. Chernoff may have the broadest range of experiences with simulcasting radio programs with video. 

Imus began on CSPAN but shortly afterward moved to MSNBC. Chernoff told me: “When we started simulcasting Imus, I suggested we’d lose about 15% of our radio audience to TV, which we did.” Chernoff added that there was a significant revenue contribution and that the company was content with the trade-off.

WFAN had a different experience simulcasting Mike and the Mad Dog on YES in 2002. “In this case, TV was helpful, and we increased listenership,” said Chernoff. WFAN also benefited financially from this simulcast.

Imus was on in morning drive while Mike & the Mad Dog were on in the afternoon. Keep the era in mind, too. Before smartphones and high-speed streaming, it was not uncommon for people to have televisions in the bed or bathrooms and have the tv on instead of the radio as they got ready for their day. In the afternoon, fewer people would have had video access in that era.

Ratings measurement moved to Portable People Meter (PPM) by the time WFAN started streaming middays on its website. Chernoff reported streaming had no ratings or revenue impact – positive or negative – on middays. However, the company did provide an additional dedicated person to produce the video stream.

The early forays into video by pioneers such as Stern, Imus, and Mike & the Mad Dog are instructive.

There are good reasons to video stream shows. Revenue is a good reason.

If there’s revenue attached, the debate is over. If there isn’t a deal on the table, and there aren’t already orders to monetize a video stream, it’s likely coming soon.

Another good reason is if the video can answer questions about the show, as the E! show did for Howard Stern.

On the other hand, audio companies are going to throw a lot of money at video, based on the notion that it’s what they “should” do because:

  • It’s the latest trend. Being late on this trend is different from missing the Internet or Podcasting. Industries already revolve around video; television and film come to mind.
  • Podcast listeners like it (by a slight plurality).

Before turning on webcams, see what viewers will see. The studios at many stations I’ve worked at were better not seen. Considerations include; the set, lighting, wardrobe, visuals, and a plan.

Too many video streams of studios feature the fire extinguisher prominently in the shot or the air personalities milling about during terminally long breaks.

Before going live, watch the video with no audio. Is it interesting? Compelling? Does the video draw you in, or is it dull?

With program directors now spread so thin handling multiple stations, a dedicated person to oversee streaming should be a requirement for stations streaming shows.

Other considerations:

  • How could this help us, and how could it hurt us?
  • How does the video enhance the show?
  • Will personalities do their radio show or perform for the cameras?
  • What production values are you able to add to the video?
  • What happens during those seven- eight-minute breaks if it’s a live radio show (vs. a podcast)? What will people streaming video see and hear? Does everybody on the show get along?

Do you have revenue attached? What do you expect will happen to the ratings?

WFAN earned significant revenue for two. Therefore, the company wasn’t concerned when the ratings took a hit for the first one and were surprised when they helped the second one. They didn’t see any impact on ratings or revenue the third time.

After all the budget cuts and workforce reductions over the past decade-plus, before audio companies invest in video, shouldn’t we get: people, marketing, promotion, or research monies back first?

Most of us decided to get into radio (or podcasting) instead of television or film. There’s a reason they said, “video killed the radio star.”

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BNM Writers

Streaming Platforms Cannot Be Forgotten By News/Talk Program Directors

BNM’s Pete Mundo writes that if you’re a News/Talk program director, you run two radio stations and what comes through the streaming platforms.

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If you’re a News/Talk program director, you run two radio stations. Didn’t you know that? Oh. Well, you do. 

I’m not just referring to our over-the-air broadcast but also what comes through our streaming platforms. Alexa, Google Home, apps, computers, etc., are all streaming platforms of our radio stations, which for most of us, are airing different commercial inventory than what is coming through the radio.

I understand none of us are unnecessarily looking to add to our plate, but our streaming platforms are the way we are getting more people to use our product. So neglecting, or forgetting about it, is a bad business decision, especially in the talk space. 

Across all clusters, talk radio is far more likely to have high streaming use when it comes to total listening hours. Listeners are more loyal to our personalities and often can’t get the AM dial in their office buildings during the day, or even if they can, they don’t want to hear our voices through static, so they pull up the stream. 

It’s never been easier to listen to talk radio stations, thanks to our station apps and websites (although welcoming some sites to the 21st century would be a good idea). So, given the challenges many of us face on the AM band, why not push our audience to the stream and make sure the stream sounds just as good as the over-the-air product?

The tricky part in putting together a quality stream sound is trying to balance what ads are programmatic, which ones are sold locally, where is the unfilled inventory and what is filling that gap?

And unlike your over-the-air product, where you can go into a studio, see what’s coming up, and move inventory around, that technology is not available in most cases. So yes, it’s a guessing game.

But as the talk climate continues to change, the best thing we can do to build our brand and trust with the next generation of talk radio listeners is to find them and engage them where they are, which may not always be next to a physical radio. That will be on a stream. How do I know that? Because if they have a smartphone, they have (access to) the stream.

Of course, the over-the-air product remains the massive revenue generator for our stations, as in most cases, the streaming revenue is not close to comparable. But then, if we look years down the road, that will likely start to change. 

To what degree? That’s unknown. But double-digit growth on an annual basis should not be out of the question when it comes to stream listening. It should be a very achievable goal, especially in our format. So our listeners who are P1’s, love the station and want to consume as much of the content as they can, can be on the AirPods in the gym, desk at work, or in their home office and listen to our radio stations. 

Heck, with Alexa and Google Home, they don’t even have to turn a dial! They just speak. So if they’re there, let’s keep them there.

There are simply too many media options today to lose our listeners due to sloppy streaming quality that makes us sound like a college radio station. Instead, listeners, who find us there should be rewarded with a listening experience that is just as high-quality as what they would get on the AM or FM band.

And if we play our cards right, it will be better, serving the industry incredibly well through a new generation of listeners.

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