This story begins in New Orleans, LA, the last week of January 2020 at an annual cable television market known as Realscreen Summit. I’m in my hotel room, the stopwatch app open on the nightstand in front of me as I prepare to rehearse a pitch. Two minutes flat. I have two minutes flat.
Next to my phone sits ... a beignet. Beignets do not fall within my New Year’s resolution. But note that I said it’s the end of January 2020.
If you’re anything like me, the end of January rather predictably involves re-working my initial New Year’s resolutions into slightly more realistic goals. After all, resolutions are – at their core – tactics. If our ideas aren’t aligned with the reality of our needs and daily demands, they will ultimately fail ... regardless of how appealing they may have originally seemed. Simply put, a resolution’s fate relies far more on “viability” than vision, ambition or dedication.
Developing an ability to sniff out, steward and sustain “viability” has always been critical to the role of Executive Producer or Showrunner. But, in recent years, as the content landscape has morphed in response to the implications of an evolving digital marketplace, this skill has become absolutely vital.
To better understand the increasing importance of viability, it helps to first understand the challenges being addressed within the broadcast world. I’m guessing the term “cord-cutting” comes to mind for many of you, but, as popularized as the term is, it’s misleading. Sure, significant proportions of viewers are choosing to access content through a different means than the ubiquitous cable outlets we once held so dear … but the majority of those audiences are still loyal to their favorite channels and/or they’re utilizing OTT (Over The Top) services, which still deliver linear broadcast programming through alternative technology.
In other words, networks aren’t really losing viewers or the licensing premiums associated with those viewers; instead, it’s the network’s relationship to broadcast advertisers that are imperiled.
This is where the true value proposition of digital comes into the conversation — data. You see, broadcast insights are fairly limited, especially when it comes to advertising. For example, advertisers have few triggers to determine whether a viewer is paying attention during a broadcast commercial break, whereas digital placements within an AVOD (Advertising-based Video On Demand) platform – e.g. YouTube – allow advertisers to track how long you watched a piece of content, if you clicked through, where you clicked and if you returned (not to mention paving the way for re-targeting or reselling the information to related industries and brands). By comparison, broadcast advertising is significantly more expensive, more difficult to evaluate return and less targeted.
This evolving competition impacts content creators in three primary ways: the need to brand, to co-produce and to generate a broadcast-to-digital circuit.
In lieu of the granular analytics digital media can provide, successful broadcast channels aim to pitch advertisers against the backdrop of a distilled, pre-qualified audience. These audience profiles are cultivated through focused programming slates and produced within certain parameters, along with the network being mindful about incorporating intuitive brand partnerships when possible. For content creators, it means crafting pitches that are customized to the tastes, partnerships and formats that are succeeding on each network.
Speaking of partnerships, intuitively attaching brands to projects – even identifying means of integrating extended experiences like e-commerce — is an emerging trend that further offsets risk for the network partner. This is especially true if the brand can bring some level of financing to the negotiation as well. Overall, networks have smaller budgets for licensing or commissioning conversations than they have in the past. As broadcast ad revenue has decreased and the scope of distribution options that a network is responsible for has increased, the viewer’s appetite for originality has increased as well-meaning networks have more content to develop and less budget to develop it with. Branded content allows both the network and the brand to harness the momentum and reach of the other while engineering a more dynamic business relationship than was possible within traditional advertising models.
As I mentioned earlier, networks haven’t really lost viewers as much as they’ve started engaging with those viewers through more platforms, such as the large number of direct-to-consumer services that went live in the latter half of 2019. In an ideal scenario, networks simply increase engagement with a viewer across multiple screens, rather than cannibalizing one platform for another. For example, Food Network Kitchen allows viewers to extend the channel experience into both their meal preparation and grocery shopping, all while burnishing the viewer’s affinity for network content on both broadcast and social media in the process. For content creators, taking a bit of time to sketch out opportunities for extending your IP across multiple platforms creates more opportunities for your content to gain a following while building a stronger business case for your series and minimizing network risk.
What all of this boils down to is that networks have always expected Executive Producers and production companies to entertain—that much is a given. But, increasingly, the expectation is to collaborate with partners both upstream and downstream from production on how that content will also prove viable within the evolving network business model.
Which brings us back to me rehearsing pitches the night before the Summit, after which I promptly ate that beignet. Because even though beignets weren’t originally in my New Year’s resolution, it sure did sweeten the deal of working late into the night.