Connections. The Cable Programming Summit – Luncheon Recap
In an always-on world how do networks keep themselves connected to their viewers? How do they develop a brand that consumers will want to connect to, a loyalty that will last? How does the multiplicity of the multiplatforms change the ways in which we connect to and with each other? If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there and so on March 7th, five of the brightest minds in the business came together at the Beverly Hilton to discuss these issues and more, to figure out where we’re all going and how we’re going to get there.
Billy Bush, anchor of Access Hollywood and all-around amazing golfer, moderated the annual Cable Programming Summit luncheon with panelists Michael Wright, EVP and Head of Programming for TNT, TBS and TCM; Joel Stillerman, EVP of Original Programming, Production and Digital Content, AMC; David Janollari, Head of Programming, MTV; Kate Juergens, EVP, Programming & Development, ABC Family; and Carmi Zlotnik, Managing Director, STARZ.
Bush started by wondering in what ways the panelists might be connected to each other, asking “is there one challenge that faces each of you the same?” Janollari said that “we’re all competing for a finite set of eyeballs”, going on to point out how many different channels and platforms now exist and how “we’re competing against all of those factors at the same time”. Juergens agreed and noted a positive result from the increased competition, saying that “all of us are doing scripted right now in cable, 10 years ago that wouldn’t have been the case”, and as such this provides amazing opportunities for actors, writers and directors. Zlotnik said that in a hypercompetitive environment “a common theme is that we’re trying to do more for less”.
Surveying the hundreds of executives assembled in the room, Bush asked the panel if things are looking good for the sellers and the negotiators or if, for the panelists as the buyers, they are looking to do more things themselves. Wright said that “it’s a great time if you’re a seller at Turner”. This is true in part because the old model consisted of off-network syndication and reruns whereas now “the cable business is radically changing and the networks that are heavily invested in their own programming are succeeding”. He added that in general it is a great time to be a seller since for all of the networks, “to stay competitive you have got to make more”. Janollari concurred, saying that “it’s a great time to be a content provider since there are so many more platforms out there on which you can display your product”. As much as things change, some stay the same, Janollari going on to note that as always, “it’s all about content, no matter where it comes from”. Stillerman agreed that “there is more opportunity for sellers”, but “one of the challenges is that you have these channels now that are really looking for very distinct things” and so “gone are the days where you can come up with an idea and really have a very long list of places to sell to, you really have to know what the person you’re pitching to wants then tailor it to that channel”.
In the making of a network executive, Bush wondered about the delicate balance between creativity and commerce, asking “for your job do you have to be a creative person, do you have to be able to develop and know character or can you just be a great executive and manage the hell out of some budgets?” Janollari said that you must have creative instinct, you must be able to understand character, be able to work with story. Juergens concurred, adding “and to be honest, it’s the fun part of the job. So much of your day is about money but the fun part is talking to writers and talking to directors”. The talent is the thing, Wright pointing out that for any creative executive “your success is going to largely depend on the level of talent you are able to recruit to the network”.
In terms of original programming, Bush noted that much recent success has come from the scripted arena and so he asked “is everybody looking for nonscripted too?” Wright said that they are indeed looking, that “the next 18 months are going to be a lot about that for us”. As with scripted, they’re looking for shows that fit the TNT brand, with the door always open to “bring us that thing that we don’t know we want, as long as you can explain to me why it works for this audience”. Zlotnik concurred, adding “you want to make sure that you don’t put on your blinders, and somehow a great idea eludes you as a result”. Of cable channels’ focus in both the scripted and unscripted realms, Stillerman said that they occasionally focus a bit too much on brand, not realizing that perhaps “people are more forgiving and flexible about how they consume content, they just want it to be good”.
Following up on the idea of branding and brand loyalty, Bush asked “do people have show loyalty or is there a lot of network loyalty?” Zlotnik said that “I’d like to think that if it’s done right, people do accrue network loyalty”. Stillerman pointed out that “on the viewer side, people have what’s called their ‘consideration set’, and you want to be in that set. People form habits and they’re hard to break so if you’re in those first three or four channels that they go to, that’s an incredibly valuable commodity”. Wright agreed, saying “I think they have sampling loyalty. If you’ve built up a level of trust with the viewer then they’re likely to sample you if you put something out”. As for the long-term value of a brand, Juergens said that it “starts to do a lot of the heavy lifting and then you have to constantly surprise people, you want to give them something that satisfies them and then pushes the boundaries a little bit”. Juergens added that stretching the envelope is both healthy and necessary, since in cable “you have to be loud to get attention and to be loud you have to be a bit edgy”.
Looking toward the horizon, Bush asked “how much are you interested in acquisitions versus original programming?” Wright said “that’s the part of the model that’s changing for us, we’re always going to go out and try to acquire the big show”, adding that THE BIG BANG THEORY has generated huge ratings for them, providing a great lead-in for their original content. Zlotnik said that while licensed programming is a big part of what they do, “it’s really the originals’ purpose to differentiate the network and give us something that’s unique and that we can brand and create an identity around”. As to acquired content, Stillerman said that “I think it’s always going to be part of the business but you have to constantly evolve and react to these new platforms that are opening up”. For a youth-centric network such as MTV, originality and innovation are key, Janollari noting that “our audience demands us to continually reinvent and refresh our original programming, we have very few acquisitions at all, partly because there aren’t that many acquisitions out there that are really dead on-brand for us”.
Given the undeniable and increasing power of social media, Bush asked about putting out teasers and interactive elements. Stillerman said that it is critical to do so, since “you watch this social media monster suck all the energy from your show into platforms that you aren't monetizing and you have to respond to that”. Janollari said that whereas a few years ago, transmedia extensions were considered to be added bonuses, today “they’re the industry norm, you have to go out there and put more of your content on all of these different platforms in advance of launching your show as well as while you’re sustaining the run of your series”. Zlotnik noted that rapid technological innovation has made the industry a truly Darwinian proposition, that “we all need to evolve or die”.
In closing, Bush pondered the view from 40,000 feet, asking the panel “how do you feel about cable TV?” Juergens said that "it's such an exciting place to be, it has so much opportunity and potential". Wright said that he loves the opportunities, the potential, and thus "I think I have the coolest job in the world". Stillerman concurred with the group sentiment, adding that "we’re all in a pretty remarkable place” since “cable seems to be the home to some pretty amazing stuff”. Whereas any business sector is inherently competitive, Stillerman noted how everyone is connected, how “there seems to be this kind of energy throughout the entire industry to figure out how to build models that work to keep the best stuff out there. It doesn’t feel like it’s feudal, it feels really optimistic”.
Photos by Chyna Photography
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