Brave New World – Digital/New Media luncheon recap
From Philo T. Farnsworth’s invention of television in 1927 through Bob Hope’s first KTLA broadcast in 1947 through the finale of M*A*S*H in 1983 through the dominance of event programming in 2013, television has continued to evolve and with the digital revolution in full swing, it’s fair to wonder about the next evolution, about how television will continue to change going forward.
On December 18th, 2012, a group of industry leaders gathered together at the Beverly Hilton Hotel for the HRTS Digital/New Media luncheon. Exploring the big questions were Allen DeBevoise, Chairman, CEO and Co-Founder, Machinima, Inc; Scott Koondel, SVP, Corporate Licensing and Distribution, CBS Corporation, and President of Distribution, CBS Television Distribution; Ross Levinsohn, Former CEO, Yahoo!; Brian Robbins, Founder & President, Varsity Pictures, and Founder & CEO, AwesomenessTV; Vivi Zigler, President, Shine 360° and Digital Shine America. Serving as moderator for this panel of heavy-hitters was Michael Kassan, Chairman & CEO, MediaLink.
Kassan opened by noting that “as with any evolution, new opportunities are emerging but it’s not about digital or traditional, it’s about how to use the different tools effectively to capture mindshare”.
Kassan then asked Zigler “what would you say characterizes the modern video consumer?” and she replied that audience fragmentation is a continuing concern since “they’re watching anything they want to on any platform they want to”. On the plus side, modern consumers “are brave, they’ll try new devices and new platforms, I don’t think they’re fearful at all”. Above all, content must be readily available since the modern audience “has a high expectation of immediacy, they are an impatient audience”.
With so many things changing at once, the amount of risk is only increasing and so Kassan asked DeBevoise “how do you decide where to make the bets?” DeBevoise said that “one of the fundamental things that’s different about online video versus television is the definition of good, the definition of a programming model”, since the two most popular categories of videos on YouTube are music videos and gaming videos, represented by Vevo and Machinima, respectively. DeBevoise pointed out that “these categories are deadly on linear television”, which is why MTV stopped showing music videos and G4 transitioned away from games. The lesson learned is that “micro-segments are very valuable, since you have huge engagement” and so “you can build really vibrant audiences around areas you’d never even think about in traditional linear”.
Before taking the reins at Yahoo!, Levinsohn worked in traditional media and so Kassan asked “did you make the same decisions in the digital environment that you made in TV?” Levinsohn said that he approached things from a fresh perspective, that “I thought we had to create something distinctive, there had to be a voice at Yahoo! and we didn’t have unlimited capital”. This being the case, “you pick your bets, you pick spots, you pick talent, you pick an idea”. Levinsohn added that one particular type of content that seems to work both on- and offline is “appointment programming, and that’s why sports rights are so valuable today”.
Noting Robbins’ background as an actor, producer and director, Kassan asked “how do you approach it from a creative standpoint, and how do you measure it?” Robbins said that “we’re going after a very specific demographic of teens and tweens and they have no attention spans, whether we like it or not, they have very short attention spans” and so “we have to hook them early and we have to get them out early”. Robbins cautioned however that even with short-form content “it has to have a beginning, middle and end”. As for measuring success, “it’s hard to say right now” since “there’s a long way to go for the advertisers to come and make it successful”.
Koondel being the representative of traditional media, Kassan asked about definitions of success in broadcast versus online and he replied “it’s a different world, it’s a matter of scale, we’re somewhat in different businesses” since “content is part of our family, it’s what we do, and technology is our friend”. Koondel added that “we use these platforms to drive viewers, to drive eyeballs, and the important thing is getting paid”.
Are traditional media companies going to experiment more with new technologies and new programming models?
Zigler said that they will be forced to do so, they will do it of necessity even if the path forward is unclear. She added that “there are two camps in the New Hollywood”, one being the creatives and the other the technologists, and “they don’t speak the same language, they might as well be from different planets”. The good news is that “there’s this emerging culture in the middle, one that’s really developing the art of translation and trying to bring them to bear in the middle, to develop the best of both sides”.
Koondel agreed, noting that CBS is experimenting with UNDER THE DOME, a summer series based on a Stephen King novel. He said that “it’s going to be a multiplatform experience for the viewer”, one that will allow “the programmers to stack and the viewers to binge”. Although audience fragmentation is certainly a concern, Koondel sees multiple platforms as a tremendous positive since they “create more opportunities to get content out there and keep people working”.
DeBevoise said that the broadcast networks’ continuing efforts to be all things to all people may be problematic since “when you try to be broad in this world it’s going to be challenging since the Machinimas are going to take away your young males, and Awesomeness is going to be really good at tweens” and so audience fragmentation will continue.
Levinsohn went even further, generating some controversy by saying that experimentation notwithstanding, “network ratings will be absolutely shredded within five years”, since “the fragmentation of the audience that is occurring right now, even in the last six months, has been dramatic”. Kassan played devil’s advocate, saying “the challenge is that marketers don’t yet accept the numbers that are being delivered” by online companies, leading Levinsohn to retort “that is just horseshit” since “the analytics that exist on digital companies are real, this isn’t a sample of five thousand television households”. Levinsohn added that the good news for traditional companies is
that “they are still making premium content” and audiences want it. Koondel agreed on the creative side, noting that “the content has got to be good or they’ll reject it on all of these platforms”.
We often say that we want to attract eyeballs but really it’s about minds. The images pass through the eyes but we are trying to entertain and inform minds. Will someone connect with a character or a program on an emotional level? Will they then make recommendations to their friends on Twitter or Facebook? Will they so fall in love that they’ll view an entire season on Netflix?
As Kassan noted in his opening remarks, it is all about mindshare but does that mean quantity or quality? The traditional approach is to pull in as many people as possible, as many minds as possible, whereas the newer approach is to generate as much mental engagement as possible. So which is better, should traditional networks and new media companies go for a greater quantity of minds or for a deeper engagement with minds? The answer of course is both. It is a sliding scale and the balance will shift depending on the type of content, such as a niche program versus a live sporting event, and so the either/or dynamic of traditional media versus new media may in fact be a false choice.
At the end of the day, whether through broadcast, cable, online, mobile, or technologies yet to be invented, programming will continue to evolve and will always exist in one form or another. There will always be people who want to connect to good stories well told and there will always be people to tell them and so the future looks bright.
Photos by Chyna Photography
HRTS and JHRTS members - view the video of this luncheon, along with many others in our video archives.