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Brand New – The Cable Chiefs 2013, luncheon recap

Cable Chiefs 2013 panel

In an era of transformation, how do you change with the times, how do you stay ahead of the curve? In an era of transformation, how do you offer consistency, how do you fulfill brand expectations? How do you balance an embrace of the future with respect for the past and growth in the present?

On February 27th 2013, a packed house gathered inside the Beverly Hilton for the annual Cable Chiefs luncheon. Emmy-winning producer Ben Silverman explored the issues with panelists Nancy Dubuc - President, Entertainment and Media, A+E Networks; Michael Lombardo - President, HBO Programming; and Steve Koonin - President, Turner Entertainment Networks.

Ben Silverman moderates the 2013 HRTS Cable Chiefs luncheon

Ben Silverman

Silverman opened by saying “we’re living through an era of transformation”, going on to paraphrase Netflix head Reed Hastings in saying that “Netflix has to become HBO before HBO becomes Netflix”.

Given the increasing diversity in the marketplace, Silverman pointed out that the panelists “are not just single channel heads, you are all multichannel heads”, asking how brand impacts their jobs.

Dubuc said that “if you have a powerful brand and the content that brand brings to an audience, it’s going to translate wherever the technology and the distribution models take you”, adding that “it’s our job to evolve these brands while staying true to what they stand for”. Koonin drew a big laugh when he said “brands are the temple we worship at in Beth Israel”, going on to point out that the brand of networks like History, Comedy Central or Food Network are right in their names whereas TBS and TNT “are alphabet soup, named for their creator”. As for executives, Koonin said that “when you manage a brand you have to define who you are and consistently deliver against that”. Lombardo said that HBO has a well-established brand, that “what I mean by brand is an emotional connection with the consumer, a consumer will come to our network to check out a show if we’re holding it out”, adding that “the challenge with HBO is to make sure that brand is never static, while at the same time respecting what it is”.

Steve Koonin at the 2013 HRTS Cable Chiefs luncheon

Steve Koonin

Silverman noted the ratings successes of shows like THE WALKING DEAD and HATFIELDS & MCCOYS, asking the panelists about broadcast versus cable. Koonin said that as to competing with broadcast, “at the end of the day we deliver big reach and that’s what advertisers pay for, big reach”. HBO being premium cable, Lombardo addressed his ad-supported colleagues by saying that “one of the things that’s challenging for us is that we can’t monetize shows the way you can”. For Lombardo, the plus side of not being beholden to advertisers is that in some ways they have more creative freedoms, more ability to take risks and so “it allows us to focus on delivering great content and not as much about watching the ratings”. Dubuc added that “there’s been a total transition in the marketplace” and “you’re seeing it with the decline of ratings in the broadcast environment, the math just isn’t working”.

What about acquired content versus original programming? Dubuc said that “Lifetime has a lot of inherited, off-network programming” and “one of the phrases that we use internally is that we’re not in the business of rented programming, we’re in the business of original programming”. Koonin noted that “our evolution is a little bit different, we’ve used acquired because we have to fill 168 hours in a week and it goes back to consistency”.

Silverman next asked about Netflix, their investment in HOUSE OF CARDS and their offering it on an all-at-once basis, thus empowering binge viewing. Lombardo said “if you want a show that hits the zeitgeist, there is a shared experience on a Monday morning or Wednesday morning in talking, having the same conversation about the same show. You don’t get that when it’s binge viewing”. From a business standpoint, “I appreciate that Netflix did it and it was a showy thing to do but I’m not sure it’s the best way to keep a viewer engaged emotionally”. Lombardo talked up the benefits of appointment viewing, saying that “our hope is that GAME OF THRONES becomes a Sunday night experience where people want to share it at the same time in the same space with other people and talk about it the next day”.

Nancy Dubuc at the 2013 HRTS Cable Chiefs luncheon

Nancy Dubuc

Silverman asked Dubuc about her decision to show all of HATFIELDS & MCCOYS over one weekend versus spreading it out into a once-a-week format. Dubuc replied that “our theory was that if we had viewers on Night One then we’d have them on Night Three and we had a better shot at getting back to event TV”, adding that “advertisers would have preferred that we spread it out but we took a calculated risk and the stars aligned on it, it was a really special project”.

Koonin having a marketing background, Silverman asked him about his strategies and tactics. Koonin replied that “we’ve changed our philosophy on marketing, we start now at the green light. The day we announce it there will be a robust website, there will be spots and we’re going to market from green light to finale”, since “you have to give people reason after reason after reason” to watch your show.

Michael Lombardo at the 2013 HRTS Cable Chiefs luncheon

Michael Lombardo

Silverman pointed out that cable now routinely gets A-list talent that just a few years ago would have gone to broadcast, asking how and why that has occurred. Dubuc said that “you create a relationship of trust with the producers and the writers and directors” and “you have to keep the lines of communication open”.  Koonin said that “you can work with broadcast and you can make a lot of money or you can work with cable and you can make your vision”, since “to the right is a pot of syndication gold, to the left is creative fulfillment”. Lombardo said that “our brand is to have distinctive, fresh, original voices on the air. That’s not going to happen if I’m editing the show and so it’s just a different conversation with the creator”, since “you don’t hire a David Benioff to mute his voice”.

Consumers, creatives and executives all live, work and play in an increasingly fractured landscape.
In an increasingly uncertain world, cable brands provide consistency, a familiarity that viewers crave, while also growing with them, partnering with them on the introduction of new content. In an increasingly pre-sold world, cable networks provide creatives with opportunities to be found nowhere else and so it seems likely if not inevitable that cable will continue to do well at the Emmys and Golden Globes, as ratings continue to climb. We all know that content is king and if cable is increasingly attractive to consumers and to creatives well then that is the place to be. It’s good to be the king.

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