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The Programmer’s Summit, HRTS Luncheon Recap

The Programmer's Summit 2014 stage shot

On February 6, 2014 a packed house gathered inside the Beverly Hilton for the kickoff event of the Spring 2014 Newsmaker Luncheon series, The Programmer’s Summit.

It’s an oft-repeated truth that the television business is in the midst of rapid and accelerating change, where both opportunities and dangers abound. As Charles Darwin said, it is not the strongest of the species that survive but rather those most responsive to change. Viewing models, viewing metrics and views on pilot season were all part of a lively discussion on the nature and the impact of change.

Helping to navigate our way forward are four guides representing a cross-section of our industry:
Ted Sarandos — Chief Content Officer, Netflix; Jennifer Salke — President, NBC Entertainment; David Nevins — President of Entertainment, Showtime Networks; and Jeff Wachtel — President & Chief Content Officer, NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment.

Cynthia Littleton moderating The Programmer's Summit

Cynthia Littleton

Moderating this panel of industry heavyweights was Variety’s Cynthia Littleton, who began by asking “is there such a thing as too much original content out there?” Nevins said that “there definitely comes a point where people get tired of the same thing but there’s always a desire for the next new thing”. Salke agreed, saying “we’re all out there competing against each other and it’s survival of the fittest but we are all in this to find a great show, and to find a great show there’s gonna be clunkers and mistakes along the way”. Wachtel noted that there are currently over 125 scripted shows on cable and so “breaking through the clutter has never been harder and I think it’s affecting the way people put stuff into the market right now”. Sarandos suggested that more competition and more content are good things, since “the more we’re all at it, the more we raise the bar for one another, so there’s less room for mediocrity and that’s a good thing”.

Ted Sarandos on the panel at The Programmer's Summit

Ted Sarandos

Insofar as viewing models are concerned, Littleton asked Sarandos about the hit-driven nature of programming and the binge-driven nature of consumption, and he replied “what these guys do that I don’t have to do, that my team doesn’t have to do, is program a schedule and I think that’s incredibly demanding and really difficult”. In terms of content, “what we’re looking for are proportional hits” since “we can support a show at a much lower level of viewership than any other network”. Salke drew a huge laugh when she quipped “that sounds really fun”, going on to add that “this all raises the bar for what those hits can be on network”. Wachtel said that “we need to deliver stuff when people want it” and Nevins agreed, noting that “we have binging, we always have. The concept of binging began with on-demand, which was pioneered by the premium services fifteen years ago”.

David Nevins on the panel at The Programmer's Summit

David Nevins

The mention of the B-word caused Sarandos to relate how “when it first came out, there was such a negative connotation to the word ‘binging’, and we tried to take it out of stories about Netflix” but despite the negative connotations “it’s undeniable that we tapped into something that human beings like to do”. Hearing Sarandos’ defense of binging, Wachtel drew a knowing laugh when he quipped “as long as they’re not purging after”. And as for the question of ‘to wait or not to wait’, Nevins pointed out that there are 365 days in a year and so “it seems like a lot of bullshit to me, because at the end of the day you've still got to wait” for the next season to be released, since “you binge all day and then you've still got to wait a year anyway. Some artist still has to sit there with a chisel and chisel it”. After setting the ball, Nevins spiked it by adding that “I believe in the tantric form of television, which is slow and steady and consistent, you want social media to get going, you want people to be talking about it and you don’t want to give them too much too soon”.

Numbers. Metrics. Ratings. Major-league baseball has nothing on the television industry when it comes to a love of the digits. Littleton noted that “it feels like this is a year where the metrics of evaluating television are so different than they were even a couple of years ago”, going on to ask how these changes are impacting the business. Nevins admitted that “I love numbers, I find it totally fascinating”, adding that “you can feel the world changing, advertisers are starting to look at things differently”.

Jennifer Salke on the panel at The Programmer's Summit

Jennifer Salke

Salke agreed that the metrics are changing, that the overnight numbers “are less and less relevant, and we look to the C3 numbers and we look at the 7-day and we hope that that measurement continues to be more relevant to advertisers”. Wachtel offered the view from 40,000 feet by saying “it’s an ecosystem question right now with our advertisers, it’s not like fewer people are watching, it’s that people are watching in ways that are harder to count and harder to get paid on”. Sarandos noted that the root issue is that “it’s a technology catch-up problem, the viewership has changed, the patterns have changed but what hasn’t changed is the ability to have dynamic ad insertion and make those ads relevant at the time they’re being watched”. Asked the familiar question of whether or not Netflix should report viewership numbers, Sarandos said “we don’t plan on releasing ratings since it's irrelevant to us, we don’t sell advertising, we don’t negotiate carriage fees, there’s no reason for us to give a specific number of how shows are performing”.

Referencing FOX chief Kevin Reilly’s initiative to change the business, Littleton said “I want to talk about how shows come to be, because there’s been a lot of talk about pilot season” and how it isn’t working. As a fellow broadcast chief, Salke acknowledged that “pilot season makes no sense and is crazy but you are sort of restrained by upfronts and a little bit of a structure there, and when pitches are coming in. We’re constantly evolving, trying to figure out how to do things more year-round and in a more sensible way”. On the premium cable side, when it comes to development Nevins said that “I made the decision to be very targeted: I’m not so easy to sell to but once you get a sale at Showtime, we’re developing to put it on the air and if we make a pilot it’s probably going to go on the air”. Not a particular fan of the traditional model, Sarandos noted that “it’s possible that the failure rate would be even worse without pilots, but that’s hard to imagine”. As for his more hands-off approach to creative development, Sarandos added that “for the most part, we’re betting on the storyteller and the story, and when we do that I don’t want to make half a bet, I don’t want to make a partial bet, we’re all in”. As compared to broadcast, Wachtel noted that “in many ways, basic cable defined its development and production seasons in opposition to pilot season. We don’t have as much money in basic cable, they’re tighter budgets and so we needed to figure out a flexible system”.

Jeff Wachtel on the panel at The Programmer's Summit

Jeff Wachtel

Given all of the changes that are occurring, what is the role of the creative executive in today’s business? Wachtel said “as a lifetime creative executive, I think that there can be something positive that we bring to the mix” and you must acknowledge that “the most important thing is finding an original voice, finding someone who’s got something to say in a wonderful and unique way”. Salke agreed, adding that “the most important thing you can do is guide somebody who has something special and sometimes that entails a little more shaping, a little more active guiding and sometimes it doesn’t”. Given the increasing number of buyers all competing for the same talent, Sarandos noted that “it’s important to create an environment in which the storytellers want to work with you, want to hear from you, want to hear what you have to say and they’re not immediately dismissive since you have created a culture that they want to work in since they know that everyone is working in the best interests of their vision”. And despite all of the numbers, all of the changes, Nevins closed by saying it still comes down to a gut check: “it’s weirdly instinctive, I find myself gravitating to this and getting a little bored by this, I gravitate to some part of a script or a character or a story, and it’s a lot about the person behind that. The great pleasure of my professional life is to work on a really intimate, close, sustained basis with some of the best storytellers, filmmakers and actors in the world and that’s why I do what I do”.

 

Photos by Chyna Photography

 

HRTS and JHRTS members can watch the video of this luncheon in addition to the large archive of past HRTS Newsmaker Luncheons. Log in here with your HRTS username and password.


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