We already know the future: Content is king. Consumers will have more choice. Digital rules. The old order is collapsing. Yada yada yada…
One issue, however, stands out and we still don’t know how to deal with it: The sheer volume of options. There’s a staggering amount of “programming” — in quotes because it includes everything — to contend with, from YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, movies, cable, broadcast and all sorts of video streamers. With literally millions of choices, how do I know what to watch? As a producer, how will I know what to create?
For starters, consider the Ten Percent Solution. I heard it from a brilliant business exec, Mellody Hobson, who is president of Ariel Investments and sits on the boards of Starbucks and JP Morgan Chase. In an interview with Jason Hirschhorn of MediaREDEF, Hobson noted that she and her husband, director George Lucas, share the view that the percentage of high-quality entertainment in the future will be the same as it is now — 10 percent will be good, and 90 percent will mostly be bad.
It’s a sobering theory. But the more pressing question is: Who will sift through it all to help us find that 10 percent? Hobson predicts that “the business of curating” will be the next phase of the industry — that is, people tasked with helping us navigate the increasing avalanche of programming. Let’s hope so.
It’s already too difficult. I spend a ridiculous amount of time scrolling through my options on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and VOD. Sometimes the algorithms work, sometimes they don’t. Yes, I like historical documentaries, but not all of them. And just because my daughter watches Grey’s Anatomy on my Hulu account doesn’t mean we want to see every medical show ever made. If you want to make your head really spin, take a look at Pluto TV online — more than a hundred channels of free TV, from an entire channel devoted to Cold Case Files (a show I helped create 20 years ago) to Anime All-Day, the Surf Channel and familiar brands like MTV and Nerdist.
Sorting out quality from junk is a full-time job. And right now, there’s a vacuum. We’re leaving it all up to the customers and their distributors. Producers, especially in the factual arena, have every reason to be confused: Do the networks and streamers want high-quality programming that fits a particular brand? Or do they want lowest-common-denominator shows to widen their appeal? Is factual accuracy a requirement, or are we OK with soft-scripted and manipulated reality?
It’s hard to tell. Netflix is a trusted source of programming for many, and some networks have a fairly defined aura around their offerings. But there are still seemingly a dozen networks running Law and Order and near-nightly marathons of The Big Bang Theory. In many cases, ratings seem to be the sole determining factor, and they’ll just keep on running something as long as subscribers and advertisers make it worthwhile.
For both viewers and suppliers, it’s a race to the middle. That’s the system we have now: the audience volume business, delivering as many viewers or subscribers as possible via an increasing range of choices, competing with everyone else trying to do the same to increase revenue. This is especially true for ad-supported networks, which rely mostly on viewer ratings. As Hobson notes enigmatically, “People are not going to want to waste their time watching garbage, unless garbage becomes popular.”
We shouldn’t complain. After all, Peak TV has brought us a wonderful variety of shows appealing to almost every niche imaginable. In the documentary world, John Hendricks, founder of Discovery, has committed his considerable vision and financial weight to the admirable CuriosityStream. It is a blessing to have so much differentiated content in our current cornucopia of choices. But the system generates as much FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) as enjoyment, because of the lack of curation.
With such a plethora, each network or service is trying to make sense of what works for their audience. As a result, the programmers try to create formulas, not necessarily based on creativity, but generalities: Stranger Things succeeded, so let’s do more comedies set in the 1980s. Making a Murderer is a hit, so let’s have more multi-part crime docs. As the volume increases, the quality may not. And we won’t know until we see it.
There used to be a check and balance with fewer networks and a TV critic in every city’s newspaper. Now there is Facebook, Twitter, and a hundred online sites and blogs aplenty. While networks and streaming services spend millions on marketing, is there any place to get a nuanced view of suitable programs that I will like?
The New York Times has a nifty feature, Watching, in a breezy style that tries to take the stress out of the selection process. Several websites are competing for similar roles, like David Bianculli’s TV Worth Watching and Documentary Addict. But it’s a free-for-all, and there’s a secondary problem: Who’s curating the curators? And who has an agenda?
The truth is, no one knows how this system is going to sort itself out — at least not yet. In the meantime, my head is spinning as I scroll through the options on my Netflix queue. Have you seen anything good lately?
Michael Cascio is president and CEO of M&C Media LLC, where he advises selected media and production partners, and produces documentaries. He is also a guest speaker and writer, whose recent article for the Sunday New York Times revealed how his experience as a backstage janitor prepared him for a career in television. At National Geographic, A&E, Animal Planet, and MSNBC, Cascio has won four Emmys, two Oscar nominations and a “Producer of the Year” award.