Summit ’20: Examining today’s linear TV landscape

NEW ORLEANS – To date there are more than 300 over-the-top services fighting for viewership, with much-hyped offerings from HBO Max and BBC-Discovery still to launch. Suffice it to say ...
January 30, 2020

NEW ORLEANS – To date there are more than 300 over-the-top services fighting for viewership, with much-hyped offerings from HBO Max and BBC-Discovery still to launch. Suffice it to say that the American streaming marketplace is becoming crowded.

Perhaps taken for granted in this maelstrom of industry activity is linear cable television, where pay-TV providers in the U.S. still account for 84.8 million subscribers, as of December 2019. So how is cable keeping its edge and fighting back to ensure its content is as compelling as anything on Amazon or Netflix?

Those were the questions that a group of top-level industry executives were looking to answer during a Wednesday (Jan. 29) panel discussion, titled “Linear: Alive and Well” and moderated by Bruce David Klein, president and executive producer at Atlas Media Corp, at the 2020 Realscreen Summit in New Orleans.

According to Howard Swartz, SVP of production and development at Discovery Channel, the cable net is contending with the influx of competition by returning to core brand values, whether through programming about natural history, expeditions, or other curiosity-stoking content.

“Ultimately it’s all about having the courage of your convictions to be true to your brand, but being innovative as well,” he told those in attendance.

“We have such a strong unscripted brand, we’re happy to stay on our side of the playing field and just do what we do so well,” Swartz added. “To differentiate ourselves, certainly in docs and specials, it really is getting back to that blue chip core stuff that defined our brand… but doing it in a way that feels contemporary and innovative to draw in new audiences, not just on the air but also have extensions on digital.”

At Nickelodeon, the division of ViacomCBS Domestic Media Networks has been working tirelessly to ratchet up its non-scripted entertainment offering in the hopes of retaining its young viewers. While unscripted programming is relatively new at the network, Nickelodeon’s Rob Bagshaw, EVP of unscripted content, noted that the network has seen successes in the past with game show Double Dare and is now doubling down on its production in non-scripted entertainment with hidden camera prank show The Substitute, shiny floor format America’s Most Musical Family, competition series Top Elf and an Americanized version of UK game show The Crystal Maze already on offer.

“Children are still coming to us as the bedrock of where they start to watch television… our key demo is 6-11, and we’re trying to build that by broadening out into co-viewing,” said Bagshaw.

“My challenge is to grow a genre within a network and across our other platforms so that our audience is aware they can get that content that they’re watching elsewhere, and the best way of doing that is to [offer] variety,” he continued.

AMC Networks-backed WE tv, meanwhile, is keeping its head well above water in the midst of shrinking pay-TV subscriptions by catering to vocal and loyal fan bases.

Lauren Gellert, EVP of development and original programming at WE tv pointed to Untold Stories of Hip Hop, a spin-off that was born out of the popular Growing Up Hip Hop franchise.

“We are going to where the viewers are and then playing into the social attitudes of those viewers, which are very engaged, and knowing they’re looking on linear and digital to engage socially,” said Gellert. “That’s a big deal for us and our 360 approach of how we can grow the fanbase.”

The conversation then shifted to the high costs of development, particularly in the research and development and casting stages. The skyrocketing prices have forced producers to make “agonizing decisions,” Klein said, about which of their pet ideas receive their time, their money, their resources.

“A lot of producers spend their time cultivating talent and characters, which is great and important, but it’s only half of the pitch,” said Gellert. “It does not cost you any money to figure out the concept behind what you’re pitching, but it does make a huge difference in the pitch of the show. What’s the billboard?”

Swartz concluded the session by noting that when pitching, knowing the network’s needs is of the utmost importance.

“The advice that was given to me when I was on the production side was, ‘Know the network you’re pitching to.’ Know that their Monday night, for example, is Motor Night and what needs to be filled for a particular slot in their programming schedule based on what our schedules actually look like. Maybe you have a great piece of IP or talent, but if it doesn’t fit with a mandate of where the network is, it’ll be a tougher sell.”

Photo: Rahoul Ghose

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