I’ve seen the future.
It came to me at the Realscreen Summit in New Orleans. Along with Cajun cuisine and bar-side gossip, I received four glimpses into the future of our business that neatly correspond to the ancient adage about ensuring good luck to a new bride. Despite my full disclosure that I’ve known and worked with many of these people and organizations, I’ve been around long enough to see trends that go beyond my own experience and represent a new order:
• Something old: We may not have been paying attention in all the hubbub over the rise of streamers and decline of cable networks, but it was clear to me that the “tortoise” of PBS has lapped the hare of the wanna-bes. Proving that everything old is new again, CEO Paula Kerger gave a frank Q&A and Hall of Fame speech about how public TV sticks to its mission 50 years on — and it’s working just fine. Think about it. What other outlet has 100% U.S. distribution, a valuable brand, high standards, a mission to improve local communities, and no commercials? As for its programming, PBS is both the forerunner of factual TV and a present-day practitioner. It gave birth to so many genres: docuseries (An American Family) transactional reality (Antiques Roadshow), food (Julia Child), and an unrivaled streak of documentary excellence in ‘NOVA’, ‘Frontline’, ‘American Experience’, ‘American Masters’ and the work of Ken Burns. Others have cribbed from the playbook of public TV, but no one carries out the plays as neatly as PBS and its member stations. As we face the future in a chaotic media marketplace, PBS’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses, well beyond most networks and streamers.
• Something new: A lot of documentary and factual producers believe that branded content is another name for a glorified commercial. But the genre has changed. In the new media environment, where access is as close as your computer screen, the product doesn’t have to look like an infomercial or cheap YouTube video. Quality may actually be good for a company’s bottom line. In a Summit panel led by the respected producer Tony Tackaberry of Lion TV USA, it was clear to me that there can be excellence and high standards in these sponsored productions. One striking example was an effort by the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles to expand its brand beyond the regular season while also appealing to female fans. Jen Kavanagh, the Eagles’ SVP of marketing and media, showed a touching excerpt of an unusual docuseries, Sincerely, Patience (produced in collaboration with Alkemy X). It depicts how two fans affected by the Orlando mass shooting came together, in a story that began with an email to the Eagles football team and triumphed with a wedding on the 50-yard line. With this example and others, it was striking how these new video forms can be a viable form of factual production with an impact that goes beyond simply selling a product. For those companies that go down this path, the return on investment may not always be immediate, but building a deeper relationship with consumers is always money well spent.
• Something borrowed: Take a 96-year old company, borrow from its past, corral its existing brands, and create something entirely new. It seems almost impossible, but in an astonishingly short time (three months!), Disney+ has become a highly successful streamer, taking to the business like a hot newcomer. The brands it carries are each distinct enough to stand on their own but are now brilliantly connected by a thread of wholesome quality: kid-centric Disney, animated giant Pixar, action franchises Marvel and Star Wars, and factual leader National Geographic. From their Summit panel, it looks like Disney+ has its act together. Each component brand, as presented by their execs, has been buffed with a marketing luster that makes it seem like it has a logical place in the programming package. The result is a carefully cultivated message that you can’t have family-friendly TV in your home without Disney+. And with 26 million subscribers, it’s already a hit.
• Something blue: The consolidation of networks has put the squeeze on producers, who are feeling blue over the resulting effect on the development process. Ask around. The production community is rarely unified, but I’ve heard the same refrain from too many producers, most of whom run small- or medium-size businesses: The development process is a killer. While all sides accept the laws of supply and demand, the situation now seems to have deteriorated in favor of the networks. The producers spend their own time and money coming up with shows to pitch. If a network is interested, the producing company may get a small stipend to develop the show further — but not necessarily. If the producer gets an order, it might be for six episodes. In the past, that number was likely to be 10 or 13, enough for the supplier to stay in production longer and perhaps begin to make some money. Those six episodes may not air for weeks or months, and if they perform well, the producer gets a renewal. At that point — a year or more later — the producer has to crank up production again, and this time, you just might be able to make some profit. But with already tight budgets, some networks monitor costs so closely and take any savings so there is no incentive for a producer to save money. And don’t ask about rights — producers get little or no back-end. Unless you’re a large production shop with a number of series on the air, it’s a long waiting game with little reward. Welcome to the new decade.
Of course, success is never guaranteed, but as the media business moves forward, I’m hoping that we’re led by the forces of Something Old, Something New and Something Borrowed — and less of Something Blue.