RSS ’22: “View from the Top” on the linear vs. streaming playing field

“View from the Top” was an apt name for the first onstage discussion at the 2022 Realscreen Summit, as the quartet of panelists kicked off the four-day event by taking ...
June 7, 2022

“View from the Top” was an apt name for the first onstage discussion at the 2022 Realscreen Summit, as the quartet of panelists kicked off the four-day event by taking the long view on some of the buzziest disruptions to hit the unscripted entertainment industry in the last few years.

Although one of the speakers — Amy Introcaso-Davis, EVP of development and production for factual programming at Warner Bros. Discovery (pictured, far left) — has one foot planted firmly in the streaming world given that her remit extends to Discovery+, the lengthy linear-net backgrounds of the panelists organically turned the discussion towards the question of how established modes of unscripted production can continue to thrive within a streaming-skewed environment that can often prioritize the shiny and new over the kind of long-term, franchise-building that can attract and retain loyal viewership over multiple seasons.

“It’s about building a community of viewers,” World of Wonder co-founder Fenton Bailey (pictured, far right) said, noting that WoW’s flagship show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, wouldn’t have lasted past a second season in the current climate, never mind the 14 and counting it’s reached today.

Below are some of the takeaways from the panel, which was rounded out by Elaine Frontain Bryant, EVP and head of programming for A+E Networks (pictured, second from right), and Robyn Lattaker-Johnson, former head of unscripted programming at OWN who’s now sitting on the other side of the table as an agent for alternative-programming clients at A3 Artists Agency (pictured, second from left).

Linear is still in the game…

Rumors of traditional broadcast’s demise are greatly exaggerated, the panelists took pains to stress.

“We’re the best place to be,” Introcaso-Davis said when asked why unscripted producers should still be looking to cable networks rather than streaming platforms. The key attraction, she explained, is the interest networks still have in returnable series with franchise-building potential, rather than the one-and-done mentality often seen on streamers.

A+E’s Bryant agreed, noting that the inherent structure of programming for broadcast — which entails figuring out how to fill a whole day’s block, year after year — encourages linear nets to find those series that can live “forever.” She added that despite the increasing difficulty of reaching the 100-episode mark, which testifies to the long-lasting appeal of a show, even several of A+E’s more recent series are approaching or have already surpassed that milestone.

…but streaming has changed the playing field

All that said, streaming is still the gold standard for a lot of today’s unscripted producers, as Lattaker-Johnson observed from her own experience with clients. And consequently, the engineering of series concepts to attract those platforms has had carry-over effects for linear nets as well.

“The packaging of a show is very important,” Lattaker-Johnson said, noting that the involvement of a pre-existing celebrity is becoming a crucial requirement for getting a series made, as discoverability has become paramount in the industry.

But even as the streaming-spurred audience demand for “right now” has made it tough for linear nets, as Bryant conceded, there was a general feeling on the panel that streamers’ relentless focus on driving subscriptions with ever-more new, splashy content was not something that could be sustained indefinitely, particularly in a time of constricting budgets.

“Budgets go down, that’s the only place they go,” Bailey said, and that reality is increasingly applying to streaming platforms as well.

Coexistence is key

In the face of these realities, the panelists agreed, what has to happen is an equilibrium between streaming and linear — which, in many ways, is already beginning to occur. “We look at [streaming and linear] as conjoined,” Introcaso-Davis said about Warner Bros. Discovery’s approach.

However, beyond top-down programming strategy, there is perhaps a more organic rebalancing taking place as well. Bryant, who said that A+E is one of the few major nets without a streaming platform, contended that when their shows are on a streamer they see that audience “flowing back” to their linear channels to catch new seasons in real time.

And so is collaboration

Speaking from the producers’ perspective, Bailey stressed the importance of building a true partnership between production companies and programming outlets, rather than the latter taking sole ownership of shows created by the former.

“It’s about rights,” he said, citing World of Wonder’s ownership of Drag Race as a crucial factor in the evolution and expansion of the franchise. “By owning Drag Race we were able to grow it in ways that Viacom would never have thought” when they first started airing the show, he said.

On the other side of the matter, Bryant was more reticent about Bailey’s floated notion of co-ownership of properties. “The motivation [for nets] is to build and own a library,” she stated, though she followed that with a reassertion of the importance of building a “synergistic” relationship between broadcasters and producers. On that point, Bailey strongly concurred.

“It’s important to build relationships and to actually like the partners you’re working with,” said Bailey as the panel drew to a close. “If you find you don’t have that, then you should get into another business.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.