Panelists discuss era of audience control

To brand and how to brand — those were the questions taken up by cable chiefs at Thursday’s Hollywood Radio and Television Society luncheon, which also yielded a philosophical debate over how to balance the copyright threat/promotional benefits of YouTube and the era of “personalized entertainment.”

Underscoring the rapid pace of change in the TV biz, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” producer Michael Davies — who moderated the discussion at the Century Plaza — noted that last year’s exchange “might have been the last panel” pertaining to media that didn’t tackle the YouTube question.

Although each panelist touted the importance of branding to their channels’ survival — with Comcast Entertainment CEO Ted Harbert saying the broadcast network model of living hit to hit is “just no way to make money” — there was little consensus on how to navigate what MTV Entertainment Group prexy Doug Herzog called the “video snacking era.”

Herzog’s parent company, Viacom, filed a $1 billion lawsuit against YouTube this week for copyright infringement, but Harbert said he saw significant value in the exposure smaller Comcast nets like Style and G4 can accrue via such Web sites. When Herzog said that Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone likes to get paid for his content, Harbert quipped of the billionaire mogul, “‘Cause he needs it so badly.”

All the cable execs agreed that “the genie’s out of the bottle in terms of the audience is now in control,” as Herzog put it.

Bonnie Hammer, prexy of NBC’s USA and Sci Fi Channel tandem, said that in terms of adapting to current realities, “It’s no longer ‘one size fits all.’ “

In fact, Showtime Networks chairman Matthew Blank said it’s virtually impossible to plot long-term strategy given the instability of the biz’s present conditions, a point on which A&E TV Networks prexy-CEO Abbe Raven concurred.

“It’s a new world,” she said. “We have to be a little loose here in terms of experimenting with a lot of different platforms.”

To demonstrate the importance of branding, Hammer said every show ordered by USA or Sci Fi is put through a “brand filter,” essentially a checklist of attributes to ensure that a program belongs to its particular channel.

Raven also defended A&E’s makeover from an arts channel to the home of “Dog the Bounty Hunter” and “The Sopranos” reruns. The net was in danger of aging “up and out of business,” she said, and has lowered its median viewer age — once 61 — by almost 15 years to a more salable demographic base.

Asked by Davies to make one prediction looking five or 10 years into the biz’s future that might sound heretical now, Harbert cited a “thinning of the herd” in terms of TV entities. The others generally agreed that despite all the talk of portable devices and other alternative means of distribution, TV viewing will largely remain a living-room-based experience — with Blank suggesting that prognostication about TV’s demise has been exaggerated. “We ain’t dead yet,” he said.

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