Content, distribution spark debate at TV Summit

Execs say shows are costly, can't be given away for free

Studio presidents, network marketing chiefs and webheads on the cutting edge of technology shared their thoughts on what consumers watch, and the ever-changing ways those shows are delivered, at Variety’s inaugural TV Summit, held Tuesday at the Renaissance Hotel in Hollywood.

One of the running topics of the event, which was also sponsored by the TV Academy Foundation, was a reminder that content remains the industry’s most highly valued commodity, and it can’t be given away for free.

Scripted programming doesn’t come cheap, said Jay Sures, a managing partner at United Talent Agency, and those in TV’s executive suites must be sure not to hand over its prized programs in exchange for extra eyeballs.

“The challenge we’re facing going forward is that consumers want to watch (TV) however they want to get it,” Sures said. “That’s great but somebody has to pay for it,”

Michael Lombardo, president of programming at HBO, said the migration of viewing to broadband platforms is definitely happening, putting the onus on networks to “make sure you find a way to monetize your programming.”

Recently, the pay cabler launched HBO Go, which allows authenticated HBO subscribers to view much of the net’s programming library over the Internet.

David Madden, president of Fox Television Studios, said unlike HBO, which doesn’t need to rely on advertising revenue, many nets remain concerned about the possibility of shrinking profits when consumers are consistently skipping through commercials by viewing shows on DVRs. He also argued that online vid sites such as Hulu “are the smallest part of the problem” of aud fragmentation.

At another panel that addressed the issue of network rebranding, top cable execs dissected the pros and cons of the maneuver that is becoming more common than ever before.

“The rebranding is about 20% of the effort,” said Investigation Discovery prexy Henry Schleiff. “Once you choose your new direction, the issue is how to be consistent” in the programming served up.

Christina Norman, prexy of OWN, said her network is built on the enormously strong brand that is Oprah Winfrey, which is a magnet for certain viewers.

“People are watching OWN like they used to watch MTV,” Norman said. “This audience has been waiting for OWN and now they want to soak in it. … Oprah says it’s like giving birth to a baby. The baby’s born and we have a long way to go. Launching a network is a daunting task — not something that gets told over a day or a week.”

Disney Channels Worldwide prexy Carolina Lightcap said the gold-plated Disney brand has the same effect with the kid and family aud. Net just launched Disney Junior net this week, which will replace Soap Net next year.

Spike TV prexy Kevin Kay noted that TV brands are often formed in the wake of a hit show. He cited the example of FX and “The Shield,” which defined FX as a home for male-skewing rough-edged dramas.

“No matter what you say your brand is, when that hit comes, that becomes your brand and that’s what you chase,” he said.

Marc Juris, exec VP of TruTV, said his channel is laser focused on creating blocks of programming that appeal to fans of unscripted shows depicting regular folks in unusual situations.

Diana Robina, exec VP of TV Guide Network, added that when cablers target a wider aud, there’s more chance for competitors to zero in. So the segmentation of cablers with multiple outlets like Disney and Discovery makes sense.

“Somebody’s going to come into your (programming) space, so it might as well be you,” Robina said.

When asked by an audience member whether OWN was in the market for scripted comedies, Norman displayed quick wit in explaining that the channel is focused on unscripted fare for now.

“The baby’s six weeks old and doesn’t know how to talk yet,” she joked. “It has no sense of humor.”

In a discussion about new delivery models, CW marketing topper Rick Haskins said his net has been successful in shifting shows from one platform to another. And the advertising base is happy to go along, as long as the content remains appealing.

“If we give the consumer what they want and when and where they want it, the commercial load will follow,” he explained. “Audiences don’t seem to mind.”

(Lauren Zima contributed to this report.)

Related: Click here for the TV Summit photo package

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