Yahoo’s Erin McPherson spoke of developing “TV on steroids.” CKX prexy Marc Graboff forecast a “golden age of content” on the horizon. HBO’s Michael Lombardo cautioned that there’s no magic formula that can replace “sweat equity” in creating a successful show.
From digital dealmaking to old-fashioned tune-in strategies (hint: a catchy title never hurts), a broad range of issues and opportunities in the contempo TV biz were parsed Tuesday by participants in the second annual TV Summit, co-produced by Variety and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation.
The daylong confab at the Renaissance Hollywood hotel kicked off with a wide-ranging keynote Q&A with 20th Century Fox TV chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman. The honchos spoke of the challenge of pursuing different long-term strategies for the array of shows produced by the prolific studio.
As they see it, each individual show they produce demands an approach specific to its own particular needs these days, whether you’re a hardy veteran performer like Fox’s “Bones,” which remains a healthy seller on DVD even in its seventh season, or FX’s “American Horror Story,” which could open itself up to digital opportunities that it may not get in traditional syndication. There’s certainly no one-size-fits-all approach to exploiting digital opportunities, Newman said.
“It’s inevitable you’ll see an ebb and flow between digital choices and physical choices but that’s not a huge problem as long as we can be in both markets,” he said.
Another challenge is how available a series should be made before its premiere for promotional purposes, such as the cannibalization risk Fox overcame by putting the entire pilot of Fox’s “New Girl” on iTunes weeks before its bow.
“It’s a constant balancing act between exposure and oversaturation,” said Walden.
International distribution has been equally tricky to navigate because of the unpredictability as to what kind of programming can translate successfully overseas. Walden noted the unlikely overseas success of series 20th has passed on, like the Chris Rock-produced UPN comedy “Everybody Hates Chris,” to shows they stuck with, including NBC’s “My Name Is Earl.”
That said, Walden said the studio can’t afford to take its cues entirely from the international market’s needs, though Newman added overseas buyers have become good indicators of what will work or not Stateside. “The kind of response a show gets at international screenings inevitably reflects the success we’ll have in September,” he said.
But the fate of Fox series “Terra Nova” speaks to the fact that the domestic distributor still sits at the head of the table. “What was frustrating about ‘Terra Nova,’ you had so many international partners who loved the show had so much success with the show, and yet our us network was not as excited,” said Walden, who cited ongoing negotiations with Netflix and other unspecified outlets for keeping her hopes high that the series will get a second season elsewhere.
20th already has a deal with Netflix to bring back the Fox comedy “Arrested Development,” which will return to the streaming service with 10 new episodes. Newman believes that bringing the cast back could yield the kind of success that can ensure there could be even more future installments of the series.
“Our hope is let’s get them all back, do great 10 episodes and who knows what the future of that may be,” he said. “When you’re creating great compelling content, the consumer will find it.”
Throughout the day, numerous panelists marveled at the scope of opportunities for TV and digital programming in the growing multiplatform universe. The downside of that expansion is continued audience fragmentation. But that’s where the content comes in. CKX’s Graboff noted that he left NBC earlier this year to shift to the program selling side because “the demand for professionally produced content is only going to increase.”
His move from primetime network to a company, Graboff said, adding that he’s been impressed what reality producers can do on a tight budget. “Some of these shows are being produced on budgets that I would look at when was at NBC and say ‘OK that’s one day, where’s the rest of your budget. ‘ ”
Chris Grant, CEO of Ben Silverman’s Electus banner, acknowledged the challenges for indie outlets with global ambition.
“For us, it’s about growing global franchises, and that’s a tougher and tougher nut to crack these days,” Grant said. “So it’s about focusing about the big idea, but those big ideas are becoming more and more complicated to put together.”
The theme of doing more with less was also prevalent throughout the day, particularly during a sesh on marketing new shows.
“Marketing budgets are not growing, but expectations are,” said Joe Earley, marketing topper for Fox network. Even for the biggest network series, marketers have to do their homework to buzz through press coverage (what he dubbed “earned media) and social buzz. “Marketing is not just about make an ad and place it anymore.”
Animal Planet prexy Marjorie Kaplan emphasized the importance of series titles to drive show tune-in on her cabler. “When you don’t have money to market your shows, it puts a huge premium on what you name your shows,” she said. (She cited “Whale Wars” and “Infested” as two of the channel’s more successful monikers.)
During a sesh on original digital programming, Yahoo’s McPherson urged her digital brethren to “come together as an industry” to develop a uniform audience measurement standard for ad supported programming. That’s the only way they’ll be able “to really go for TV dollars,” she said.”
David Eilenberg of Mark Burnett Prods. added a sobering thought for producers and distribs, noting that advertisers now have more ways than ever to reach consumers directly — through Facebook, Twitter, etc.
“The biggest difference the advertiser can make these days is that they can be distributors themselves,” he said. “Things are changing in a significant way.”
A panel on the second screen as an adjunct to the TV experience was fertile ground for an exploration of the myriad issues relevant to the category. John Corpus, CEO of Facebook commerce specialist Milyoni, believes TV networks need to look to the second screen as a platform that needs the kind of strategic focus to programming that the first screen demands. “Historically, they’ve been good at pushing content out, but they need to concentrate on creating that two-way dialogue.”
The sheer volume of companies in this space is creating confusion that will eventually give way to consolidation, according to Andy Nobbs, chief commercial officer at Civolution, which services studio clients in the digital media space. “The space is very frothy right now,” he said. “There are some broadcasters having a really tough time with this multiplicity of distribution platforms.”
The second-screen experiences are also not simple enough to resonate outside of savvy sophisticates on the coasts, warned Jesse Redniss, SVP digital at USA Networks.
“There are a lot of networks catering to C and Ds county that may not be up to where we are right now,” he said.
In producing social advocacy programming, said panelists on “The Power of TV — Making Content That Matters,” presentation is obviously key. But they weren’t referring to fancy bells and whistles, but rather authenticity and sincerity.
“We definitely have a motto, ‘You’ve got to smuggle the spinach into the popcorn,’ ” said Christopher Gebhardt, exec veep and g.m. of TakePart at Participant Media. “Even with documentary, it’s all built around emotion, like ‘Waiting for Superman.’ ”
Cartoon Network social responsibility veep Alice Cahn said that the network had extensive conversations with members of its viewership that influenced its groundbreaking content on bullying.
“They’re worried about it because their friends are getting picked on and they don’t know what to do about it,” Cahn said. “I’ve never worked on a project that (resonated) more with our target audience. … It’s what’s going to be real to the audience that you want to make an impact on.”
As a producer (and fan) of both mainstream and social change content, 3 Ball Prods. CEO J.D. Roth indicated he has learned that you can be ambitious with subject matter. “Kids will never listen to a word you say, but they watch everything you do,” he said.
(Jon Weisman and Stuart Levine contributed to this report.)