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10 Takeaways From Variety’s Ent and Tech New York Summit

Snapchat is seeking more media partners. Advertisers feel they’re under siege as TV viewing migrates to ad-free platforms. Celebrity endorsement deals remain an art, not a science. Engagement is the metric of the future, but brand “passion” is the Holy Grail for content providers.

There are among the key takeaways from the industry leaders and experts who gathered Friday at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York for Variety’s annual Ent & Tech summit. The conference examines the intersection of media and entertainment with the new platforms and technologies that are redefining the content business.

Here are 10 highlights from the daylong event:

Joe Marchese, president of advertising for Fox Networks Group, drew comparisons between the modern media marketplace and cryptocurrency. Consumers’ attention is the coin of the realm, which lends itself to all sorts of potential problems from fraud to stuffing too many commercials into TV shows — even fake news. “A lot of the fake news is just chasing attention coin because the value of that attention has gotten so high,” said Marchese. But in all the chaos, there is also plenty of opportunities for players in the space to turn disruption to their advantage. “Attention is the world’s most valuable resource,” Marchese concluded. “If you can start arbitraging it, you can make a lot of money.”

On the “Branding with Purpose” panel, Debra Lee, CEO and chairman of BET Networks, said her company has had to balance social responsibility and entertainment for its entire 38-year history. “We could never afford to be just a TV network,” she said. “Our audience always expected so much more from us.” That philosophy has led BET to be an active force in charitable giving including telethons for natural disasters from Hurricane Katrina to the earthquake in Haiti. Said Lee, “When something in the world happens in the black community, whether it’s 9/11 or the George Zimmerman verdict, our audience wants to hear from BET.”

Marketing in such a diffuse media landscape increasingly requires creativity on the scale of premium TV programs. Consumer brands are experimenting with the emerging worlds of VR and AR. Kristen Naiman, brand exec for Kate Spade says she’s more interested in AR. VR is about “escaping,” she said. AR “allows us to bring a conversation and transformative tech experience into a place where we hope the customer already is.”

Celebrity endorsement deals have been a staple of advertising for eons. But there’s a lot of wasted money and effort in this arena, and marketers hope new data tools will help them make savvier decisions. Janet Comenos, co-founder and CEO of research firm Spotted, said a high volume of endorsement deals were made according to the personal preferences of CMOs, and in many cases, the CMO’s children. She cited the mismatch of actor Matthew McConaughey and his deal to promote Wild Turkey liquor. Research shows that women are the most likely to be influenced by McConaughey talking up a product, but Wild Turkey wasn’t even trying to cultivate female consumers with its McConaughey campaign.

For those who feel overwhelmed by the tsunami of TV and digital content, fear not. Deloitte Consulting’s Kevin Westcott predicted there will be a winnowing of platforms and a greater emphasis on bundling of streaming services by 2020. Some of this will be fueled by M&A. “I expect to see a re-aggregation” of OTT services on central platforms, such as Comcast’s move to offer Netflix access directly from its X1 cable platform. “Consumers are starting to show a little bit of confusion.”

Content providers are becoming more selective when it comes to getting digital-first material out to the marketplace. Nick Ascheim, senior VP of NBC News Digital, said the initial instinct of pushing content through a firehose approach via syndication with as many worthy partners as possible is no longer the best move. “The mass distribution play doesn’t work. You can’t create one thing for many platforms. But if you tailor content creation to an exclusive partner, you learn from them and end up with a much better product,” he said. He added that “passion” and “loyalty” among users are the most prized metrics for NBC News Digital. 

In a sea of choice, consumers have zero-tolerance for glitchy video and clunky interfaces. “You can have amazing content but if it’s not a good user experience your views will drop off,” said JW Player’s Rob Gill. “Video quality is no longer like an awesome bonus,” said Discovery’s Joe Ambeault. “Viewers are gone the second they have a tiny little bit of rebuffering on the screen.”

Snapchat is working to make its platform more user-friendly to traditional media partners. But it still reserves the right to decide who moves through its velvet rope. “There are a broad range of ways to work with us now,” said Snapchat’s Sean Mills. “We want to do more with AR, with interactive (programming). Those are only going to be successful if our partners are there helping us create and innovate with those new opportunities. We want a much broader range of media partners but we still care about being selective.”

Pity the poor media buyer these days, with linear ratings declining, platforms proliferating, and the rise of a new generation of viewers accustomed to watching shows without commercial breaks. How hard has the job become? Top buyers agreed that the urgency to sort through the new world order requires a willingness from buyers and sellers to work harder on finding solutions to common problems. The siege mentality was evidenced in a comment from Omnicom’s Catherine Sullivan. “We have to come together,” she said. “I want to be part of the path forward, and part of the resistance.”

Audience measurement remains the single-biggest challenge that unites the stakeholders in the content landscape. Everybody agrees that the industry needs a better ratings yardstick, so much so that many companies have begun to cobble together their own methods of measuring discreet audience segments beyond the old-school age and gender breakdowns to track linear, digital and VOD viewing. But those proprietary protocols create their own problems. “Right now we’re aggregating things that are apples and oranges and bananas,” said Magna Global’s David Cohen.

(Pictured: Andrew Wallenstein and Richard Plepler)

Andrew Wallenstein contributed to this report.

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