The future of media, tech and advertising were the hot-button topics at the Variety Entertainment Summit at CES, which featured a speaker lineup of more than 40 business leaders, entertainers and entrepreneurs.
Here are 10 key takeaways from the full-day event, held Wednesday at the Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas:
Steve Harvey has broken up with NBC. Harvey revealed that he felt snubbed when NBCUniversal announced a new talk show with Kelly Clarkson that it plans to strip across NBC-owned stations starting in the fall of 2019. His syndicated talk show, “Steve,” is no longer being distributed by NBCU. IMG, which produces the show in partnership with Harvey, is shopping the talker around to multiple outlets, sources confirmed to Variety. “I gotta make announcements too,” Harvey told the audience. “It will be something real cute.”
Viacom CEO Bob Bakish downplayed the urgency to merge with CBS. Bakish, asked about a major merger — like with the potential long-discussed recombination with CBS — waved off the desire for any big M&A. “Our plan is fundamentally based on the assets we have,” he said. “We don’t need a transformational deal.” Of course, a CBS-Viacom merger may proceed whether or not Bakish thinks it’s a good idea, given the desire by Shari Redstone in a recombination of the companies (in which the Redstones are controlling shareholders).
How “Star Trek” producers persuaded Patrick Stewart to reprise his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Alex Kurtzman, executive producer of the “Star Trek” franchise at CBS, said a reluctant Stewart agreed to return to the “Star Trek” franchise possible by ensuring the actor the role wouldn’t seem repetitive. “I think he just felt [like] ‘I don’t know what else there is to do?’” Kurtzman said. Kurtzman and his writers pitched him on a fresh storyline for Picard in which the character’s life is deeply affected by the dissolution of the Romulan empire. “We thought we failed. But on Monday his agent called and said, ‘He’s interested and he’d like to know more and can you write down what you had,’” which turned out to a 34-page treatment that fully fleshed out the series. Kurtzman also discussed the upcoming second season of “Stark Trek: Discovery,” which debuts Jan. 17 on CBS All Access.
Facebook’s entertainment-content strategy is based on co-viewing behavior. “Co-watching is a communal experience where you literally consume video with other people,” said Matthew Henick, Facebook’s head of content strategy and planning. That hypothesis was the basis for the social giant’s licensing full seasons of Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and “Firefly” for Facebook Watch — as a way to get people engaged in a discussion, ideally while they watching the shows simultaneously.
Why WWE prioritized the development and promotion of women wrestling stars. In years past, WWE portrayed women in a “secondary-type role,” chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon acknowledged. “It was just never believed that our women could be the main event or the draw.” After fans demanded female wrestling stars, WWE since 2015 has nearly doubled the number of women on its roster, including superstar Ronda Rousey (formerly with the UFC). Last October, the company staged its first-ever all-women’s pay-per-view/live-streaming special, Evolution. “Ronda wanted to be a part of this change… She was excited to come be a part of it and has certainly raised the bar,” McMahon said. WWE’s strategic shift shows “the power of digital and social media and the power of your voices – the power of all of our voices,” she said.
The music biz’s pace in the digital age has put new stress on artists. Singer Chris Daughtry, who rose to fame after winning “American Idol,” said he’s constantly writing and working on new material. “I feel like you have to be that way these days… People are always looking for the next product you put out,” especially with streaming platforms like Spotify, Daughtry said. “It puts a lot of pressure on you to continuously be creative,” although he added that a lot of that are high expectations he puts on himself.
CBS is building digital extensions to — not replacements for — its core brands. “It’s not all-or-nothing,” said Radha Subramanyam, CBS’s chief analytics officer. She said the company has exceeded its growth targets in over-the-top business with CBS All Access and Showtime (although she didn’t provide an update on the company’s OTT numbers). More interesting recently, she said, is that CBS on top of has built ad-supported OTT properties including the CBSN news network, CBS Sports HQ, ET Live, and CBS Local in New York and soon to L.A. and other markets. “What you’re really doing is taking your brands, extending them, extending the teams – and seeing where else you can go,” Subramanyam said. “Because change is inevitable.”
A shakeout is looming in the “virtual” pay-TV provider space. Mark Garner, A+E Networks, EVP, business development, distribution and digital content licensing, predicted that with the “proliferation of virtual MVPDs” — an industry term referring to internet-based multichannel video programming distributors — “there will be winners and losers” and that the sector will undergo consolidation. That said, Garner added, “we want to be on as many platforms in a material, meaningful and smart way” as possible. John Harrison, EY’s global leader, media and entertainment, said he expects a “reset of the pricing model to be profitable” among the virtual MVPD players.
Why the digital-media industry had to pivot from its previous business models. Ben Lerer, CEO of Discovery-backed Group Nine Media, said the first-generation of digital media brands “were built were written-word, owned-and-operated website brands. And they were not the future of cable television… and that’s how we built Thrillist by the way.” Now there’s a next generation of companies being built, Lerer said, that “have to contend with the fact that they do have to share revenue” with platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat.
Media companies need real-time data analytics to best monetize audiences. That’s according to André Kudelski, chairman and CEO of video technology and services provider Nagra. “You can’t just have a system where you look at audiences and wait a few weeks to happen,” he said.
Pictured above: Variety co-editor-in-chief Andrew Wallenstein (left) interviews Steve Harvey