From Wayne Brady’s Improv Platform to CBS’ Streaming Pivot: 7 Key Takeaways From Variety’s Winter Entertainment Summit

George Cheeks Wayne Brady

In media, it’s the age of optimization and personalization.

How Hollywood harnesses technology to meet consumer demand for ever-more forms of content served up on an ever-widening array of platforms was the focus of Variety’s Winter Entertainment Summit, which ran virtually from Jan. 26-27. Industry insiders from a range of disciplines — from streaming content to live entertainment, technology and engineering to advertising and marketing — weighed in on the trends and hurdles that will shape the course of business in 2022.

Here are seven key takeaways from Variety’s Winter Entertainment Summit:

Navigating the Big Pivot

George Cheeks, president and CEO of CBS and chief content officer of Paramount Plus, has been focused on the evolution of the Eye network and how CBS’ muscle can help bolster ViacomCBS’ streaming priorities, Paramount Plus and Pluto TV.

“We’ve got to evolve the CBS brand from a linear-only network to a multi-platform content brand,” Cheeks said in his keynote conversation with Variety co-editor in chief Cynthia Littleton. The good news is that CBS is also reaping the rewards of exposure from its younger streaming siblings.

“There is a very clear sweet spot in terms of programming that does extremely well with the CBS linear audience, but finds a usually younger, unduplicated audience on streaming. We saw that even years before with ‘Criminal Minds’ and ‘NCIS’ on Netflix, and we’re seeing that now with ‘The FBI’ and all the shows that we’ve now currently launched,” Cheeks says. “So in terms of the programming strategy for CBS, we look at it holistically. We don’t look at CBS in a vacuum anymore. We look at performance on linear, performance on streaming, and performance globally, which is a critical component for us as well, particularly as we grow Paramount Plus globally.”

Don’t Forget to Take a Few Fliers

The CBS machine is primed by procedural and franchise fare. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for the programming team to take a flier on a single-camera comedy about a couple who run a country bed and breakfast inhabited by ghosts from different eras. On paper, it is not a show that screams CBS, Cheeks acknowledged. But viewers begged to differ.

“We did want to take a big swing, and the big swing was ‘Ghosts.’ And what was great is the whole company — programming, marketing — everybody really sort of embraced it, because we all believed in it creatively. I just recently got the data on the most recent episode, and with playback and streaming, it’s now reaching 10 million viewers, which is 20% higher than the pilot episode, which just demonstrates that it’s really growing in momentum and enthusiasm. So we couldn’t be happier about it, because then again, it’s a nice balance. It’s another show that we discovered, we brought in, and that is doing extremely well on CBS and extremely well on Paramount Plus.”

Entrepreneurs Welcome

Multi-hyphenate actor-producer Wayne Brady, known for his long run on “Whose Line Is It Anyway” and “Let’s Make a Deal,” used his keynote conversation with Variety New York digital editor Todd Spangler to announce his partnership with Freestyle Love Supreme Academy and San Francisco’s Speechless on the launch of a virtual platform to offer improv-based training tools to businesses and organizations. His pitch is that the tenets of improv — being a good listener, being generous to scene partners — are vital tools for management and leadership.

“Being able to partner with Freestyle Love Supreme and with Speechless gives me the opportunity to use all the gifts that I have partially been given, but really worked my ass off for for 30-odd years, and to be able to take them and give them to the person sitting in the audience watching ‘Whose Line’ going, ‘Oh, I wish I could do that.’ Give it to them. Give it to the person in the business setting saying, ‘Hey, this, this is how you can listen. Bosses, this is how you listen to the people that work underneath you and everyone else. This is how you work together as a team.'”

Pent-Up Consumer Demand for Events and Experiences Is Real

Panelists noted that one of the challenges of working in the (hopefully) late-stage COVID environment is measuring the rapid shifts in consumers’ appetite for attending in-person gatherings.

“You’re just seeing the most pent-up demand we’ve seen in the history of music right now. We’ve put tours and festivals on sale just in the last few weeks that have sold out,” said Kevin Chernett, executive vice president of global content, distribution and innovation at Live Nation Entertainment. “Pent-up demand is there.”

Click here to subscribe to Variety’s free Strictly Business newsletter covering media earnings, financial and investment news and more.

But after two years of social distancing, consumers have new expectations that need to be managed.

“People have developed this intolerance now for any type of discomfort. When you can experience everything from the comfort of your couch in your own home, now people are much more sensitive to traffic, waiting in long lines, overcrowding, taking a long time to get their food or stand in line for a restroom,” said Adam Harter, Pepsico’s senior VP of marketing for media, sports and entertainment. “Yes, there’s pent-up demand to get out there, but I think all of us who are trying to deliver great experiences to fans and consumers — were being held to a higher standard now.”

Fish Where the Fish Are to Find Your Audience

Marketers and programmers have more tools at their disposal than ever before to engage consumers. But data-driven decision making is only as good as the data inputs that are gathered.

“Really it’s becoming the golden age of optimization algorithms. And algorithms are getting better and better in terms of being able to do a lot of that work in finding the audience,” said Regina Sommese, Discovery’s, group vice president of paid media and global subscriber acquisitions. “ But you’ve got to have the infrastructure in place. So much of media buying is moving away from how do you define the perfect audience but rather how do you make sure you have the right signals? And you’re building an optimization process that can leverage all that because ultimately that’s going to do a better job of finding that person who’s going to convert, especially knowing the consumers are so diverse in terms of what actually makes up their composition and interests. So it’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times, but it’s definitely times that are quickly changing.

Josh Rider, VP of brand partnerships for Instacart, said the shift in focusing on specific strands of interest rather than age and gender-based demographic targets has been profound.

“Today we don’t say like, ‘Hey, I want to target a Gen Z consumer on Instacart,’” Rider said. “I want to target people who have considered the soup category, but haven’t purchased on it. Like, how do I talk to them? Because, I want to tell them about this great innovation I have around soup.”

The Streaming Premium and Why Programmatic Has Its Place

Programmatic advertising helps makes the world go ‘round on the internet, but it often gets a bad rap as less effective than other forms of advanced advertising. And that’s undeserved in the eyes of some.

“Programmatic is very measurable, especially compared to a lot of other things in the digital space, in terms of actual conversion metrics and tying things back with one to one conversion and modeling,” says Emily King, executive VP of marketing strategy for media and digital at Fox Entertainment. “So while social media is fabulous and there’s so many targeting capabilities within social media, they’re usually walled gardens. And the programmatic space and trade desks have really opened up the door for us to not only target in the ways that we’d like to, but actually measure those targets on the back end in their real-time performance to our campaigns, and not just within their own third party reporting.”

Krishan Bhatia, chief business officer of NBCUniversal, emphasized the importance of using data to drive higher ad rates in streaming as well as better viewer experience overall.

“If you think about the targetability, the reduced waste, the increased measurability and how data and identity kind of help fuel the attractiveness of DTV and the streaming platform, we are able to generate a significant premium from a advertising perspective in the streaming environment versus television on average,” said Bhatia. “In streaming overall, you’re generally exceeding the value of television from an advertising monetization perspective. And it comes back to the targetability of the data, the measurement, and the experience you can create behind that.”

Tubi or Not to Be Free?

Farhad Massoudi, founder and CEO of Tubi, explained the origin story of the pioneering ad-support streaming service and why he was so keen to bet on a free platform versus a subscription model.

“I launched a company that eventually became Tubi in January of 2011,” Massoudi said. “In fact, I wrote the first AVOD app on Roku and Google TV personally and I was told I was a pretty bad engineer, so I stopped doing that. But clearly I believed in the future of media being streaming and that connected TV had a major role in it. And we believed from the early days that TV apps will ultimately replace TV channels. And we see that trend accelerating now during COVID.”

But early on, convincing content owners to do business with Tubi (which was acquired by Fox in March 2020) was a battle.

“A lot of people believed first of all that the bundle (would) be protected and real content won’t move to streaming. And then second to that, everybody believed in subscription being the only solution that will come out of streaming,” Massoudi said. “Clearly subscription has had its success, but clearly that’s not the only way to monetize premium content.”

ViacomCBS’ Pluto TV had a similar start. Acquired by Viacom in early 2019, the company that offers dozens of themed free streaming channels is now a cornerstone of the conglomerate’s strategy for transitioning its TV profit centers from linear to streaming.

“The benefit on the Pluto side is when you put a piece of content in Pluto, you get two things out: data and money,” said Jeff Shultz, chief strategy officer and chief business development officer for ViacomCBS. “And that machine has been running for years and is now generating data sufficient for us to make extremely informed decisions about the value of a piece of content in Pluto versus the value of a piece of content in Paramount Plus, versus perhaps utilizing some portion of the same franchise across both.”

(Pictured: CBS’ George Cheeks, actor Wayne Brady)