Marketing Content in TV’s 3rd Golden Age (1/5)

by Frank Delmelle - August 21, 2015

An Epic Essay in 5 Episodes Exploring ‘The Future of Content’ 

How do you market Content (with an entertaining capital C) in times of “total audience fragmentation”? Since even the most authoritative voices tend to scatter their answers across a.o. the 2 million blogpost people publish every day, we fitted their very best shots into the following neat, five-part article series. Enjoy!

If the Content industry were a sandwich, you might want to imagine the piece of bread on top to be the artists and the piece of bread at the bottom to be the audience. When it comes to the filling in the sandwich, however, not to mention its garnish, chances are your mental picture turns into an uneasy wriggle, squeezed in the middle.

Image title

More is needed than a metaphor, in other words: if we’re to get to grips with the marketing of Content in TV’s so-called 3rd Golden Age, an actual, imperfect, epic narrative seems sine qua non. “Storytelling,” after all, “helps us understand each other,” to quote from Kevin Spacey’s memorable MacTaggart Lecture.

‘Marketing Content in TV’s 3rd Golden Age’ therefore tells the story of 3 brothers — The Creative Brother, The Corporate Brother and The Capricious Brother — and their (in)fight for control of the Content market.

You figure a routine obviously out of balance, featuring The Creative Brother — a.k.a. The Artists — as the eldest and The Capricious Brother a.k.a. The Audience, as the Benjamin. Squeezed in the middle, is ‘The Corporate Brother’ a.k.a. The Broadcast Networks, The Advertisers, AVOD, The Facebooks, The Basic Cable Networks, The Amazons, Hollywood, The Agencies, The Premium Cable Networks, The Nielsens, The Goldman Sachs(es), SVOD, The Netflixes, The Apples, The Marketers, The DVD’s, The Online Video Services, The Other Social Networks, The Devices, The Consultancy Firms, The Operators, The Screens in All Sizes, YouTube, The Co-producers, EST, The Stations, The Hulu’s, The Telco’s, Google, The Periscopes And Many More…

For the sake of an ‘inciting incident’: when The Corporate Brother is diagnosed with ‘dissociative obesity’, he de facto cedes control to his brothers…

Fast forward to The Corporate Brother’s darkest moment: “(…) the problem is that the industry is driven by the whims of consumers.”

Fast forward to The Corporate Brother’s brightest moment: “The scarce resource is great artists.”

But first — for the sake of a ‘point of attack’ — the narrative curve kicks off when The Corporate Brother, in a moment of hybris (and denial of his disorder), embarks on a quest — his ‘XII herculean labours’ — to recapture content market control

I. “Send in the suits”

“Who are all these guys standing around the cameras in suits?” Kevin Spacey wondered early on in his career. Many years later, Spacey’s ‘brother in crime’ during the House of Cards Netflix deal, Modi Wiczyk, co-chairman and co-chief executive officer at independent production company Media Rights Capital (MRC), draws this lucid conclusion: “With too many cooks in the kitchen, ideas get watered down.

In his memorable MacTaggart Lecture, Spacey mentions an illustrative NBC memo: “When the hit series Hill Street Blues was about to premier in 1980, NBC sent an internal memo to writer and show runner Stephen Bochco with a list of their concerns following a focus group testing of the program: “The most prevalent audience reaction indicated that the program was depressing, violent and confusing. Too much was crammed into the story. The main characters were perceived as being not capable and having flawed personalities. Professionally, they were never completely successful in doing their jobs and personally their lives were in a mess. Audiences found the ending unsatisfying. Too many loose ends…’ — etc.”

“In other words,” Spacey concludes, “this memo was an entirely unwitting blueprint not only for what made Hill Street Blues such a historic program, but for all the shows that make up this Third Golden Age.”

‘Suits’ — or ‘money people’ as Spacey calls them — tend to dislike conflict, that must-carry ingredient of any epic narrative. “Our lives are messy,” teaches Sandy Thompson, global planning director at Young & Rubicam, “and how we form our perceptions of brands is also messy. Depth of character is counterintuitive for brands, which usually champion one or two attributes and miss out on chances to humanize themselves and captivate consumers.” (…) “Dismiss your unicorns, shut down the rainbow factory and get down to business. Perfection is boring. Things get more interesting the less perfect they are.”

“With too many cooks in the kitchen, ideas get watered down.”
(Modi Wiczyk, co-chairman and co-chief executive officer at MRC) 

To this day, nonetheless, ‘suits’ tend to water down ideas, even when their very own convictions are often conflictuous. See, for example, the struggling by the brightest minds at McKinsey, Accenture, Bain&Co, PwC, Nielsen e.a. to make sense of today’s hopelessly splintered media UX. PwC may state: “People don’t want schedules — they want it on demand,” whereas ‘suits’ at Nielsen remain convinced that “people still want to have a selection of channels.” Even scholarly ‘suits’, by the way, such as Harvard Business School’s Anita Elberse, beware of announcing anything that might resemble ‘a new equilibrium’.

II. “Repremiumize”

A new insight inspires ‘The Corporate Brother’s’ second approach: “(…) We’re not just competing with similarly positioned players for eyeballs. We are competing with the best and the biggest…,” dixit Brandon Carter, marketing manager at Outbrain.

Conclusion drawn at Bain & Company: “Repremiumization is Key.” Ditto at HBO: “HBO is exacting in its quality control, and while you may not personally like all of their programs, it is hard to argue with the fact that Veep and True Detective and Boardwalk Empire are at the very least professionally written and well-acted, that they are both original and compelling. There is no substitute for quality content, whether you’re trying to run a TV network or a content marketing campaign.”

“Content Needs a Capital C” echoes at Netflix HQ: “No B-list acting or low-budget shooting here. Netflix’s main content marketing attraction, House of Cards, boasts a production budget of $50 million. And the investment seems to be paying off.”

Hence the industry’s new darling: premium — and ad-free — subscription video on demand (SVOD), delivered by a.o. Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. The good news, with a number borrowed from Netflix: “51% of people ages 13 to 34 consider Netflix subscriptions “very valuable” compared to 42% for broadcast channels and 36% for cable subscriptions.” Data detect some willingness to pay to avoid ads. High-quality original content (e.g. Netflix’ House of Cards, Orange Is The New Black, Marco Polo, etc.) drives new sign ups for the SVOD services. (As of Q2 2013,) Netflix’s contribution profit per domestic streaming subscriber month was up 40% year over year.

“Content Needs a Capital C”

On the downside: “Churn continues to be a concern.” E.g.: the year HBO won 25 Emmys, about ten million U.S. households dropped the service each month, while another ten million subscribers signed up each month. Baekdal’s conclusion: “People are obviously not going to just switch to buying subscriptions (even though it would be nice if they did).”

III. “Total it up”

Somewhat discouraged, ‘The Corporate Brother’ reflects: “the problem is that the industry is driven by the whims of consumers.”

Symptomatic when it comes to the — capricious — splintered audiences: Nielsen’s call to action “Total It Up”, an “attempt to bridge the divide between how brand managers are incentivized to measure results with the reality of how people are actually consuming video content today.”

Total (audience) fragmentation is the new norm.” “The audience doesn’t care about the platform, they care about the content.” Or: “Audiences are no longer making those kinds of distinctions,” to once again quote from Kevin Spacey’s memorable MacTaggart Lecture.

And fragmentation feeds analytic cacophony, see such dissonances as “Video Killed The Television Star” vs. “Television will take over”, a statement — irony — sponsored by YouTube, by the way, or even: “Television is the new television.

To some “the real winner is digital video in all its forms — especially if it involves a popular app like Snapchat or a mobile optimized popular platform such as Netflix. The demise of traditional television happened somewhere around the time that YouTube began gaining popularity alongside with DVRs that empowered us to skip ads. Since then, things have only gotten worse for traditional, tied to the box television viewing. A recent poll found that millennials find YouTube entertainment and the stars who create it, more relatable and entertaining than TV…” while others defend the 180° opposite trend

IV. “Waterproof the pitch process”

Let’s play safe(r), ‘The Corporate Brother’ concludes, turning to a — tried and tested — fourth tactic: pilots. “Each year, ‘the studios’ pitch hundreds of ideas for new shows to broadcast and cable networks. (…) Only a small fraction of ideas pitched makes it through the entire process; one industry estimate put it at 1%.”

Awakening: “The cost of these pilots, is (was) somewhere between 300 million and 400 million dollars a year.” Even worse: in the entertainment industry, ‘managing for margins’ strategies systematically fail miserably. Or vice versa: “the surest path to long-term content success, is building a business around blockbuster products — the movies, television shows, songs, and books … that are hugely expensive to produce and market.”

Continue to episode 2.

Frank Delmelle

Content Strategist