Marketing Content in TV’s 3rd Golden Age (4/5)

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. Here's episode 4.

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.

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.

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Marketing Content in TV’s 3rd Golden Age’ tells the story of 3 brothers: The Creative Brother (the artists), The Capricious Brother (the audience) and The Corporate Brother (the industry), propelled by the latter’s quest – in 12 ‘herculean labours’ – for control of the Content market.

11 herculean labours into his quest, a tired but not sleepy ‘Corporate Brother’ flops down onto the couch. Then someone knocks on the door. It’s his elder brother, The Creative One…

XII. “Abandon the artists”

In a wild – enlightened? – 12th attempt to win industry control, ‘The Corporate Brother’ agrees to ‘abandon the artists’, i.e. to give his ‘Creative Brother’ all the freedom he’s been asking for. Like Netflix said to Spacey, he finally confesses:We believe in you. (…) This business,” after all, “lives on creative pathfinders.”

“TV’s first golden age, back in the fifties, was a time of ‘total abandon’: artists enjoyed an enormous amount of freedom.” Today, at MRC a.o., “artists get paid to develop the idea on their own, so they can budget and cast it themselves. Then when it’s time for the idea to be realized, they can control it, and they can much more carefully dictate the terms of how it gets made. Giving artists a great deal of creative freedom is part of the philosophy.”

Disclaimer: when artists in the entertainment industry – c.q. Kevin Spacey – say ‘creative freedom’, they actually think / mean: complex, ‘conflictuous narratives’: "Conflict creates tension and keeps people engaged in your story. The best stories are filled with characters who take risks." Take any successful entertainment ‘product’ and you’ll notice that the main characters’ lives are in a mess”. "Audiences have shown”, Spacey repeated at The Content Marketing World Conference in Cleveland, “they want complexity."

It is the art of complex ‘conflictuous’ narrative that helps explaining why – to a substantial extent at the expense of Hollywood – cable television drama has emerged as the signature art form of the twenty-first century: “No longer necessarily concerned with creating always-likable characters, plots that wrapped up neatly every episode, or subjects that were deemed safe and appropriate, shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Shield, and more tackled issues of life and death, love and sexuality, addiction, race, violence, and existential boredom.”

No longer necessarily concerned with creating always-likable characters, it is the art of complex, ‘conflictuous’ narrative that helps explaining why TV drama has emerged as the signature art form of the 21st century.”

Here comes the catch: “You still have to make million-dollar decisions based on scripts—on words on a page,” MRC’s Modi Wiczyk among others will admit. “Whereas other businesses are very numerically driven, in the entertainment business the numbers can lie. You have to make million-dollar decisions based on scripts—on words on a page—and the range of outcomes is massive. There’s a much larger human component to it than anything I had done before.”

Still, playing safe, nonetheless, is the (more) risky route. In the content business, ‘managing for margins’ systematically fails miserably. Or, once again, from Anita Elberse’s book ‘Blockbusters’: “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.”

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In the content business, ‘managing for margins’ systematically fails miserably.

Conflict, by the way, also helps to earn media in today’s ‘Content Shock’ era. How does HBO, for example, pull off such spectacular word of mouth? HBO is courting controversy. “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” the company’s mantra has long been—in other words, what they’re offering us is something beyond the pale of what can be seen on “regular” television. (…) Not everybody approves of the graphic nature of HBO’s programming—but everybody is talking about it.” “Media corporations, by definition, have / thrive on opinion-shaping power.”

And the fans? They’ll love you for it, possibly even rewarding you with fan art galore. Twin Peaks’ content marketing, as mentioned before, is fan-owned de facto. Semi-controlled, hybrid strategies naturally remain available for those who “can't leave content discovery to chance." "A&E, for example, launched 'Bates Motel', the Psycho prequel, with extra content -- such as a Tumblr by Norman Bates -- so fans could stay engaged even when the show wasn't on. The show drew 4.6 million viewers on its first night, including a later replay.”

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Twin Peaks’ content marketing is fan-owned de facto. (Screenshot from

Flip side? “If it feels like we're faking it, the audience will know right away,” to quote Craig Engler, senior vice president and general manager of Syfy Digital. Or how Content’s capital C matters even more on social media / when in dialogue with the fans…

Finally, a culture of creative freedom – and the conflict / controversy that comes with it – facilitates Partnerships (with a capital P). “Good artists attract good artists” and ‘snowballing’ content success. Example: as soon as MRC “had become an entitity that could produce movies in an atmosphere that was friendly to filmmakers”, “investments from Goldman Sachs, AT&T, WPP and ABRY Partners gave MRC the ability to spend $500 million on new content.” It’s Content’s capital C that’s opening doors, enabling a.o. sustainable revenue diversification.

Continue to episode 5.

Frank Delmelle

Content Strategist