Guest Commentary: The Best of Both Worlds: Impact and Immediacy

Jan 4, 2009  •  Post A Comment

In their eternal quest to attract both ratings and headlines, television networks once relied upon “event” programming. But HBO’s recent sweep of eight Emmys for “John Adams” notwithstanding, the heyday of the miniseries has long passed.
Later came the era of appointment television, when landmark series like “Seinfeld” and “Friends” generated record viewership and enthusiastic water-cooler conversations in workplaces far and wide.
But in today’s increasingly fragmented environment, in which the audience can choose from innumerable cable channel and Web site options, where does the buzz on the hottest TV come from? Video clips.
Forget five-hour miniseries (with seven- or eight-figure budgets)—how about five minutes of “Saturday Night Live”? Its fall debut of Tina Fey as Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin (with Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton), attracted a huge audience that propelled this season’s ratings to new highs. The natural follow-up, with the real Gov. Palin’s guest appearance, became “SNL’s” highest-rated show in 14 years.
Yet even that record-breaking pace pales before the many millions of viewers who’ve been downloading the Fey clip on Hulu.com, YouTube and other Web sites. Estimates suggest this first Fey VP clip (more have come since) has become the Internet’s most-watched video ever at more than 10 million views. That’s an extraordinary achievement in a digital-friendly age in which just about anyone with a computer can create and upload a video for all to see.
The race to attract viewers on multiple screens has only just begun. The push to deliver and monetize content on television, home computers and the growing array of content-friendly mobile devices will be a significant driver of revenue growth for content providers over the next five years, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ “Global Entertainment and Media Outlook: 2008-2012.”
Broadcast and cable networks are better positioned than any other content providers to take advantage of this expansion. By using television’s built-in prominence (i.e., name recognition and stature) and technical proficiency, networks stand clearly at the forefront of content creation. From select excerpts to mobisodes, entertainment-related clips or condensations of existing series represent the tip of the iceberg. The franchise extends to news and sports programming, where television dominates by repurposing clips that get Web surfers up to date on current events 24/7.
So whether it’s breaking news or presenting the most popular entertainment programming on earth, no medium can match the power and reach of television—and now that reach expands exponentially via replays online. Video is unquestionably the hot Internet application, with a recent Cisco report predicting that IP traffic will nearly double every two years until 2012, when 90% of all online consumer traffic will consist of video and video-on-demand.
Contrast that tremendous online growth with the opposite effect that the Internet is having on television’s traditional rival, newspapers. Web sites are taking millions of dollars in revenues from newspapers’ most lucrative profit center, classified advertising.
Networks, meanwhile, are ramping up their Web presence to maximize ad revenues. “I’m a programmer,” says Leslie Moonves, CEO of CBS, lauding the dual benefits of its recent acquisition of CNET. “Getting people to come to a screen is what I do.”
Although newspapers are posting their content online, they’ll never enjoy the natural video synergies that television enjoys, and increasingly they will be left behind as the Internet migrates steadily toward more video. Ad avails accompanying online video boost entertainment companies’ bottom lines with no need for additional shooting; just a spot of editing and they’re up and streaming.
So consumers feed their insatiable “anytime, anywhere” demand through broadband, which simultaneously and subliminally delivers an intangible but equally powerful asset: branding.
CBS News’ ratings may not have climbed appreciably since Katie Couric’s high-profile interviews with Gov. Palin, but the beleaguered anchor’s profile has never been higher since her arrival at the network two years ago.
In short, buzz boosts the brand—so keep experimenting and trying new ways to extend your audiences online through both proprietary and third-party sites.
Technology is not only helping television grow through broadband, but through other enhancements in HDTV, VOD and DVRs.
Measurement techniques such as live-plus-three-day ratings are making it more difficult for networks to accurately estimate their audiences, but there’s good news, too. As DVR penetration surges, more than doubling last year from 9.9% to 20.6% of U.S. households, PwC Global Outlook research suggests that fewer than half of DVR users skip ads in playback; therefore, over the long run, DVRs should have a positive impact on advertising, too.
In the meantime, savvy producers and networks simultaneously augment their reach and ad revenues online, which continues to offer unprecedented, sometimes unexpected benefits. Not only did that “SNL” skit generate the most hits of any Internet video ever, but Agence France-Press mistakenly picked up and ran a photo of Fey with a syndicated story instead of one of the actual candidate.
Whether life imitates art, or vice versa, the influence and impact of television has never been greater—and the immediacy of the Internet expands the audience.
Brian Cullinan is assurance leader of the U.S. Entertainment, Media and Communications practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Los Angeles.


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