Hillary Atkin

Adjusting to Life in an On-Demand World: Top TV Execs Talk About the Changing Landscape

Oct 20, 2015

The global business of television and the changes that have occurred in the past year took center stage as the Hollywood Radio and Television Society (HRTS) put on its annual State of the Industry newsmaker luncheon with top executives from broadcast, streaming, basic cable, pay cable and production.

Participating in the panel discussion that took place Oct. 15 at the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom were Paul Lee, Ted Sarandos, Sandra Stern, Frances Berwick and David Nevins, all weighing in on questions posed by moderator Jon Erlichman.

It was the day after Netflix announced that its subscriber numbers in the U.S. would not hit targets, causing the stock to take a hit, but that didn’t seem to concern Sarandos, its chief content officer.

“Most of the things that people love to watch here, they also do around the world,” he said. “The markets may be different, the languages may be different and they may prefer subtitles over dubs, but it’s a reinforcement of what we do.”

Showtime, HBO and CBS are now competitors to Netflix in the streaming space. “A year ago, we had not made the decision to push the button, but in July, it was off and running — and will drive growth,” said Nevins, president of Showtime Networks. “It’s become a major part of our business, very fast. We get sub numbers every morning and the strategy is to be as ubiquitous as possible and meet viewers where they are.”

In addition to technology, Lee, president of the ABC Entertainment Group, pointed to the huge changes in the content of programming, especially on broadcast television.

“All the rules from five years ago have been thrown out — like fairytales don’t work and there can’t be any moral complexity. The shows that define us now are ones like ‘Scandal’ and ‘How to Get Away With Murder,’” he said. “We are in an on-demand world. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t survive. You see sophisticated storytelling now. A brand can be created on broadcast.”

“Your app is your brand,” Nevins noted. “Internationally, what do shows like ‘Ray Donovan’ and ‘The Affair’ have in common? In the English-speaking world, Showtime is starting to mean something and hopefully will around the world. Each show we are launching, like ‘Billions’ and ‘Twin Peaks,’ has a lot of international interest and we’re figuring out the best strategy. Addictive, serialized shows are driving the market. It’s the same dynamics around the world.”

Stern, president of Lionsgate Television Group, said she is somewhat surprised that with all the new platforms, content is still the driving force. “People want to watch good shows,” she said. “We try to be strategic and to find shows that engage people. Our shows are noisier because we have to be more selective. We look at what’s the best content and where is the best place for it to live. We will partner to find it the best home and its best shot at finding an audience and being able to monetize it.”

For Berwick, president of lifestyle networks of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment, reality programming is still strong. She questioned whether the supply of scripted shows is outstripping the demand, even while admitting that there is still a perception that non-scripted does not have the quality of scripted programming. “There are still very large audiences for unscripted. We keep franchises fresh by changing up the cast. Talent is an important part of our brand. That’s how we engage audiences. Brand is important now, but it will be vital in a few years. Our survival will be connected to that,” she said.

The conversation turned to how social media is impacting television.

“It’s a fantastic thing,” said Lee. “The conversation over TGIT and people watching together and commenting is providing a tremendous relevance that wasn’t there five years ago.”

“With social media, there’s a collective buzz all year [about our shows] and not just on one night. It’s organic,” Sarandos said.

He again took a little flak from fellow panelists about how Netflix doesn’t release ratings. “A little note would be nice,” Stern said, to which Sarandos responded, “The reliance on overnight ratings contributed to the demise of broadcast,” adding that he advocated the creation of dynamic ad insertion into programming.

Nevins said he wasn’t bothered about Netflix’s lack of ratings data and was more concerned about Showtime being a good home for creative people, giving them a great creative experience and the best way to monetize their shows.

“Those are the differentiators — that’s what keeps us going and Hollywood on top,” he said.

Lee noted that one of broadcast television’s old strengths — wide distribution — provides a competitive advantage that wasn’t there 10 years ago.

“Risk-taking is being rewarded,” he said, referring to the quality of current programming. “It’s about how many great shows there are now. That’s what makes this the best time ever to make TV.”

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