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TOMORROW COMES TODAY - Cross-Platform Innovator Charles Segars Matches The Message To The Medium

Posted By Steve Pesce, Monday, September 19, 2016
PGA member Charles Segars has a lot going on. A pioneer in digital media, the CEO of Ovation TV, senior digital advisory roles with companies like DreamWorks Animation, a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University—and in his spare time, he leads advance teams for the President of the United States. Through all of his many activities, Segars has insisted on staying on the cutting edge of media and technology. "What’s happening in entertainment right now is very much what those guys must’ve felt like when they were working in radio and saw this TV thing starting up,” he says. While this constantly changing landscape is daunting for most, Segars has thrived thanks to his ability to spot the leading trends of the day and combine them with a reliance on tried-and-true principles: trusting the audience, staying flexible and always keeping story first.

A native of Pittsburgh, Segars was hooked on movie magic from an early age, taking the Universal Studios Tour at age 14 and sneaking back onto the lot a few years later to see the filming of the pilot for the ABC series Tales of the Gold Monkey, with its giant sets, big logistics and great special effects; "I was hooked!” he recalls. During college Segars worked as a PA and segment producer on the "Making of...” documentaries for some of the biggest films of the time; "I got to see up close how they made movies, including Poltergeist and Back to the Future... I was in heaven.”

          Almost as a footnote to his pioneering online work, Segars is responsible for launching a smash movie franchise, the National Treasure series. "While I was at the National Archives doing research, I learned that the glass case holding the Declaration of Independence had started leaking,” Segars recalls. "The case cracked over time, allowing fresh air and moisture to decay that most important document. Document specialists were urgently discussing what to do, saying ‘If you open it up the document will disintegrate. If you don’t open it up, it’ll still disintegrate.’ The National Archivist showed me a photo of when the Declaration of Independence was transported there from the Library of Congress. The guys guarding it looked like The Untouchables. They were driving those great old Fords and carrying big tommy guns. Here’s this giant motorcade to transport the Declaration of Independence to the National Archives. And I started thinking, what if someone stole the Declaration of Independence?”
          Segars took the idea to producer Oren Aviv. "Oren and I worked together on the story, and when we felt we were on to something we took it to Jon Turteltaub, who immediately jumped out of his chair, saying, ‘I want to direct this movie!’” Thank goodness he did. He made key contributions to to our story that made it the franchise it is today.
          The pitch was picked up quickly. "The next thing we’re in front of [Disney head] Joe Roth. That’s how quickly National Treasure came together. Disney bought it in ’99, long before The Da Vinci Code was even a thought. Now the script is in for the third movie. It’s very gratifying to see National Treasure’s continued success.”
          Turteltaub, who would go on to produce and direct the movie that would become National Treasure and its sequel, knew it was a great idea as a result of his previous experiences with Segars: "When I first met Charles, he was some stranger who was full of ideas/” Turteltaub remembers. "And every subsequent time I met Charles, he had a different job and even more ideas. Always supportive, always enthusiastic, always a cheerleader, and always a mystery.” 

Committed to a career in entertainment, Segars started working in television with producing jobs on magazine shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous as well as production exec roles on Viacom syndication hits like The Montel Williams Show. "About this time,” he recalls, "I got the greatest call ever. Jeff Sagansky and Rod Perth called and said, ‘We need to reinvent late night on CBS.’” After years of attempting to fill late-night with talk shows and game shows, network president Sagansky was ready to try something different. Segars and Perth were tasked with launching a group of scripted shows that came to be known as Crimetime After Primetime, a string of unique adult-themed series such as Silk Stalkings and Forever Knight. After serving as a crucial part of the team that recruited David Letterman to CBS, Segars was made head of Special Programming for the network,where he oversaw awards events like the Grammys and the Tonys, as well as experimented with shows consisting of wedding videos and animal attacks, years ahead of the reality TV boom. 

After years of experience in television, Segars began to see opportunities in the early dotcom boom, and in 1998 co-founded, based on the idea that movie fans would flock to a site designed around their unique community. "I quickly learned online video worked better in short form— two minutes max—than the longer form I was used to doing,” Segars recalls. He also learned that painstakingly-crafted content, while usually well-received, could be quickly upstaged by fan-made content. The world of TV, with its overnight ratings, critics and focus groups, was being replaced with the digital realm’s ability to provide instant, constant feedback. "It was exciting and terrifying at the same time,” Segars says.

A major opportunity came Segars’ way when Jeffrey Katzenberg asked him to consult on an idea for a show tailored specifically to the YouTube audience, called YouTube Nation, which curated content from the ocean of videos uploaded every day. "The idea was that since there was so much content being uploaded to YouTube every day, literally years of video each day, many great pieces of content deserve but can’t get the spotlight.” YouTube Nation used curators to scour the internet looking for content, then would contact the creators and ask them to allow the video to be used as part of the seven-minute daily show. The show reached two million subscribers before ending in 2014.

The differences between traditional TV content and video made specifically for online platforms are vast, and Segars was quick to identify the unique requirements of new media. "You have to put great story first. In that sense, there’s no difference between traditional and online video. Where the pathways diverge is you have to understand the best practices for where you’re airing that content. A reality segment for television is very different from one for YouTube or Snapchat. While cable television wants a 22-minute or 44- minute show, each online platform has a different sweet spot. The second common mistake is failing to understand that each platform has its own best practices. Third, and most importantly,online producers need to upload content almost everyday, sometimes multiple times a day,feeding their fanbase with exactly what they ask for. TV can’t come close to that. Online platforms like Vine, YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram are populated by content creators who have a one-to-one relationship with their audience.” As a result of his success with, Segars has become an expert in emerging online markets, doing consulting work for major players in the digital realm.

Segars has concrete ideas about how online media differs from traditional broadcast models: "One thing that’s new for traditional media producers is figuring out the discovery mechanism. How do you get your audience to find you among a billion other uploads a week? Just like when you’re trying to sell a show to ABC, it’s an easier sale with a movie star in it because there’s already a fanbase. Where digital diverges is you need be to across five or six platforms. And you have to bring an advertiser, which requires a whole new muscle for producers to develop.”

Additionally, online programming has to be produced differently from broadcast content. "Most online video is reality or sketch-based. This is mostly because scripted takes too long to bake and by the time it’s ready, fans are moving on to something else. Most content that resonates is two to four minutes, authentically delivered right to camera by the creators themselves, with a call to action to their fanbase to share it and give feedback that can be incorporated into the next piece of content.”

However, exciting things are emerging for long-form producers as well, with platforms such as YouTube Red."I have no doubt it will be a platform on which all types of content, at all lengths and at all production price points, will be exhibited,” Segars says. "Facebook is not far behind and will also be a monstrous video platform and buyer of content.”

Segars also consults for successful digital companies like Machinima and Whistle Sports—production and distribution companies engaged in building brands, finding talent and making content for unique platforms, with particular interest in young audiences. "The phone goes with kids everywhere,” Segars reminds us. "They carry it to school in their backpack. It’s their connection to the world. So to have someone tell a story over it is very powerful. If they have a few minutes during lunch or on the train, that five to six minutes is valuable real estate.”

In 2008, Segars took a leap into an older media form, the traditional cable network, with an eye to modernizing its business model. "Back in 2008, we raised some money and bought a tiny arts network called Ovation TV, which is now in over 45 million paid-subscription homes. Ovation couldn’t be more traditional in some of the content we make. We just did a $40 million miniseries called Versailles, airing this October. But at the same time we’re doing short-form, arts-centric content for specific arts verticals online. And we’re starting to aggregate some very interesting indie films and offering them to people on their handsets. We have a great team here and we move content across every conceivable platform,” Segars declares. "If there’s a tin can and a string people are using to talk to each other, one of our arts documentaries will be vibrating into there soon.”


These ventures plus massive growth in streaming services make it a very lucrative time for companies that know how to use these new platforms, which is why Segars launched Innov8 Design Studio two years ago, an agency dedicated to helping content creators connect with audiences."Content is king, but it takes the right balance of process—ideation and storytelling that is customizable for many differing platforms. Everyday we are learning and trying,” Segars says.

On top of all of these business endeavors, Segars is committed to public service, serving as a sworn deputy in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and has led advance teams for White House, setting up itineraries when President Obama travels. "Recently I was on Marine 2, and the White House photographer took a picture of me working on my phone trying to figure out where the motorcade was going next and what handshake was at the bottom of the stairs … He got this great shot and posted it on Instagram. In two minutes my phone was blowing up. It was jumping out of my hand.” And yet, even in this moment of fame, Segars returns to his passion for digital media. "People from all over the world were going, ‘Wow, what a great picture!’ That is the instant moment of digital. You get immediate feedback. And producers should listen to it. If your fan base is saying ‘I wish this would happen,’ take the layup. Make it happen for them.” Segars is insistent that anyone with an interest in entertainment and communications take an interest in the burgeoning world of social and online media. "The great stories you create can go everywhere to find an audience. I look at these new platforms as exactly the same as when someone built a movie theatre or put up a radio or TV antenna. It’s just that now the delivery system is a phone and a social media platform.”


Written by Steve Pesce

Additional text by Jeffrey McMahon

Photographed by Kremer Johnson Photography

- This article originally appeared in the August/September issue of Produced By magazine.

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