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SURVIVING THE GOLDEN AGE: If Content Is King, How Can We Be More Loyal Subjects?

Posted By Andrew Singer, Thursday, January 28, 2016

20 years ago this month, at the precipice of our current digital age, Bill Gates published an article titled "Content is King”. In it, he correctly predicted that content would be where the real money would be made in the digital age, just as it had been in analog broadcasting.

One of the exciting things he proposed about the emerging digital age was the possibility that anyone with access to a computer and a connection could publish whatever content they could create, and distribute it worldwide at basically zero cost. As such, Mr. Gates’ thesis was that the monopoly on content distribution would become sort of digitally democratized, and the relative value going forward would be in the content’s creation, rather than its distribution.

He went on to predict that for the digital age to thrive, quality content creators must be well paid for their work, and noted that while the long-term prospects were good, he expected a lot of disappointment in the short-term as content companies struggled to make money through advertising or subscriptions, observing, "it isn’t working yet, and it may not for some time, but over time someone will figure out how to get revenue.” He even went on to examine the potential pros and cons of advertising (namely scale) versus subscription (namely revenue) models.

An uncanny amount of what Mr. Gates predicted came to pass. Twenty years later, advertising and subscription services do define digital content distribution, and compete for market share for the exact reasons his article examined. The cost of distribution has been eviscerated by digital technology, enabling new platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon to emerge. And Mr. Gates’ central thesis, that quality content would be more important than the pipes it’s delivered over, is no longer a thesis, but simply an accepted fact. Regardless of how a platform generates its revenue or delivers its content, the thing the audience cares about is the quality of the content itself. Or as my boss once told a jargon-prone new network president, "you can only develop so many strategies for not making hits”.

Yet one of Mr. Gates’ predictions has not come true. While content is where the value is created, the comparative revenue received by its creators is often far less than the portion retained by distributors. Produced By proposed this article as a discussion about some of the possible reasons why.

First, the good news. The proliferation of distribution platforms has created an unprecedented opportunity for content creators. Broadway Video has worked to make the most of this golden era of television, producing new shows for cable and streaming platforms in addition to Lorne Michaels’ marquee late night roster for NBC. Shows like Portlandia, Documentary Now, and Man Seeking Woman would not have had appropriate platforms even ten years ago. By keeping production costs low, shows like these thrive with relatively small but passionate audiences, allowing their creators and stars to retain more meaningful rights and equity. Time magazine referred to this phenomenon as "The Rise of Artisanal TV Comedy”.

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in "Portlandia", broadcast on IFC
From a producer’s perspective, it works like "Moneyball” for programming. Unlike network television, your development strategy doesn’t strictly have to be about homeruns. If you hit enough doubles, you can win the game. But of course, it’s not that simple. This explosion of opportunity has created some side effects that adversely affect content creators’ leverage in the marketplace. The number of platforms competing for market share has created not only unprecedented opportunity, but also, inadvertently, an inflation of inventory.

As John Landgraf said at the summer TCAs, there is probably too much television. The number of original scripted series on the air has surpassed 410, and will probably continue to grow through 2016 before the market corrects itself and the number ultimately declines. Landgraf foretold that the process will be Darwinian and weighted towards companies with the financial wherewithal to weather a storm of inevitable failure. "We’re playing a game of musical chairs,” he told us. "And they’re starting to take away chairs.”

Anecdotally, we all have observed how it becomes nearly impossible for even voracious audiences to keep up with that many shows. Jonathan Krisel, the co-creator and director of Portlandia, mentioned the sense of relief he feels when he hears a new show isn’t particularly good;there’s one less thing he’ll have to worry about making time for. Overwhelmed by so many choices, marquee brands and dominant platforms like HBO, FX, and Netflix become ever more important to viewers as the curators through which to try out new shows. The importance of that curation tips the leverage in favor of well-branded platforms, rather than content creators.

To be fair, those platforms have earned that leverage. They are taking on more financial risk than ever before, competing to launch more shows than can possibly succeed, which in turn makes the launch of each new show all the more difficult. Landgraf again: "You take a fixed audience and divide it by 400 shows, and most shows are going to see ratings go down.” The enormous library of older shows and movies now conveniently available across the streaming platforms intensifies that fragmentation, as does the web, social media, and the multitude of interactive applications and games competing for our attention. Platforms must spend more marketing dollars than ever before to generate attention for each new series amidst this clutter. Furthermore, the unprecedented risk platforms now endure is compounded by audiences’ diminishing tolerance for commercial breaks, having grown accustomed to ad-free streaming and premium platforms. So it’s understandable that when a hit finally does break through, the companies shouldering all this collective risk try to exploit it in order to keep the lights on for everything else.

But there is another, rarely discussed side effect of all this opportunity, which also diminishes content creators’ leverage. In this golden age of television, everyone has the opportunity to have his or her own show; it’s time that we recognize that not everyone should. Until recently, there has always been more talent than there are "slots”. For the first time in television history, that paradigm has flipped. There are more networks and streaming platforms making more shows than ever, but there remains a relatively fixed number of exceptionally talented creators and stars.

It’s possible some creators and performers with their own shows would be better served by a series they didn’t have to carry on their own. Part of the problem is that the entertainment business is suffering from an industry-wide, bubonic plague-scale narcissism epidemic. Reality television has demonstrated that everyone—even those with no show business experience whatsoever—believes they should have their own show and be famous. This inclination is indulged by a culture of agents and managers who rarely tell clientsthe truth about where they stand or how realistic their ambitions may be. And producers are likewise culpable, taking half-baked ideas to market with writers in need of a script sale but without fully-formed ideas for series. Presented with an inflated marketplace spilling over with seasonal opportunities to develop shows, they grab the opportunity whether a project has legs or not. Bernie Brillstein used to refer to this development clutter as "fake show business”—and the low success rate it perpetuates diminishes content creators’ credibility and leverage.

With the platforms awarding so many creators and performers their first big breaks, and carrying the costs when many of those shows fail, it’s no wonder they both have and exploit the leverage to own everything—often worldwide and in perpetuity. They’re stocking their shelves with discounted merchandise that the industry is all too eager to provide. It has become too fragmented, and consequently, too disposable. The level of competition has created an extraordinary inflation of both opportunity and inventory.

Ironically, this explosion of opportunity even for unexceptional shows is happening as audience expectations for excellence continue to grow. That’s why when a fully-realized show from an exceptional creator and starring real talent is available on a great platform, it can dominate both critically and commercially. (Game of Thrones and The Tonight Show both come to mind.)

At Broadway Video, we’ve been encouraged to take our time putting shows together. This can include licensing underlying book rights, attaching directors and talent, and even shooting low-cost presentations before pitching an idea. I’ve studied good producers and learned how they stack the deck every way they can. In today’s TV landscape, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, and Tracy Morgan each could easily have had their own shows, but when they combined forces with the help of Lorne Michaels, they made 30 Rock—and won 16 Emmy awards. That’s inspiring. At the inception of Portlandia, Fred Armisen could have secured a large fee to star in a network comedy series, but he took favored-nations scale, and bet on himself, Carrie Brownstein, Jonathan Krisel, and IFC. In doing so, he protected both the show’s creative vision, and secured a more meaningful upside in success. That’s inspiring, too.

How do producers navigate this fast-changing landscape and manifest the theoretical leverage Bill Gates predicted content creators would eventually have. Can we help to change this culture of seasonal development? It’s a question we’re still puzzling over. With a problem this complex, with so many pieces in constant motion, the answer—whatever it is—isn’t going to be a simple one. So what are producers to do?

Here is one timeless, easier-said-than-done recommendation: To have old fashioned upside in shows—the kind our predecessors romanticize about and Bill Gates predicted we would eventually have—our generation needs to do the hard work of the iconic, "old fashioned” producers: putting together creators with stars, delivering them to the right platforms, and unrelentingly protecting those projects at every turn year after year. More than ever, we must have higher standards than the buyers themselves, because the buyers don’t have the focus nor, often, the expertise to do that job. They’re far too engrossed in the zero-sum game of gaining market share to handcraft hits themselves.

But perhaps that’s the good news. Perhaps this excess of programming can have a positive effect for strong producers, by highlighting the importance of the work we do. With so many projects in the hopper, the platforms need producers they can trust: producers with exacting standards, talent relationships, track records, and the time and patience to nurture hit shows.

In the two and a half decades since the repeal of the fin-syn rules, vertically integrated media conglomerates have devalued the role of producers. The networks created studios through which they make deals directly with talent, and many came to rely on a revolving door of in-house executives to oversee their shows—avoiding giving up valuable fees and backend to both producers and outside studios. What gets lost in that shuffle? The difficult and time-consuming work of putting together and maintaining hit shows. With more content than ever before, some platforms may well have bitten off more than they can chew. A dearth of good producers in an unprecedented glut of content can create opportunities for us.

Here is my hope: If we do the hard work of identifying and developing relationships with the stars of tomorrow, and put them together in the right combinations, on the right projects, at the right platforms, content creators will earn the leverage Bill Gates anticipated we’d have all those years ago. It’s a simple enough mission, though just about impossible to execute perfectly. Each show is like its own startup company, with an inherent tendency to fall apart and with everything in a constant state of change. But that’s my admittedly challenging goal for 2016. Take the time and really put a show together. The standard of writing, directing, and performance shouldn’t be based upon what we can sell—because in this market, producers can sell most anything —but in what we would want to watch for years to come. If we’ve done our jobs, we’ll end up with real leverage--and even more importantly, a real show.

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Posted Thursday, March 24, 2016
good article and information !
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