For Deadline today, freelance journalist Diane Haithman covered the Hollywood Radio and Television Society’s Newsmaker luncheon at the Beverly Hilton:
What will the TV industry have left to buzz about after fallen NBC talk show host Conan O’Brien’s new 11 PM show launches in November on TBS? And the world finally finds out whether his young, hip, Twitter-happy fans will follow him from NBC to cable? Once again, NBC and Conan launched the discussion at yet another industry gathering. O’Brien’s choice to sign with TBS instead of Fox after the “fairly catastrophic” NBC debacle (as FBC’s Kevin Reilly called it) was used as a starting point for a discussion about whether cable TV represents the television industry’s sweet spot in 2010. Oprah Winfrey’s move from syndication to starting her own cable network got a mention, too, but that was announced way back in 2009 — and she’s just not as much fun to talk about as Conan.
On the panel billed as “a post-upfronts look at the business of the business”: O’Brien’s attorney Leigh Brecheen, partner and head of television at the law firm Bloom Hergott; Paul Lee, president of ABC Family; Steve Mosko, president of Sony Pictures Television; Kevin Reilly, president of Fox Broadcasting Company; Chris Silbermann, president of ICM; and Tim Spengler, president of Initiative USA.
Well, time will tell whether cable is good to Conan – but what about everybody else? The rest of the discussion revolved around whether 2010’s promising upfronts mean that traditional, scripted broadcast TV series are back on top – and whether the networks can exist in happy harmony with cable channels, online TV options and VOD.
Reilly was among those riding the post-upfront broadcast high. Conan’s move to cable, he said, represented the continuing growth of cable but “this year, the upfront [showed] the resilience of the broadcast model…we could do this panel five years from now, or 10 years from now, I do believe it.”
Sony’s Mosko believes that TV is TV. “I think it’s silly to talk about cable vs. broadcast, we’re talking about television shows,” he said. “People who like Conan are going to find Conan. We’ve got to throw that out.”
Mosko also offered this somewhat frightening statistic – although clearly the executive saw it as a positive: The average person, he said, watches “158 hours of TV per month – and it’s growing.”
Lee, of cable’s ABC Family, was, not unexpectedly, touting the magic of cable. “It is the moment for cable and I think we should celebrate that [and] create shows for a dual revenue stream business,” he said. He’s big on niches and “branding.” I’ve come to believe that brands are critical. “When I was a showrunner, the only brand I thought was important was the name of the show,” he said. “The brand is a promise, it’s not just a demo; it’s how that demo wants to watch television.” He said that ABC Family’s research showed that their target audience, aged 14-28, is “a more optimistic, a warmer generation… We have an easier job focusing on that demo, and it works.”
But ICM’s Silbermann and Initiative USA’s Spengler were on hand to provide some hard stats: Network television is still the preferred choice among advertisers and has the highest syndication potential.
“The problem with the syndication model — not the international syndication model — is that because cable networks do so many fewer shows, they get so defined by their original programming,” Silbermann said. “The Shield defines FX, and it’s very hard to sell it into syndication. ‘
Said Spengler, on the advertising issue: “Advertisers use the power of television, and the bigger the audience, usually the more value it is.” While advertisers sometimes take advantage of a particular niche offered by a cable show, “in general, advertisers are paying for size. “
Spengler added that, right now, network television can offer bigger numbers than cable, and vastly larger numbers than online TV – but said that the positive response to many new shows at the upfronts is “a little Pollyanna” given that ad revenue has been “fairly flat in the last five years. Revenue in 2010 will be off in 2010 vs. 2007. The business is going to have to figure out where the new money is going to come from, because the majority of it, on the broadcast side, comes from advertising, and advertising is flattening out in national television. “
Spengler did say that, while the jury is out on whether advertisers will continue to go for size above demographic specificity, expect the digital revolution to change the way advertisers evaluate the success of their ads in all entertainment media.
“As the world goes digital, the way that television is monetized in the next 2 to 4 years is going to change significantly,” Spengler said. “In the first 50 years of television, the world was, you pay for ratings… in the last three years, we have more data, can measure if people are watching the spots… the way we evaluate the data we have to look at will be, does my ad in a particular show provide a response? With the interactivity of the ad, will they click on the ad, click on the website, go to purchase? Advertisers would rather pay for 8 million views with more response than 10 million views with less response. The word for that is performance, that’s how Google built their business. That’s the way it will be three years from now.“
Brecheen addressed the Conan matter. “We all thought initially that we would probably end up at Fox… But, like a lot of networks now who have a single revenue stream with advertisers, they are struggling to make things work, and I think this whole retransmission crisis going on right now is an example of the fact that there is a huge shift between network and cable…”
But when Brecheen was asked what ratings numbers she expected Conan to do, it was Fox’s Reilly who jumped in instead to say: “The decimal will be on the left side of the number, not the right… I’ve worked in cable; the decimal is going to be on the wrong side.”
Reilly, who also joked publicly about whether O’Brien was a good guy or a bad guy, later told me, “When I first got to the cable network FX, I said: ‘What is success?’ In all seriousness, I had never seen a decimal on the left side of the number. But Conan would be thrilled with that decimal. The Daily Show does a .6, and it’s a huge success.”
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