Fri, 03/23/2012

2012 TV Summit: Despite the Platforms, Audiences Matter

It's no secret that people now have multiple platforms on which to consume media. From phones and tablets, to Roku and gaming consoles, the once-dominant TV set/broadcast audience is now splintered more than ever. What still remains elusive is how to effectively program for and market these platforms ... while also winning audiences, turning a profit, remaining socially responsible, and building a brand. There are no easy answers to these questions, but as witnessed at the March 20, 2012 TV Summit, a daylong series of discussions and panels presented by The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation and Variety, business models are changing in the face of the current media landscape.

Some highlights/take-aways from the day:

1. Research still matters

Knowing who your key audience is and what their habits are remain crucial to driving viewership. TV Guide's Christy Tanner revealed findings touting the benefits of interactive online forums: social media,'s programming Wishlists, and online check-ins have all proved enormously fruitful for the company. Hearing friends discuss TV shows on social media often compels a person to tune in, and 27% of TV Guide's sample will watch live television specifically to avoid social media spoilers. Doing due diligence in order to discover ways to give viewers a sense of connection to shows and to other fans prove to be important factors in a successful campaign.

Audience testing is still pertinent, too. Although notes from audience testing can at times be frustrating, Parks and Recreation showrunner Mike Schur believes you can't completely ignore them. Testing gives you direct feedback from the people who will watch your show. Parks and Rec and The Office (which Schur wrote for) didn't test particularly well - The Office came across as "too gloomy" - but comments from viewers helped Office showrunner Greg Daniels make decisions that likely extended the life of the program. Daniels stayed true to the show's dreary British roots, but ended each episode on an upswing, hoping that audiences would be drawn to Pam, Jim, and Michael and stick with the show.

2. Showrunners lament outdated methods and embrace creative freedom and new outlets

Though ratings continue to be critical metrics, Parks and Recreation's Schur questioned the importance that's still placed on overnight ratings. "We live by tenths of ratings points," and the overnights don't accurately reflect the web, mobile, and time-shifting audience that consumes media. Panelists in the Showrunners SuperSession also discussed the pros and cons of broadcast, basic, and pay cable networks, with Dallas' Cynthia Cidre stating that she'd often have two-hour meetings with CBS (she wrote for Cane), and now has five-minute meetings with TNT. Person of Interest's Jonah Nolan extolled the virtues of online tools, seeing websites as a welcome home for content that gets cut from episodes.

3. Original web programming is on the rise and has distinct benefits over traditional broadcast programming

Original content for the web was a key topic of the day, with the upcoming “new fronts” serving as a discussion point. Digital programming will have an upfront season, just as television does, which Erin McPherson, VP & Head of Yahoo! Originals and Video Programming, sees as a cohesive way to sell content. Original digital programming allows for flexibility in program length, a quicker development period than broadcast, and a chance for those who have traditionally been aggregators (Yahoo!, Google) to create content of their own.

4. Social media provides opportunities to engage viewers and distribute more varied content

Panelist Scott Reich of VEVO praised using social media as a means to market content – a sentiment echoed in almost all of the day’s panels, but particularly in those addressing original programming and engagement. Suburgatory showrunner Emily Kapnek is a relative newbie to Twitter, but admitted that she's now somewhat addicted to reading tweets about the show as it's airing. If she encounters negative feedback, she has to fight the urge to have her husband tweet back and defend the show. USA’s Jessie Redniss lauded social platforms as a way to expand storytelling and diversify a network’s portfolio of syndication ports, while Trevor Doerksen of Mobovivo believes that social can satisfy what he sees as the fundamentals of engagement: 1. people crave communication 2. people crave information, and 3. kids want to play games. Social and second screens can fulfill each of these desires.

5. Keynote Presentation: Content is King

The industry may be at the very beginning of understanding how to effectively utilize social media and other platforms, but many at the Summit agreed that content is still king. Keynote speakers Dana Walden and Gary Newman, Co-Chairmen of Twentieth Century Fox Television, discussed how they endorse projects that make them excited creatively, and hire writers whose enthusiasm for shows becomes contagious. Walden believes "big bold ideas move well between distribution platforms," and ideally wants an audience "to become a community." She and Newman cited Arrested Development's return (a revolutionary show with a dedicated fan base) via Netflix, a deal which came about by Netflix approaching CAA and pitching to distribute content that people feel they "have to have." Netflix was referred to throughout the day as a frenemy - not necessarily as a competitor that could take the place of a network, but as a place that can extend the life of a program beyond broadcast or syndication.

6. It's possible, but not always easy, to make content that matters

Thanks to fragmentation and a plethora of platforms, content can be tailored for niche groups. Socially responsible projects that may not traditionally be thought of as ratings successes will now often get developed, and may even become fan favorites.

In the panel showcasing the power of advocacy and social messages on TV, JD Roth, Executive Producer of The Biggest Loser, explained how he had to fight to get the weight-loss program on the air. A show about tackling obesity, a rather taboo subject eight years ago, was an extremely difficult sell. But Roth believes real stories of struggle that people can identify with strike a chord, and "the best TV shows are ones that show someone getting a piece of their lives back that they lost." Alice Cahn of Cartoon Network expressed a similar sentiment, describing how moved network execs were by her pitch of the "Stop Bullying" campaign. People relate to heartfelt stories of suffering, and well-crafted, authentic TV shows and campaigns can have a positive impact on the real world.

Though the issues addressed at the Summit weren't solved in one day, they were effectively parsed and prodded. Roth summed up his sentiments on socially responsible television by reminding us that “kids won’t listen to a word you say, but they watch everything you do.” It will be interesting to see what the landscape looks like when those kids are running the 2032 TV Summit.

- Adrienne Faillace

Click here to watch the Archive of American Television interview clip reels shown at the 2012 TV Summit.