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What’s the Best Way to Cut Through Peak TV’s Clutter? Executives Face a Huge Dilemma

IndieWire spoke with more than 20 executives about the Peak TV problem, and there is no clear path for capturing viewers' time and money.

Jana Winograde and Gary LevineShowtime 'The L Word: Generation Q' TV show panel, TCA Summer Press Tour, Los Angeles, USA - 02 Aug 2019

Showtime co-presidents Jana Winograde and Gary Levine discuss their TV network during the 2019 TCA Summer Press Tour in Los Angeles.

Frank Micelotta/Picturegroup/Shutterstock

The future of television is about content exclusivity. Unless it’s the exact opposite of that. It could also be about centralizing all of a service’s shows on a single service. Or, it could be about divvying them up between several smaller, highly targeted platforms.

Executives of the industry’s various streaming platforms and networks are grappling with plenty of challenges in the era of so-called “Peak TV,” and their solutions are as diverse as the myriad of television platforms on the market. With the launch of Disney+ and Apple TV+ before the end of the year, the streaming wars are also going to be at their peak, and it’s imperative that the industry leaders find ways to make their services stand out. In a series of more than 20 interviews at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour, there isn’t a true consensus on how to approach the next few critical months in the industry, a harbinger that the times ahead are going to be rocky for both the business and consumers.

The Broadcast Answer: Marketing and Ease of Access

Catering to a platform’s niche and making platforms worth viewers’ time and money seem like fairly broad – and obvious -goals, but they’re the strategies that are paramount to the success of every television distributor.  The most recurring challenge executives noted is the explosion of television content in recent years. There’s simply a ton of shows on the market, and their sheer quantity means that streaming platforms and broadcast networks need to hustle especially hard to make their content stand out from competitors.

Replicating the success of widely popular series such as “Game of Thrones” is much easier said than done, and most TV platforms have several shows that are worth a viewer’s time and money, so merely releasing two or three solid programs every year simply doesn’t cut it. If a TV platform wants to thrive, something more needs to be done to stand out.

Effective marketing and ease of access are key in such a densely-populated industry, even if it means working with other platforms, according to CW President Mark Pedowitz. Pedowitz considers the CW brand to be a compliment to the SVOD giants, rather than a competitor. He knows that Netflix has a large audience, so his company will happily put CW shows on that platform with marketing that notes viewers can catch up on recent episodes of the series on CW’s free platforms.

“You have streaming services that will drop 50 projects a month and we’re dropping one or two,” Pedowitz said. “You’re fighting for the consumer’s eyeballs in such a fractured world. We would never have the girth to actively compete with a subscription model so we lean into what we’re strong at, which is selling advertising and offering a free, non-authenticated [no registration required] ability for viewers to watch these shows.”

The Cable Answer: Cross-platform Reach

For the services that aren’t free, there needs to be a strong value proposition. Content is, of course, king. A Netflix subscription is worth its weight due to the sheer quantity of its offerings, among other things, while AMC keeps the cable cords intact with consistently high-quality shows, such as “Better Call Saul,” “The Terror: Infamy,” and “Lodge 49.”

"El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie"

AMC will be a hotspot when “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” drops on October 11.

Netflix

The large volume of television shows on air poses challenges, but it’s not an inherently negative thing. The dense market encourages show creators to innovate to stand out from their competitors, while networks and streaming services are encouraged to work on unusual projects and ideas.

That was the case with “Lodge 49,” an AMC dramedy about an ex-surfing drifter, a secret society, and…capitalism? The strangeness of “Lodge 49” makes it difficult to summarize, but the series became a major critical hit for AMC, with IndieWire’s Steve Greene giving the latest season a B+.

“Lodge 49” executive producer Paul Giamatti noted that the series might not have been picked up by AMC if television distributors weren’t becoming more open to working on experimental series that don’t have a clear target audience.

“I don’t know if we would’ve gotten this show made five years ago, but now there’s an openness to risk-taking,” Giamatti said. “It’s an advantage that ‘Lodge 49’ is odd and different, because it’s something that makes it stand alone.”

Of course, quantity and quality are essential for any successful TV distributor, but some platforms seek to offer additional bonuses to stand out from their competitors. Amazon is a market leader in this regard, thanks to its Amazon Prime subscription service. Amazon Prime subscribers have access to free two-day shipping from Amazon, music streaming and access to the company’s Prime Video library, among other things. Prime Video, which boasts a library of legacy content in addition to several prestige shows such as ““Fleabag” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” is essentially an added bonus for an already value-oriented service, which helps it stand out from other well-funded competitors such as Netflix and HBO Now, despite those services typically producing higher quantities of quality original content.

Cable networks not affiliated with an online shopping behemoth offer deals to reach audiences that might otherwise miss out on. Showtime co-president Jana Winograde noted that a Spotify Premium for Students membership can include Showtime access, giving the network access to a demographic that is less likely to pay for cable TV.

“We have increased our penetration despite cord cutting,” Winograde said. “For instance, our Spotify partnership gives us a way to connect with a college audience that would never have a (cable) cord. Whether it’s that or our channel distribution partnerships, finding new and different ways is vital to reach consumers in this market.”

Winograde touted Showtime’s availability, noting the network is available via traditional cable, as a direct-to-consumer subscription, or as an add-on to other streaming services. The ability to purchase channels such as Showtime as an add-on to an select streaming services is part of what makes platforms like Hulu and Amazon Prime Video so appealing to cord cutters. It might cost extra, but if you’re only interested in one or two particular channels, it beats paying for cable.

Still, this kind of “create your own bundle” solution is what the broadcasters tried doing around a decade ago to alleviate consumer complaints about high prices and unnecessary channels, and it wasn’t exactly a roaring success. It’s as if the industry is going in a loop: Today, most of the major streaming platforms are already overflowing with television shows and films, but the good stuff is often scattered among various platforms that require subscriptions. Having to pay additional money on top of a streaming subscription could just annoy potential consumers, especially if they have to do their own legwork to figure out how to access the shows they are interested in.

City on a Hill Showtime Jonathan Tucker

Jonathan Tucker in “City on a Hill”

Claire Folger / Showtime

The Niche Network Answer: Target Underserved Demographics

The era of one or two streaming platforms or TV networks hosting all the buzzworthy content is long over, and it’s not coming back anytime soon. Though it makes sense for services to want to appeal to as many viewers as possible, some companies, such as Jonathan Katz’s Katz Broadcasting, are taking a different approach. Katz Broadcasting operates several tightly-focused networks, such as Escape and Bounce TV, which primarily offer TV content targeted at adult women and African Americans, respectively. The company also has a hand in the SVOD market via Brown Sugar, where consumers can binge Bounce TV’s original programming.

Katz Broadcasting doesn’t have the bottomless budget to compete head-on with the industry’s distribution titans, but it also doesn’t need it. Katz argued that instead of casting a wide net, consistently producing high quality content in line with what each of his networks’ curated audiences wants is the optimal business strategy.

“There’s a lot of good stuff for people to watch and that’s not a bad thing,” Katz said. “It may mean there is plenty of fragmentation, but if there is a large enough audience for us to monetize as a business and reinvest to be able to provide more and better content, we think we’ll succeed. We’re looking for gaps in the consumer marketplace and how we can fill those gaps.”

The Streaming Answer: Be Patient

One thing that several executives noted is that given the volume of shows on the market, it can take time for even the best of them to find an audience. Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke noted that “Fleabag,” arguably Prime Video’s breakout show, wasn’t an immediate hit in Season 1. Salke said it was important for her studio to be patient and let the show’s audience grow organically, a strategy that clearly paid off, given Season 2’s 11 Emmy nominations.

“In a world of Peak TV there’s just so many choices,” Salke said at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour. “So many of us, every single person (at TCA) has a long list of shows they intend to watch…So, it takes time for some of these shows to really find your path.”

"Fleabag" Season 2, Episode 1 Phoebe Waller-Bridge

“Fleabag”

Screenshot

The strategies vary, but executives largely agree that the increase in TV distributors over the last few years isn’t sustainable. If there’s going to be fewer TV distributors on the market, it’ll probably take a few years for that to happen. But one thing is certain: The industry is going to become increasingly competitive in the next year as major companies such as Apple and Disney jostle to make a name for themselves in the streaming world, and that patience to let content find its audience may be the ultimate virtue.

Disney+ will be leaning on its Marvel and Star Wars brands, which are viewership magnets that don’t require much elaboration. The company also has an eye for subscription fatigue, which is why the company will offer its upcoming SVOD service as a bundle with ESPN and Hulu.

As for Apple, that company is reportedly budgeting $6 billion for Apple TV+, which will feature exclusive shows from a laundry list of celebrities ranging from Oprah and Prince Harry to Steven Spielberg. Spielberg is also one of several high-profile creators who has signed on to create content for Jeffrey Katzenberg’s upcoming mobile-only, short-form Quibi streaming service, which has raised $1 billion from investors.

And that’s just in the next six months; in the next year WarnerMedia’s HBO Max will hit the market in Spring 2020, while NBCUniversal’s still-unnamed ad-supported streaming service will release in April 2020.

How much any of those upcoming services shake up the industry remains to be seen. But with so many deep-pocketed power players about to enter the market, there’s little doubt that industry’s war for viewership is only going to become more cutthroat and the solutions the executives are positing now may radically chance by this time next year.

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