Content is King: An Analysis of Key Trends Affecting Change in TV Programming

It’s doubtful that Bill Gates knew how explosively and profoundly true this statement would prove to be.

If it weren’t true, then Roku wouldn’t have 700 content channels (adding an average of one per day), ESPN wouldn’t garner the heftiest household sub-fees in all of U.S. cable (estimated at $5/sub), American Idol wouldn’t be locally formatted in 42 countries, and You Tube’s Annoying Orange wouldn’t have hit a billion views last January. Incidentally, the latter spawned a video game, a series on Cartoon Network, a range of toys and a clothing line in the span of four years. An exhaustive review of the broad and profound changes affecting media would be more ambitious than this article strives to address.

However, several key trends are worthy of focus: the rise of new TV networks and production, the emergence of reality TV, the revival of the big-budget production and the influence of online content on TV.

New TV networks and growth

New niche networks continue to capture an increasingly fragmented audience. News Corp. recently announced the launch of a third FX-branded channel, for example.

FX will continue to cater to 18- to 49-year-old viewers as FXM is expanding its’ core movie service to include original programming designed to capture adults 25 to 54.

The new network, FXX, will target adults 18 to 34. FX president John Landgraf recently mentioned plans to achieve original programming parity with ABC, NBC, FOX and CBS over the next few years.

Not all niche networks are successful, however, and News Corp. has made its share of blunders.

Recent reboots include the former Speed network becoming Fox Sports 1; Fox Soccer becoming the new FXX network in September 2013; and Fox Reality becoming National Geographic Wild late last year.

There are other new channels popping up that have endemic advertisers, which are specific to the topic.

An example is O’Neill surf equipment tied to Xtreme sports. These advertisers can afford to get involved because of the low cost of entry and the efficiency of the ad spend to reach a very targeted audience.

These new networks are very vertical and deeply engaged with their target audience.

TV programming today vs. 5 years ago

The chart reveals the top ten prime-time program types on the broadcast networks from 2001 to 2011. Note this analysis does not include programming outside the top ten programs, nor does it consider cable networks or plat-forms.

Taking that handicap into consideration, the chart is useful to sense a number of interesting trends.

  • Reality television has consistently captured the largest percentage of the audience watching the top 10 broadcast programs since 2003.
  • Eight percent of the top ten programs in prime time 2003 were sporting events, growingto 19.4 percent in 2010 and beyond.
  • The audience for scripted drama peaked at 43 percent during 2005-2006 and dropped to21.6 percent by 2010. Still, scripted drama is a consistent presence in broadcast television’stop 10, and since Nielsen did not include cable or OTT networks in the analysis, they mayhave missed an insightful migration statistic.
  • Sitcoms are in short supply among the broadcast top ten. Again, audiences may be getting their laughs elsewhere. Big Bang Theory, and Two and a Half Men are notable exceptions.The next chart demonstrates the reliability of traditional broadcast networks to reach a large audience. Note that the most popular cable-based network is ESPN.

Re-emergence of branded series and mini-series

More than 30 U.S. broadcast and cable net-works are commissioning original scriptedprogramming. Expensive story-driven televi-sion production is attractive because it mirrors feature film tent poles, attracts advertisers, attracts international broadcasters, createssubscriber ‘stickiness’ and places the net-works in a space traditionally reserved for pay television.

mcfmedia_logo9142014Mini series like The Bible and The Vikingsare perfect for cable budgets because they are essentially document-dramas with very little dialog, rich production values, international scope and stories driven through narration.

Netflix entered the arena with a $100 million investment in House Of Cards with Kevin Spacey, a non-commercial serial that’s squarely aimed at the $8 per month streaming subscriber who may be attracted to an alternative to HBO.

Commercial cable network AMC hit grand slams with Walking Dead and Mad Men, products that ultimately land on Netflix or Amazon as non-commercial versions.

The traditional networks are looking at mini-series as a way to mitigate live TV events and sports and shore up a slightly eroding reality base. “A lot has changed in the media landscape, and the notion of creating an event that is on for a shorter period of time that really demands attention is exciting,” Fox Senior VP-Event Series Shana C. Waterman said in The Hollywood Reporter on May 3, 2013.

Moreover, studios continue to lean towards big budget, franchise tent pole theatrical releases and away from adult dramas in the $50-100 million range in an effort to mitigate risk. This creates an opportunity for producers to close that gap on television. “With the kind of movies being made right now, there are a lot of people who have adult drama stories that are harder to get made,” said Gina Balian of FX, in the same THR story. “Television has become a really attractive place.”

Some of the new programming is already underway, including an adaptation of Joel and Ethan Coen’s FargoGrand Hotel from Sam Mendes, about a fictional terrorist plot in Paris; Sutton from Alexander Payne and Michael de Luca, about the infamous U.S. bank robber Willie Sutton; Mad Dogs from Shawn Ryan, a black com-edy originally seen on British television; and Mayflower from Paul Giamatti and Gil Netter, about the Puritan expedition to the New World.

Even Amazon is producing 14 pilot pro-grams through its new Amazon Studios division and letting viewers help decide which programs get the final green light. “We think there is an opportunity to reinvent the process of developing original films and TV shows by getting lots of feedback and input from our customers much earlier in the development process,” Bill Carr, Amazon’s VP of Music and Video said in a March, 2013 issue of Businessweek.

Online content moving to TV

Popular content that started as a videogame is also making its way to TV screens and vice versa.

Case in point is SyFy Network’s $40 mil-lion dollar series Defiance that bowed day and date with a $60 million dollar MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online game) that features the same characters and environments from the series and takes the story in different directions.

The success of one doesn’t necessarily guarantee success for the other. On the other hand, Content Media’s Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn began as a short form series on YouTube’s Machinima network.

The series was so successful online that the distributor packaged the episodes and sold them as a feature in DVD, subscriber-based TV and video-on-demand markets. “This is a slightly new model. Halo 4 is one of the first properties that we’ve taken out that first aired on a YouTube-funded channel,” Jonathan Ford, Content Media’s Executive VP of Television and Digital, said in Variety in April, 2013. “This show, which is driven by a strong brand, has helped prove that there is an economic model for entertainment beyond the traditional TV windows.”

Amazon Studios division head and former Disney executive Roy Price agrees, telling Associated Press in April, 2013, “Why follow the guru method when you don’t have to anymore? The audience is out there, and the audience is interested. We might as well make them a partner in the process.’’

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Von Johnson

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