If anything became evident at the 2016 Newfronts it was various publishers’ commitment to television, redefining what it means to do “video”. Verizon and Hearst announced a slew of executive hires, mostly from old Hollywood media companies like CNN, CBS, and Comedy Central. Hulu showcased projects with Hugh Laurie, Aaron Paul, Amy Poehler, JJ Abrams and James Franco. Crackle, Sony’s streaming platform, jumped out of the Newfronts altogether and hosted a single event the week before. Crackle’s forthcoming slate is equally stacked with traditional formats and talent. Fullscreen even picked up classics like “Saved by the Bell” to underpin its own subscription video platform launch.
In a meeting recently, a digital exec at a major network said to me, (and I’m paraphrasing), “It used to be that we had a wall between the television development and digital development teams. That is no longer the case. The wall has come down.”
The wall has come down. Read that to yourself a few times. For the better part of the last few years, I’ve pondered a potentially personal career-shaking thought — “What’s the difference!? No, really, WHAT is the difference? The difference between the cable box and a Roku or Apple TV? The difference between streaming on the internet vs hard-wiring into a home? Just put the series online and cable! Advertise against it the same as you would in the home.”
Like robots, the answers — “It’s the money.” No. “It’s the bundle.” No. “It’s the carriage deals.”
We could debate this for hours but the reality is that television isn’t changing. Digital is. And it’s starting to look more like its predecessor than ever.
Increasingly, “television” has transformed from a delivery mechanism to an actual content format, meant to represent a series of 30 or 60 minute episodes of a certain professional caliber.
“We’re not short form, we’re long form players. Our content is viewed in the living room on connected TVs, and streaming boxes, and game consoles. We have a different ad model with not just a pre roll, but, ads that appear throughout the programming with very high view ability and consumption and completion rates. We underwrite our content and deficit finance it just as we do in the studio,” said Crackle’s General Manager, Eric Berger. “This signal[s] that we really [are] a TV network.”
It’s this distinction that’s behind companies like Crackle and Hulu calling themselves the new television, or as Mike Hopkins noted at Hulu’s Upfront “putting the TV back in the TV.”
What’s also shifting is the belief that there needs to be a “digital video expert” to make successful programming for the Internet. In following the Netflix model, digital-first talent is actually a non-factor. It’s traditional creative talent that yield “must-watch” programming on these platforms, not digital talent creating what’s been called bad television for online or mobile viewing.
And it’s that commitment to television-like formats and quality that has started to apply pressure for digital video “specialists” to step up their game. Afterall, the theme for this year’s two week-long Newfronts event says it all — premium.
“At the end of the day a movie is a movie. The “digital” creatives who have been deemed successful for digital but who weren’t ever good enough to direct a movie for Warner Brothers, Universal, Paramount, or Sony, or to direct an episode of television for HBO, Showtime, or Comedy Central, are going to get squeezed out as YouTube, Fullscreen, Maker, Awesomeness, and others continue to work more frequently with a higher caliber of writers, directors, and producers,” said a long-time Hollywood exec.
Companies like Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, and Crackle are no exception. “With our originals, we took big swings with many of Hollywood’s tops talents. This strategy is gaining incredible momentum,” said Hopkins, noting the success of JJ Abrams’ sci-fi time travel series “11.22.63” which drove the highest new subscriber rate, and retained-viewership, in the streaming platform’s history.
Hearst and Verizon are also making big bets on traditional talent crossing over. Of the 20+ talent hired to operate as the in-house production entity and on-air talent for RatedRed and Seriously.tv, only 5 are seasoned digital talent — Corey Moss, Richard Ryan, and Abby Casey, among the more well known. Fullscreen grabbed Polly Auritt from MTV, YouTube brought in Susanne Daniels, also from MTV.
But not everyone thinks this is the best move for the industry. “It’s baffling to me how many TV execs are scoring high level roles at digital content companies with very little knowledge of the business,” said one high level executive at one of the major digital distributors, who preferred to remain anonymous. “I had one ask me what a CPM was. And sadly there are digital video pioneers struggling to land a gig.”
But according to Shawn Strickland, who’s overseeing the RatedRed and Seriously.TV brands on the Verizon side alongside Hearst’s Neeraj Khemlani, “..having a strong, credible, experienced development team was absolutely necessary for the vision…”
And so, the wall has come down. There’s but a sliver of difference remaining between “television” and “digital.” For producers of social video, and hyper-short form formats, there will always be a home, but unless a digital-first creator has a breakout, “must-watch” short form series, television may just stand to kill the video star.