Letter From New York, February 21, 2011

Future of TV, according to the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation and Variety Magazine on February 15th in Los Angeles, CA…

As I tweeted that I was at this Future of TV Summit one wag of a friend, himself a former producer of many a series, tweeted back: TV has a future? Which I suppose was the question this Summit was called to answer. There were big names there, from legendary producer Gale Ann Hurd to the head of programming for HBO, Michael Lombardo. There were a dozen men and women from the cutting edge, those in charge of the technologies threatening the TV business. Interestingly, the regulars and the newcomers didn’t mix much on the panels. The new guys on the block were pretty much segregated from the old boys on the block, regardless of their ages.

And one would have expected, one would have thought, someone from the invasive new services like Netflix Streaming or Hulu. But they weren’t there. Though Hulu got banged around a bit by various network executives and producers, decrying that the service streamed their programs shortly after airing but they weren’t getting an appropriate amount of remuneration for that airing.

Blame that on Nielsen said some, who, as it always seems to have done, lags in measurement of the new technologies so that actual viewership is not adequately measured. And there is truth to that; Nielsen always seems to lag behind what’s actually happening. That’s one of the gripes of the folks who make their living off the network model, pretty unchanged for decades now, especially if you’re one of the broadcast networks. But it’s certainly not the only one.

The fact that technology is changing the business was voiced by all though may be just because they felt they had to make a nod to the future. Much at this particular summit seem to be about the STATE of the television business today as opposed to a clear attempt to parse the signs and see what the future might be really like. Much of that, I suspect, has to do with that most of the people on the panels are luminaries in traditional television and as luminaries in that business are earning a very good living and are not particularly eager to face a future which might not be quite so lucrative for them.

One thread through the day was the concern of network executives about how to maintain a brand in an online world. No one really had an answer but it was definitely a concern. HBO is a brand and how does it maintain the strength of the brand as the distribution streams multiply? And what is the brand meaning now of CBS and what will it be in the future? Does CBS really stand for anything? HBO does but does CBS? Brand strength is important and there is a trend happening in which producers themselves are getting brand identity in individuals such as Dick Wolf of the Law and Order franchise and Anthony Zuiker, behind the CSI franchise, which are in some ways almost larger than the brands of the networks that distribute them.

But again, this was not so much about the future of television but commentary on the current state of affairs. Was anyone talking about the future? Yes, there were. Some. Those who were out working in the fields of the future…

Two bright lights from that world were Eric Anderson, VP of Content and Product Solutions at Samsung and Brian David Johnson, Futurist and Director, Future Casting and Experience Research at Intel. Samsung is at the forefront of integrating internet connectivity into television sets. He pointed out that it used to be televisions got upgraded once a year. Samsung now has done it about ten times in the last twenty-four months. Not on a panel with anyone from the traditional side of the business, he did try to speak out to them. Did any of them realize how fast it was all happening? Unfortunately, the people who needed to hear the question asked were probably back in the green room mingling with their peers. The Futurist at Intel announced that he had announced to his peers at Intel that the future of computing was television. Which may be the reason that this year Intel has put a chunk of change into Kaltura, an open source video-serving platform [with whom Odyssey is in business at this moment].

Notable but not noticed by the traditionalists in the business is that 25% of the TV sets sold in 2010 were internet enabled and it probably will be 40+ % in 2011, which is pretty amazing and which is demonstrating where the business is going. And it is going fast, thank you Mr. Anderson. But the reality is that TV, old style TV, is still very powerful and deeply entrenched in the way we live and consume video. AOL is aware of that and is working to make traditional TV its friend, not “frenemy,” but friend, working to augment not challenge the current behemoth. The gadgets and the gizmo boys are working to challenge the behemoth, to provide alternative distribution methods that are disruptive to a traditional business. The traditional business needs to find ways to embrace the alternative distribution methods so as not to completely disrupt their business.

Because it does take real money to produce really good content; may be it doesn’t take as much as is currently spent for traditional television series but it does take money. Content is king; always has been and pretty much always will be. The AOL folks have a phrase they’re using internally these days: content is kinging, a riff on a line in The King’s Speech. Content is kinging. In the early days of any technology almost anything will sail. When television erupted, people even watched test patterns [for those who remember test patterns]. In the early days of the Internet, silly college boys putting Mentos in Coke was entertainment. But things have moved beyond that – content is king, or kinging.

And we have to figure out a way to pay for the kind of content we want whatever the technology is that brings it to us. That’s the conclusion that the Future of TV Summit seemed to come to but what it lacked was the real dialogue between the creators and the gadget and gizmo boys and girls about how to make it all work for both creators and consumers.

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