A roundtable on TV’s future

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Los Angeles is still the center of television, but thanks to the rising power of cable, New York City is drawing ever closer.

This month, The Times assembled a roundtable of leading East Coast television executives to discuss the dynamic technology-driven shifts that are rattling the industry. From Netflix’s streaming new series “House of Cards” to the rising cost of sports programming, the four executives weighed in on what the rapid changes mean for their networks and ultimately what it means for viewers.

The panel featured Charlie Collier, president of AMC (“The Walking Dead” “Mad Men”); Michele Ganeless, president of Comedy Central (“The Colbert Report,” “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart”); Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC (“Hardball With Chris Matthews,” “The Rachel Maddow Show”); and Norby Williamson, executive vice president of programming and acquisitions for ESPN (“Monday Night Football,” “SportsCenter”).

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Below is an edited transcript of a 45-minute discussion moderated by Times TV reporter Scott Collins at the SoHo Grand Hotel in New York City.

The pace of change in the industry has really gotten intense over the last several years. How do you think this is changing the experience for the average TV viewer?

Charlie Collier: Well, I think it’s more opportunity to see great content.... The most important part of your question is about the pace of change. Because we spend so much time not just looking at what things are, but more, we look at something and say, “What’s it going to be?” And I think for us, if we had been having this panel five years ago and you asked me about Netflix, I would’ve said, “Well, Netflix sends me my DVDs in the mail.”


Collier: If you look at it, instead of as what it is versus what it will be, Netflix doesn’t just send you DVDs, and your iPhone is not just a phone, and your Amazon is not just a bookstore. And so we look at the way things are happening today, and Netflix, and the consumer experience. We say, “What’s it going to be for us?” And so I should start by saying Netflix has been a great partner for us now for years, and we looked at it as an opportunity to do, well, to help us do what we’ve doing for years already, which is to help us create opportunities to drive water-cooler television.

Given the pace of technological change, do you think having a network still matters? Because people are talking about programs, programs, programs.

Michele Ganeless: For us, it’s not programs, programs, programs, as much as it’s hits, hits, hits, because none of this matters. The platforms don’t matter unless you have a hit that people want to see. But for us, we started thinking about ourselves in the last couple of years, we’re not a network, we’re a brand. So we’re a brand on your television, we’re a brand, we do live events, we’re a brand on your phone. So for fans of brands, you know, when you talk about a fan of a football team, or a fan of a brand like Apple, they’re passionate, and they’re loyal. And that’s what we develop with our viewers. They’re no longer viewers, they’re fans. And so we’re so much more than a network. And internally, we’ve stopped using that term, because we can’t think of ourselves as a network, because our audience, especially young guys, they don’t distinguish between platforms. It’s not the TV screen, it’s the Comedy Central content.

Collier: For Colbert and Jon Stewart and the other shows that you have on, those very popular shows, have you noticed more people watching those things, time-shifting them, watching them the next day, watching them online, bypassing the television set altogether?

Ganeless: Yes and yes and yes. This year, our ratings are up actually 5% over last year on the linear TV screen. Our streams are up. People are watching it on their tablets more, because we have apps on tablets for each show. It’s additive. If you look at total viewing of content, just across all platforms now, it’s up 10% versus five years ago. So it’s giving us an opportunity to reach people who are not sitting in front of TV sets, or the people who might not have cable, misguided as that might be. They can watch it wherever it’s best for them.

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My nephew’s in his 20s. When he watches sports, he’s got Gamecast going on his laptop, he’s checking scores on his cellphone, he’s watching another game. Is that the viewer experience now, just multiple screens?

Norby Williamson: Initially, we thought that people will watch “Monday Night Football” and will be with their laptop back then, or their iPad now, and doing additive to “Monday Night Football.” We found that really isn’t the case. What they’ll be doing is, they’re watching “Monday Night Football,” and they’ll be on their laptop on checking something else, or watching another game on ESPN3, or searching their favorite, watching, you know, a DVR drama, or checking in on news. So that multitasking concept is something that I think the industry has their arms around now, but we’ve been sort of a little bit slow getting there. So we have to sort of release that concept of additive to what I’m watching, and basically understand that it’s different.

Phil Griffin: Technology changed MSNBC. We began as a 24-hour news channel in the model of CNN. Roger Ailes began Fox News about six months after us. Roger Ailes was years ahead of us in figuring it out, where technology was going, because he went niche. He figured out he was going to target a specific audience and went for it. We were still saying, “Hey, we got a cable channel, we’re one of the few.” We’re lucky, but we went generic. We went like CNN, 1980. And it took us about nearly a decade to figure out, “Oh, it’s good that we have a cable channel, but we have got to change.” You get your information everywhere because of technology. You get it first on the computer, then you’ve got it on your smartphone, and now you get it on every one of your platforms that you have. But the critical part was, we said, “Well, how are we going to succeed in this? You can get information everywhere. How are we going to be a news channel?”

Are people getting in silos now so that it’s not really possible to have broadcasting anymore?

Collier: It’s the opposite. Obviously, “The Walking Dead” for us has been a ratings phenomenon, and that is a water-cooler moment at a time where you would think fragmentation wouldn’t make the size of that audience possible. And I think what’s happened is actually, people feel a relationship with the show.... there is social currency around it.

Ganeless: It’s what makes the “House of Cards” experiment so interesting, that they released 13 episodes at once, which would sort of go to your point of, people want their individual experience. They want to consume content the way they want. But our research has showed that they like being part of the community. They want to wait for the next episode of “Walking Dead” or of “Tosh,” or they want to be able to talk about it at school or at work the next day, because that community still exists, and it’s really important, certainly with our fan base.

Griffin: Whatever the conventional wisdom is, it’s generally wrong. So that’s what people think. It’s interesting, in the Olympics, they showed all these events live on the Web. And they said, “Oh, my God, for years, they worried about this, and we can’t do it, and they won’t watch, they’ve got to watch in prime time, because that’s what we pay for.” And it turns out, the more somebody watched on the Web, the more they watched in prime time.

Williamson: The biggest issue is that consumers are in control now more than they’ve ever been. And if you go back even to the industry, the music industry with Napster and the whole deal, we should all take a lesson from that, you know? Consumers are in control, and our job is to sort of be ahead of that, and figure it out before that demand is there, because ultimately, they’ll vote on what they want. And if you’re not there or ahead of that curve, you’re going to be out of business, or you’re going to lose your position.

Program expenses are going up. Norby, I’ll start with you, because people have talked about the high cost of sports programming. Should we make television a la carte?

Williamson: Obviously, I disagree with that. I mean, it’s not very shocking. Looking at it practically, the a la carte model will ultimately mean consumers pay more and there are less choices. When you look at the basic cable model right now, and the diversity of programming, and the options that people have, I would challenge anybody to tell me there’s a better entertainment value out there.

Griffin: If the people pay $15. And I don’t think it, it can’t happen, because there’s just too much out there, and it’d be just too expensive. I’m going to pay, you know, $4 for AMC, $2 for MSNBC, $3 for — you know, and then, how many people, you’re going to get, like, five channels, because it’s just going to be outrageously expensive.

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What are your thoughts about where we are going in the next five years?

Collier: It is a bit of a fool’s errand to predict, you know? I’m going to quote Don Draper. But in every situation where he doesn’t know the answer, right? And he’s like, whether someone he knew got pregnant accidentally, or what is it he says? He says move forward, right? Move forward. Our job is about enjoying what it is now, and then making sure you build the models to build it into your, for lack of a better word, ecosystem, moving forward.

Ganeless: I do know what will always matter, and that are hits. If you don’t have “Mad Men,” if you don’t have “Rachel Maddow,” if you don’t have Jon Stewart, it doesn’t matter what platforms you have; it doesn’t matter what your business models are.

Griffin: Don Draper says move forward, we say lean forward. The critical thing, as you go forward, we won’t understand the technology, because it will change, and we’ll all turn and figure it out. But you’ve got to know who you are.

Williamson: It used to be very simple, you know? Create good content, create hits, create live programming, acquire the BCS, whatever it may be. Now I think everything’s changing so much that we have to not only do that, and brands and everything are important, but you have to have an eye on the distribution aspect. And it doesn’t mean buying, necessarily, distribution, but understanding how you tweak your content through different, evolving distribution to reach fans. Whereas pure content providers maybe didn’t need that before.


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