Monday, February 08, 2010

NATPE: David Zaslav, President and CEO Discovery Communications

Zaslav was introduced as the CEO and President of the "strongest platform media company in the world"--and the number one item of interest up for discussion seemed to be the Oprah Winfrey Network. Zaslav talked about that and had some other interesting comments on the state and future of the industry. Besides Oprah, Zaslav was optimistic about 3D TV, promising a 24-7 3D channel to compliment Discovery's 7 all HD channels.  In his keynote he outlined what he believed to be future fundamentals:

1) Quality content is the key to growth 
2) the TV set will remain the center of television consumption in the home. 
3) Social media: Need to acknowledge that "viewers are the experts" and executives needed to be able to follow their leads. He mentioned that social media made "River Monsters" the most successful show in Animal Planet history (a program that had very little marketing) thru more or less social media word-of-mouth. He also compared social media to what MTV used to be...the place where people go to see what people wear, listen to, etc. I thought that was an interesting comparison. TV companies "must acquire assets to play in that space."
4) International distribution is the key to growth. He said that international markets are like cable was 10 years ago, specifically mentioning Russia, Romania, Poland, and India. Companies need to take content and channels outside the US.

Before the Q&A, a promo for OWN ran (featuring the indie music stylines of Los Campesinos!). The network launches in 80 million homes. The right way to launch a network, whether or not you are Oprah.

Zaslav also had some interesting things to say about the importance of branding in TV’s current landscape. His mantra was “Strong brands, strong programming, stay on brand.” He credited Discovery for staying basically on its foundational brand, while others have refashioned themselves, such as A&E. When he initially came to Discovery, one of the things he did was get rid of “biker and tattoo stuff” to return to that brand image.

Another thing separating Discovery from other cable channels is that Discovery owns almost all of its content, which he credited to the desire to be able to air them over all platforms. In terms of defining “quality”, he said it was their business to identify the great storytellers and getting them to “work with us.” Beyond that, quality meant “great storytelling” and “original characters.”

As another branding case, he talked about how the success of Jon & Kate enabled TLC to rebuild itself after losing an audience by diluting its brand with too much A&E or Bravo-type programming. I’m not sure exactly what he meant—but I thought of “What Not to Wear” a show I like, but does seem more Bravo, I suppose. Anyway, the popularity of J&K created a moment when “women in America were finding the channel” and they could take advantage of that.

Back on the 3D tip, Zaslav again expressed his belief in its future by suggesting that 3D gaming might drive the sets into homes. Basically, thru teens who want it for gaming…then others will find they want it for sports, etc. He thinks the creative community will want it as well, especially following the success of Avatar. He also described how Sony planned to provide programming and had interests thru selling sets, as well as content in films and music acts. Discovery itself, he pointed out, had a 20 year library which it could upconvert.

Zaslav seemed smart about online distribution, talking about Mythbusters and how that show had incorporated shortform videos as well as promoting viewer participation. They don’t post shows, but clips. And also encouraged viewers to submit their own videos suggesting “myths to bust.” Apparently the Mythbuster guys are keen on this stuff.

Before taking over Discovery, Zaslav was at NBC Universal for 20 years. Unfortunately, the interviewer was not successful at getting him to dish some dirt on his form employer.

One moment that caused me to shudder was in reference to Discovery’s “Planet Green” channel, which apparently hasn’t caught on. Zaslav said the company is no longer emphasizing it because he felt “there’s been a political/cultural shift”. The company is no embracing a “lighter” approach to the network.

Again, he was tight-lipped about what OWN would feature in terms of Oprah’s role, though he assured viewers would “feel her presence in a meaningful way.”

A recurring theme among the week’s speakers was a notable relief that the NY Times was soon going to require online readers to pay. He warned, however, that entertainment companies had created the expectations for free content by giving it away to start with. With the NYT, Hulu, and Variety all starting to charge, he saw this as a “shift” (excuse?) to charge.

Lastly, he said that Discovery has people watching YouTube and trawling the social networks. They want to know what people think about their shows.

Nice work, if you can find it.

Friday, February 05, 2010

NATPE: Jeff Gaspin, Chairman, NBC Universal Television Entertainment

Conan O'Brien Vs NBC was on everyone's mind at NATPE. It was a constant opener in discussions, and more than one punchline. Jeff Gaspin had no hope of avoiding the topic of that $45 million for nothing to Conan, especially on the heels of the announcement just before the conference that NBC would lose $250 million on the Olympics.  Let's have a look at who this guy is. The following comes straight off the NBC Universal executive bio pages:

Jeff Gaspin, who was promoted to Chairman, NBC Universal Television Entertainment in July 2009, oversees all business, creative, production, distribution and marketing aspects of NBC Universal's wide-ranging entertainment television operations. 
Among the businesses he's responsible for are NBC Entertainment (home of critically acclaimed and popular shows including "30 Rock," "The Office," "Heroes," "The Apprentice," "The Tonight Show," "Saturday Night Live," "Days of our Lives," and the "Law & Order" franchise); cable's top-rated USA Network and buzz-generating, growing channels Syfy, Bravo, Oxygen, Chiller, Sleuth, and Universal HD; Spanish language outlets Telemundo and Mun2; TV production companies Universal Media Studios (which produces dozens of top shows, including "House" and "30 Rock") and Universal Cable Productions...
And on and on and on and on... I appreciate Jeff Gaspin's apparent candor, but I fear he may be out of a job in the next year.

The absolute best line of the entire conference came when Gaspin was asked about how NBC could possibly justify/be optimistic about the prospect of losing $250 million on the Olympics. From his perspective, the Olympics "will be a cleansing moment" for the network before relaunching their schedule March 1. $250 million buys one helluva shower. Or is the "cleansing" more of an enema? I apologize, but the guy asked for it.

Other Gaspin nuggets: He admitted that he was surprised that Conan was "so emotional" about the scheduling situation. Gaspin just shrugged, and said repeatedly that he thought they had come up with a plan to keep both Leno and O'Brien...and also admitted that they goal that started all this to begin with was wanting to keep Jay in the first place.

Jay! Jay! Jay! Always Jay! At some point I will pontificate on the nut-so scheduling choice of stripping Leno during primetime--which goes against typical network programming strategies regardless of the personalities involved, by taking late-night programming and throwing it in primetime. But I'll save that rant for later.

Asked whether the network now had an image problem, Gaspin tried to shrug it off. "What hurts us is not having enough hits on the air." Which, I guess, is true. What can I say. After he loses this job, he has a future in politics. "The economy is bad because not enough people have jobs." Etc. Etc. Later he admitted that the bottom line was NBC did have an image problem IF the creative community was alienated from the network.

Gaspin admitted that he thought the company had taken too much out of the broadcast business with its emphasis on cable (USA especially), a move which made sense for the company, but not the network.

On the optimistic tip, Gaspin pointed out NBC's aggressive program development: 20 pilots will be done this year. Later, admitting that 55% of those would be produced by NBC. "I really just want to get the best shows on the air," he said. He admitted that he might use a hit as a loss leader, pointing out that he liked how FOX uses House (produced by NBC) to launch other shows. "Broadcasting" equals network + studio according to Gaspin, and those two together are still a good business model. The upfronts would be "a time to celebrate broadcasting" presumably meaning not just what NBC had on the air, but what it was producing for other broadcasters.

Asked whether the Comcast deals was affecting NBC currently he said they couldn't at all because they aren't allowed to participate in any decisions until regulatory approval. So he didn't offer any suggestions about how anyone might be forward-thinking about this new ownership model, how it might change what NBC does. Actually, listening to him, I believe he probably doesn't have much of that "vision thing" to offer.

Finally, Gaspin was asked what he had learned in his time as chairman at NBC. He took a nice long time coming up with an answer. Finally, he said he had underestimated the emotions involved, particularly those of Conan, and thought he had simply presented a logical plan for keeping both onboard.  He also said he was surprised by the speed of the public discussion--and even recognized that people were bloggering/twittering what he was saying then.

Well, took me another week, actually.

NATPE: Bill Lawrence, creator/showrunner Scrubs & Cougar Town

Full disclosure: I don't watch Scrubs. I don't mean I don't regularly watch Scrubs; I mean I've never watched Scrubs. I haven't seen Garden State either. Zach Braff doesn't do it for me. Having said that, I found Bill Lawrence genuinely entertaining, and more importantly, he seemed like a thoughtful guy. He was also extremely gratified when my colleage Kevin Sandler from Arizona State told him he shows the episode "My Life in Four Cameras" in his television course.

But enough about my personal feelings, and on to my "take-aways" from his talk, moderated by J. Max Robbins from the Paley Media Center. Since this is a blog few people will read, I am going to be sporadic in how I translate my notes. But I fear I'd better do it soon, before I forget what the nonsense I scrawled down means.

On the importance and shifting role of the showrunner, Lawrence stressed that he believed "TV is an execution business" while the movie business is idea-driven. Hence the showrunner's importance maintaining consistency, as opposed to the individual development (of an idea/story if not individual creative voice) in film.

On the difficulty of getting a new sitcom on the air, Lawrence said he was working with someone who wanted to make a show about an adoption agency. Turns out 11 adoption agency sitcoms had already been registered with the WGA in one year.

On empathy in comedy, he said he thought characters who actually care for one another make comic stakes higher, and that people (viewers) need something emotional to hang on. He said that he thought maybe that was what stopped Arrested Development from catching on. This was the second time that point had been brought up. Earlier in the day, there was a panel for Modern Family, the producers of which pretty much admitted that they wanted to make Arrested Development--but with feeling.

On how he would change the development process: get rid of all the extra hoops of mid-management that clog up development at the networks. He contrasted this to the "Grant Tinker" approach which didn't have all that.

On good and bad pitches:

One of ABC's presidents fell asleep when he was pitching Scrubs.  He was shocked because he thought the pitch was so good--everything was true, based on a real-life JD who was a huge screw-up.

Worst pitch: to Kevin Reilly, President of NBC at the time. When changes were suggested to Lawrence, he countered "you should write that." He then warned the audience to beware of comments which give you five minutes of joy followed by many, many, many more without it.

Best pitch: Clone High to MTV.

Lawrence also talked about Cougar Town, a show that purportedly has more women writers on staff than men--uncommon for a comedy. Since the core of the show is about how men and women approach things different, this was necessary.

On Scrubs moving from NBC to ABC, classic stuff on the dynamics of TV production, distribution, and ownership today. ABC owned the show, which meant NBC could only make money off selling ads. When ABC picked it up, they therefore stood to make more money through "syndie".

On convergence and comedy: Lawrence was asked how much he thinks about people watching "bits and bytes" of comedy online when he writes/produces the show. He admitted that they always are sure to incorporate some "internet-ready" bit that will self-promote the show. An example was an airband version of "More than a Feeling."

More: "There are no quick hits in network TV, but on the Internet...the person who can monetize" will make a fortune." He also stressed that the opportunities to hustle a small company are still there.

On "My Life in Four Cameras": Lawrence said he believes that there's nothing as immediate and gratifying as the multicamera sitcom, "nothing purer than the multicamera" sitcom for "pure escapist entertainment." However, he related that doors kept getting shut in his face when he pitched multicamera shows. The episode was a response to that; a "love letter" to the multicamera sitcom that he said many people thought was a "slam" of it.

I took copious notes during the National Association of Television Program Executives conference in Las Vegas last week. I'll be posting them piecemeal, but I really need to because I found the individual presentations very interesting and informative. All about what people working in various capacities in the industry think is happening. Lots of comments about NBC and Leno.