Given convergence today, I think “TV” refers to the system that produces serialized content, at scarcity, to attract a loyal audience at some level of scale. Even more specifically, we just mean the content itself.
Large digital media companies like Yahoo, AOL, and others are building models with similarities to broadcast TV networks. The parallel to TV is based on the ability to broadly promote their premium content to a captive audience to drive more viewership. More interestingly, narrowly focused digital media companies like Machinima are mimicking the more tightly focused cable TV networks with the same objective. The difference is that the narrow approach creates a brand that attracts viewership.
This content brand-building is the way that “TV” will evolve, in my opinion. This space still needs big producers of premium content, but the broadcast network model that provides content for everyone will continue to shed audience in favor of more narrowly focused producers. These producers will work across screens. Brands like The Onion and ESPN are in print, digital, and television but with a particular ethos – and that is quite different than the way NBC or CBS operate, with a smorgasbord of content but no loyalty of brand.
Of course, you can’t be too narrow – this is not a long-tail endgame. There is a cultural relevance frontier – a place beyond which the content is so narrow, and the audience so small, that fans cannot share their love of a particular piece of content with friends or colleagues. It’s the minimum audience required for content to be socially relevant, and it is why our notion of “TV” will continue for the foreseeable future. In fact, I believe this combination of scale, sustainable loyalty, and cultural currency is partly why Hollywood is producing fewer, larger budget films.
Bill Wise, in a recent article for All Things D , suggests that Yahoo could become the next major TV network. He lists a lot of good reasons to think it’s possible, including Yahoo’s leadership in online premium inventory. But Wise’s arguments are primarily focused on the fact that more content is being consumed online, and that Yahoo is a media sales and relationship powerhouse — not on the strength and draw of Yahoo’s content itself. Ad sales experience and media relationships are not, in my opinion, part of the answer to the “future of TV.”
Consumers are not flocking to content “brought to you by Yahoo” despite Yahoo’s premium offerings and strong numbers. The content is consumed, but no one is buzzing about it or scheduling around it — they’re not doing all of the things that make TV part of our pop culture. In that sense, Yahoo lacks the meaning that we see in cable networks like AMC, Comedy Central, and History.
And it’s not just Yahoo. This has the risk of becoming an issue for most broad-based digital media companies — Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and even YouTube included. Currently these digital networks don’t carry branded, producing weight. All are trying to move in that direction by virtue of new series, but for now, they are apps with which to access content disconnected from their own brands. YouTube is more of a search engine than a brand, despite the ubiquity of its name, and in that sense carries significantly less consumer weight than Vevo. Unless these companies are able to start providing content as a brand, much in the same way as a Pixar or Marvel Comics, they won’t be able to loyally convert audiences, and their role won’t be as a “TV” network.
So who are the “next TV networks”? Who will build loyal, sustainable audiences based on their content? I think producers like Machinima and Vevo, gaming companies like Ubisoft and Electronic Arts, and strongly branded cable networks like AMC and SyFy are best positioned to be the large, premium content producers of the near future.