The Cultural Relevance Frontier And TV's Future

We all know that content consumption is changing, that video is converging across screens, and that younger people care less about where and how they consume their favorite content. But traditional TV is still the dominant media force today, crushing everything by a country mile in terms of scale, reach, and sustainable cultural currency.  Which is why as TV ratings drop, and cord-cutting increases, we continue to search for how TV will evolve. But what do we even mean when we say "TV"?

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.

Another Take

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. 

7 comments about "The Cultural Relevance Frontier And TV's Future ".
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  1. Ruth Barrett from, July 23, 2013 at 2:53 p.m.

    TV is a peripheral like a terminal or drive or printer or plotter or scanner. To invest in the hardware view of the world is to remain bolted to an aging technology which after a while just doesn't fly anymore. Many of us have learned this lesson the hard way.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 23, 2013 at 6:17 p.m.

    Let's all take a breath. TV evolution and future will happen and it takes a few more years, so be it. It is not a life or death matter.

  3. John Grono from GAP Research, July 23, 2013 at 7:35 p.m.

    For mine the 'TV industry' are those people who create and commission the video content we have watched and loved for generations. They have also traditionally owned and controlled the means of distribution and monetised the distribution (i.e. ads) in order to pay for the content. I'm seeing players and companies popping up everywhere in the distribution field, but not so much in the content creation field. I'm also seeing the TV industry loosening the reins regarding the plethora of distribution options now available - as long as they get a cut.

  4. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, July 24, 2013 at 6:36 a.m.

    Disagree that "video is converging across screens". Possibly you're confusing the delivery channel (where there does seem to be convergence) with the type of screen (where I don't see any evidence). For example in my family, when we watch short youtube clips we use a tablet screen. But when we watch 60min youtube programs, to catch up with TV series episodes, we use the main TV.

  5. Mike August from Adam Carolla Show, July 28, 2013 at 11:53 p.m.

    Couldn't disagree more, distribution networks be they broadcast or cable matter less and less in the disintermediated world of digital video... People watch programming and are totally agnostic of who is bringing it to them... All that matters going forward is artists, audience and advertisers... No distribution network that brings it to them is necessary...

  6. Eric Korsh from DigitasLBi, July 29, 2013 at 8:41 a.m.

    Mike - first - thank God people disagree so we can have a dialogue - appreciate it. Question - in a world where only artists, audience and advertisers matter, what governs or aids discovery? I agree it's possible that distr networks could be removed from the equation - but we are extremely far away from that right now. If they do disappear, what is left to help us mortals organize our tastes - just algorithms? Budweiser's Comedy network was not only before its time, but why in world would I want Bud to help me find comedy? This discovery issue is at the root of power - but right now it's not in question - TV still owns it.

  7. Bobby Campbell from Adkarma, August 1, 2013 at 12:10 p.m.

    The social aspect of TV is pretty important and I think a bit overlooked thats a good point...

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