Commentary

The Cliffs Of Insanity

In “The Princess Bride,” Wallace Shawn’s character, Vizzini, continually underestimates the threat from the Dread Pirate Roberts.  Vizzini ignores Roberts’ chase across the sea, his daring climb up the Cliffs of Insanity, and his demonstrated mental acuity.  In the end, despite the mounting evidence, Vizzini (spoiler alert) dies because he never modifies his beliefs or his course of action against Roberts.

I was thinking about this after I received a Facebook message from an old friend last week who had recently sold a drama series to Sony Crackle.  Now in and of itself, a series on Sony Crackle is not news.  Each NewFront season we hear about the latest investments, pick-ups, and cancellations in original digital video series.  The entire process is modeled on the TV upfronts, and the fare is generally akin to TV: single-camera comedies, animated comedy, hour-long dramas, etc. 

But interestingly, while digital distributors and studios are copying the formats of cable and broadcast networks, the latter are largely ignoring the ascension of digital originals -- just like Vizzini.  For the most part, networks are simply creating companion content to supplement their TV product.  When they do consider digital, it’s to pluck stars from YouTube to bring them to TV -- which in many cases will actually bring native digital stars a smaller audience.  In fact, Chelsea Handler’s move to Netflix could easily result in a larger audience than she had on E!

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With few exceptions, this means that the networks are limiting their investment outcomes within the fickle and narrow window of prime-time tune-in. They’re missing this point: TV is where content finds an audience. The Web is where the audience finds the content. 

The networks should be using their audience clout to experiment with new formats, new talent, and new content -- but instead they’re nibbling around the edges with ancillary products.  This sort of activity is, at best, ditching water in a boat with holes. 

Furthermore, TV is also attempting to shore up its relevance by moving directionally towards live and tune-in events, and expanding tentpole experiences across platforms (think Olympics, March Madness, NBC’s “The Sound of Music,” “live” reality series, etc.).  The networks are trying to hold onto their audience by staking out tune-in, non-recordable territory.  While expertise in these areas of production gives them an advantage, it’s not enough, because they’ve already got competition from digital here as well:  Amazon’s purchase of Twitch, the ascension of Vice (formerly known as a magazine), Yahoo’s daily concert partnership with Live Nation, and apps like 120 Sports.  Recall that before DirecTV announced its NFL extension, there was plenty of speculation about Google purchasing the NFL rights (a tiny drop in Google’s cash bucket).

Ultimately, TV’s current strategy smacks of old-world media trying to hang onto its last vestiges of differentiation, while the foundation crumbles underneath. While digital distributors and studios are innovating content, investment models, audience building, and branding, TV natives are working to decrease audience erosion and maintain revenue by expanding the footprint of their current assets. 

Of course there are occasional exceptions.  Comedy Central has a hard-working digital original team, Nickelodeon is using the Web to pilot, and PBS Digital Studios is about to launch “Frankenstein, MD.”  NBC Digital and Scripps also gave nods to digital originals during the NewFronts, but for now their digital content is more like a multiscreen, cross-promotional strategy rather than a new content creation execution and investment strategy.

Digital has thrown down the gauntlet. Forget the disruption of TV. Unless the networks build up their resistance to iocane powder, you can start the clock on the last days (okay, years) of network relevance.

1 comment about "The Cliffs Of Insanity".
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  1. Marc Fireman from The OnUP Group, September 8, 2014 at 4:39 p.m.

    There is only one thing to say...Inconceivable!

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