At a time when the television landscape has been completely disrupted by new ways of delivering and viewing programs, the best thing producers can do is take advantage of new opportunities and hope they can figure out a way to make money in a wild new world.
That was the conclusion from a panel titled “The Revolution Has Just Been Televised: The Disrupted Landscape of TV” at the Producers Guild of America’s Produced By Conference on Saturday on the Warner Bros. lot (though the PGA misspelled the word televised on the panel’s video screen, above).
“Nobody doubts that TV is in a kind of crisis right now – but that’s the good news,” said PGA executive director Vance Van Petten when he introduced the panel, which was sponsored by TheWrap and moderated by producer Marshall Herskovitz (“thirtysomething,” “My So-Called Life”).
“We are in an incredible moment in television, if you can even call it television anymore,” said Herskovitz, who pointed out that even hit broadcast-network shows these days have a fraction of the audience that they needed to stay on the air 20 or 30 years ago.
“In the old days, you couldn’t survive unless you had 20 million people watching your show,” he said. “Now, nobody gets that. So what do you need for an audience?”
The panelists had different answers. For CAA television agent Peter Micelli, “Sleepy Hollow” is considered a big hit with an audience of around eight million and good on-demand and DVR numbers.
For producer Jessica Borsicky, the Showtime series “House of Lies” is considered a success because it draws people to the cable channel – a big change from her previous show, “Flashforward,” which was cancelled by ABC in 2010 despite the fact that it was the biggest show of its time for DVR viewings.
And for Amazon’s head of drama, Morgan Wandell, the measure of success is simpler. “We are not in the business of being 20 million people’s third-favorite show,” he said. “This is about being somebody’s favorite show, to the point where they’re willing to pay the extra amount and take the extra effort to see it.
“It has to drive subscriptions to Amazon Prime. We’re not selling advertising, we’re not promising such-and-such to General Motors. We are about delivering subscribers to Amazon.”
Amazon is a fairly recent entrant into the field of scripted television, along with the likes of Netflix and Yahoo. But according to Micelli, streaming technology and the new buyers are what have transformed the TV landscape.
“The amount of show we are selling and getting on the air now is staggering,” he said. “It’s an amazingly exciting time as you see these shifts. Almost every two months, a new distributor, either linear or streaming, comes into the office and says, ‘We’re going to get into the scripted business.'”
Added Wandell, “I think of it like a Dickens novel: It’s the best of times and the worst of times. There never been more opportunity – and yet it’s never been harder to get the right deal and get shows on the air and make them stick, because there’s so much competition.”
Competition and money, the panelists agreed, are the trickiest parts of the new TV landscape, where binge-watching rules. “Nobody I know,” said Slingshot Global Media’s scripted television president Quan Phung, “watches shows day-and-date. You have to take advantage of the new platforms to do the kind of shows that can become people’s favorite shows.”
But once you’ve created those shows, added Micelli, you have to bring them to viewers’ attention. “The biggest challenge is creating awareness that shows exist,” he said. “Some really smart people will figure out how to reinvent creating awareness of a show in a way we haven’t done. Most of it is still 30-second spots and billboards in major markets.
“Creating awareness is a huge challenge right now, and coming up with a strategy to create awareness is really valuable.”
Borsicky agreed. “How do you not get lost in a landscape where you’re sharing the air with the Karsdashians?” she said with a grin.
And the money, she added, was also an issue. “At the end of the day, there may be 300 outlets where they used to be 10,” she said. “Everybody’s getting a smaller piece of the pie, and the money seems to be shrinking as a result, but the consumer wants something that looks as good as ever.
“So you’re making shows that are for a 50th of the audience you used to get, but you can’t do it for a 50th of the effort or budget. It has to look as good as it ever did.”