How an Embrace of Digital Media Helped Viacom Get Its Groove Back

The Grill 2018: “At the end of the day, quality content wins,” says MTV and VH1 Digital Head Jacqueline Parkes

TheGrill Jacqueline Parkes
Photo by Randy Shropshire

When Bob Bakish took the reins at Viacom less than two years ago, the media giant had a big problem — the “MTV Generation” had long passed, and it was struggling to get its shows in front of young viewers. Television wasn’t the only game in town anymore.

“This is a generation that grew up swiping before they wiped,” as Jacqueline Parkes, CMO and EVP of Digital Studios at MTV, VH1 and Logo, put it at The Grill at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills on Monday. “They don’t make the distinction [between] a television or their iPhone or their desktop — when they see the content they want, they’re going to embrace that content.”

Viacom has since looked to target young viewers where they are in 2018. It’s doubled down on YouTube — with “Wild ‘n Out,” its sketch comedy show, growing its channel from 1.1 million to 2.5 million followers in three months earlier this year. Its Instagram accounts have ballooned “300 percent,” and its leveraging Snapchat to draw more teens back to its brands. It’s not an either-or scenario for Viacom when it comes to linear versus digital media, Parkes said, but rather finding a way for them to compliment each other.

That symbiotic relationship is clear to Wattpad head of content, Eric Lehrman. His platform allows creators to write stories “chapter to chapter” — which lets Wattpad’s 65 million users “interact with the authors as the story builds.” That interaction feeds its stories and often influences how they’re shaped. It’s a near real-time feedback that highlights the strength of digital.

And to Lehrman, another strength is that creators aren’t reliant on the traditional gatekeepers to build their audience and catch their big break. Lehrman pointed to the teen rom-com “The Kissing Booth,” which hauled in 19 million readers on Wattpad. The story — written by a 15-year-old from Wales, Lehrman noted — led to it becoming a Netflix Original movie this year.

With audiences growing more comfortable finding their favorite shows online, the trend towards long-form digital content could continue. Joe Hyrkin, CEO of Issuu, said his company has seen “massive engagement” with Stories — the popular feature on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat that allows users to curate a thread of pictures and video. Users are “moving away from headline, snippet stuff” to dive “deeper” into Stories. To Hyrkin, that shift shows that users are willing to watch more than short-form shows, as long as the content is engaging. And since Stories has been primarily driven by amateur creators, there remains an opening for established studios to make their mark.

“The majority of story content is still user generated, relatively inconsistent, and not necessarily brand friendly,” Hyrkin said at TheGrill. “The format is established, but we’ll start to see increasing high-quality professional content.”

Parkes echoed that thought, saying networks have reached a “tipping point where quality stands out.” Viewers have an endless amount of options now. To achieve digital success, networks have to not only hit viewers where they are, but with something they’ll want to see again and again. “At the end of the day, quality content wins.”