Why Nobody in the Industry Uses the Word ‘TV’ Anymore

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The term is complicated and anachronistic, industry execs like Warner Studios CEO Ann Sarnoff tell TheWrap: “We’re consuming omnimedia”

It was a sunny autumn day at Warner Bros. Studios, falling into that hopeful window between the Delta and Omicron surges. Never mind that Warner had doled out more than 2 million COVID tests to staff and visitors since the beginning of the pandemic — things felt kind of, well, normal when Wrap editors and writers met outdoors with WarnerMedia execs to talk about the legacy of the long pandemic and the outlook for 2022.

Entertainment Industry buzzwords were buzzing as WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, General Manager of Direct to Consumer Andy Forssell and Warner Studios and Networks Group CEO Ann Sarnoff discussed audience quadrants, quarterly results, content, theatrical windows, distribution mechanisms, platforms, tentpoles, subscribers and streaming services with a plus-sign after their names.

But the one word that seemed missing from the discourse was this one: TV.

Here, in the middle of the storied place that Johnny Carson dubbed “beautiful downtown Burbank” during his 30 years on NBC, ensconced in the self-described “media capital of the world,” surrounded by some of the industry’s most prominent execs — and nobody was saying the word TV. Content, streamers, series — but not TV.

Whatever happened to “TV”?

What is TV in today’s Hollywood? Kilar paused to think over the question. “We don’t use that term internally because it’s imprecise and wrong,” Kilar said. “You just don’t know (anymore) how people are using it. Teenagers don’t use it — I remember asking my daughter, when we were thinking about different words to use in our apps: Do you say series or do you say TV?”

Indeed, it seems like the vernacular has already changed, both among consumers and producers of the content in writers rooms, pitch meetings and agency offices. The current content world exists light years beyond the days of three networks when you had to “stay tuned” to a channel if you wanted to see the rest of the show. “Don’t touch that dial,” we were warned in a friendly way.

The phrase “stay tuned” had its roots in radio and TV “sets” (referring to the combined box and the cathode ray picture tube) that had to be physically tuned to a particular broadcast channel. In 2022, you don’t have to “stay tuned” for anything. Now you can watch whatever, wherever, on any device that you want.

Not using the word TV is not just a Warner Bros. thing. Like Kilar, Jeff Bader, president of entertainment program planning and strategy for NBC television and streaming, also takes his cue from the kids — specifically, his 9-year-old twins, who don’t use the word TV at all. “When we were kids, we would beg to watch TV,” Bader told TheWrap. “They don’t say that — they’ve always asked, whenever they’re finished with their homework or whatever, they want to know if they can watch. ‘Daddy, can we watch now?’ And sometimes it’s on the iPad, sometimes it’s on the TV, sometimes they want to watch on the phone. They’ve never said they want to watch TV. It’s fascinating.”

Robert Holmes, Roku VP of programming, added: “Gen Z doesn’t even know what TV is right? They watch stuff. And then they watch it in different places. They watch it on their phone, they watch it on the big screen, but like where it comes from that idea that it is TV, not TV, whatever it is. Like that’s not a distinction for them anymore.”

Top (L-R) Jeff Clanagan, Sylvia Bugg, Rob Holmes. Bottom L-R:Jeff Bader, Andy Forssell, Ann Sarnoff, Jason Kilar

Sarnoff and Forsell said Hollywood dealmakers are much more likely to talk about a “streamer” or a “series” than a “TV show.” “This is going to get harder. We’re consuming omnimedia,” Sarnoff said. “We’re going to have to change our vernacular.”

In development meetings, NBC’s Bader said that his team no longer talks about TV shows or TV specials. And the concept of a rerun, or repeat, seems almost quaint when virtually all content is being watched on some platform, somewhere, all the time. “It’s content. It’s programming,” he said. “And sometimes it’s ‘assets,’ because remember, a lot of what people are watching now is short-form.” He noted that can be hours of time spent “down the wormhole” of YouTube content, but on a TV screen.

As an example of the vastness of the content universe, Bader said the network examined stats from a single day in August 2021. NBC aired three shows in primetime, he said, but parent company NBCUniversal “had 34 shows scheduled on the 16 networks that the company has.” Then his team broke viewership down further. “What was watched in the NBCU was 28,000 different assets across all of our digital platforms and Peacock,” he said, noting that consumers on that single summer day “watched over 28,000 network shows and movies, and that did not include short-form.”

From a business standpoint, executives say they are more likely to use TV to describe the device, not the content or the creative commodity that is produced, bought and sold. However, NBC’s Bader points out it’s a fallacy to assume that the TV itself is disappearing from households in favor of viewing on laptops, smart phones and tablets.

For those in the business, however, “TV doesn’t exist,” said Jeff Clanagan, CEO of Kevin Hart’s brand Laugh Out Loud. “It’s the streaming business,” he said. “On the industry side, it’s entirely different.”

Roku’s Holmes pointed out the content available on big, connected screens and handheld devices is no longer easily definable as TV. Social media channels and user-generated content have also joined the mix. As an example, Jukin Media’s FailArmy channel on Roku provides short video content of epic fails (and falls) of all sorts. “They have a pet collective … it’s just these 30-second to a minute-long clips of pets doing cute or bad things or whatever it is, it just runs and people watch it for a long time,” Holmes said. “Here, we do call it ‘content.’”

“Our view overall is all TV (eventually) will be streamed,” Holmes said. “I always challenge you to find something that you that you would want to watch that you can’t watch right now. It’s not the old problems of you know, it’s out of its (cable TV) window, or it’s not at Blockbuster anymore.”

The distinction comes up often when content deals are negotiated. About a year ago, Clanagan recalled, he was negotiating with an agent about ownership of the “TV rights” to a movie vs. the digital rights. “He made a reference to Netflix, and I said, ‘Netflix is not TV.’ Streaming and OTT fall under digital rights because they are streaming.”

Clanagan observed that things get even more complicated when talk turns to so-called FAST TV (free, ad-supported TV streaming networks) that look a lot like linear TV networks but are delivered via the internet. “Now you have to break down what linear is — there’s ‘streaming linear,’” Clanagan said. Negotiations have gotten more complicated, he said, as Hollywood has evolved into “an industry of acronyms” – SVOD, PVOD, AVOD.

While Hollywood dealmakers are negotiating for content, not TV, the TV set itself still reigns among the various devices on which the consumer can view content. In the case of the NBCUniversal portfolio, Bader noted that 97% of the company’s content is still viewed on a TV screen. The wider statistics back up NBC’s case: According to a report released by Leitchman Research Group in 2021, 82% of U.S. households have at least one “Internet-connected TV device.” That definition includes smart TVs, connected video game systems and Blu-ray players, as well as Internet streaming boxes and sticks.

In addition, 39% of adults “watch video on a TV via a connected device daily,” which is actually less than 40% figure from the 2020 version of the survey, which the report said may be due to increased pandemic TV watching in early 2020. The number was 31% in 2019, 19% in 2016, and 3% in 2011.

And it’s not just the parents who are watching on traditional screens — consumers aged 18–34 were more likely to watch TV with connected devices on a daily basis, with 54% of those in that age demographic saying they do so. And more from the report: Those who do not subscribe to pay-TV services (50%) are more likely to watch connected TV daily than those who don’t (35%.)

“Even though it seems like the world has changed so dramatically, people are still for the most part watching on a TV. It’s usually a Smart TV, because that’s where they’re streaming to, and I don’t know what the Netflix or Hulu universe looks like, but I assume most of their shows are being watched on a TV too,” Bader said.

PBS chief programming executive Sylvia Bugg said she is still most comfortable with using the word TV to describe an actual television in the home because “I still do you have three TVs that are connected to my cable system.” Added Bugg, “I remember when PBS premiered (the Ken Burns series ‘Muhammad Ali’, how that night I watched it, yes, on broadcast, but I also had it up on my laptop and on the app as well.”

While PBS may be the most traditional of broadcast networks, even this mainstay has joined the streaming bandwagon to nurture new audiences. “I remember reading an article about two years ago in the New York Times magazine where the writer wrote: ‘All of our screens are now TVs’ and I thought that was very interesting, to think about it in that way,” Bugg said. “All of our screens are now what I feel affectionately referred to as a TV… we are a general audience service. At PBS, we do embrace this notion of a multiplatform approach and the mindset that we have to adapt to the changing habits of our audience, and their viewing preferences. They evolve all the time and so our mantra is really, we have to meet our audiences where they are.”

And that means on linear TV, YouTube or in the streaming world via deals with premium and ad-supported streaming services. And that doesn’t count the various PBS apps, including PBS Kids and PBS Passport, a member benefit from participating PBS stations that gives eligible donors and supporters extended access to an on-demand library of programming.

“We think about that upstream — where is it that we envision this content to be? Is it a long form? Is it something that we can curate for digital short-form content?” Bugg asked, noting how web series from PBS Digital Studios targets younger, more diverse audiences. “I have come to learn in all of my years it’s never a one size fits all.”

Despite a common conception that many people prefer consuming content on smartphones, tablets and other devices, ownership of connected flat-screen TVs is exploding as the price point for sets continues to fall. As a result, Laugh Out Loud’s Clanagan said, consumers are “very tuned into the TV-ness of it all. (They think) I have a flat-screen TV in my living room, I’m going to watch TV — but I have a million options.”

During a previous job in the industry, Roku’s Holmes said he became familiar with the “best available screen” rule — meaning that the consumer will gravitate toward the biggest screen available at any given moment, and in the home, that’s usually a flat-screen TV. That’s especially true now, he said, when you can get a 60-inch, 4K TV for less than the price of an iPhone 13. “People want to spend a certain amount of money on the TV, and as the screen size goes up for that dollar, they’re just going to keep getting it,” he said.

An exception to that rule, he noted with a laugh, are kids who will watch on a phone, laptop or tablet even with a big-screen TV available just to make sure they are not watching the same content as their parents.