The pundits and the talking heads have been clamoring for some time that the networks are dying. I agree that they are in decline, but they are far from down for the count. However, if they want to maintain or grow their fairly prominent market positioning, they need to rethink much of their current operating and revenue models to address the new market reality.
Below, please find eight bold ideas that I believe could set networks well on their way towards not only differentiating themselves to viewers and talent alike, but could set the stage for the future of the entire industry.
- Put all your new pilots online. Give fans the ability to talk to the creators, the talent and gather with other fans. This doesn't mean that the internet will choose your new programming decisions, but it will build hype while giving your audiences a voice in the process. And if the program only really appeals to a rapid niche audience, put it on many of MANY niche cable networks.
- Sell one two minute commercial pod per hour. If agencies can learn to scale down their commercials to 10 or 15 seconds for the web, they can learn to tell a deeper, more engaging story in 2 minutes. As a viewer, I think I would appreciate some real story telling instead of soundbites and over-stimulation. As an ad guy, I think it could really shake up the market, the negotiating table and the market expectations from advertisers overall.
- Layer the web on top of all of your programming. Tune in online or via mobile while you watch for a richer, enhanced viewing experience. I'm not just talking about hints, I'm talking about a live directors commentary on a drama or an alternative comedic, simpler or more expert opinion on live sports. This will reward live-broadcast tune-in, while offering instantly available clickable ads. Also, this will enable...
- Live social co-viewing. As viewers, we're already doing it on Twitter, on Facebook, on AIM, etc. Sure, live streams would be appreciated (and the technology exists to dynamically serve local ads), but at the very least, give us a hashtag, a chatroom, forum etc. Celebrity participation in the chat would be an added bonus, and yes, it would help build your network's...
- Digital Personalities. Every network has their core personalities. These may be talk-show hosts, anchors, actors, writers or directors. Not only will avid fans appreciate the participation of their favorite personalities, but these digital channels will create sell-able opportunities for advertisers. This is more than a blog, it's a live interactive Ustream session every week, a personally maintained twitter presence, etc. Entertainment personalities need to become personalities beyond the screen, they need to meet our real personality expectations in 2010.
- Redefine the network distribution model. As a network, you make your money by creating programming that attracts viewers that in turn attract advertisers. Your broadcast spectrum is only as meaningful as your local affiliates. And your affiliates are with you for your content. Focus on your strengths (content), and diversify your distribution (with your affiliates as appropriate). This is about more than Hulu or iTunes. It's about live-streams (via local affiliate sites, setup by the network, with dynamic insertions of local ads), it's about a 4 hour broadcast delay to digital downloads instead of the vague 12-ish hour delay on iTunes. It's about multi-platform, multi-channel, streaming and downloadable, ad-supported, fee based, pay-wall and hybrid models. Make your content flexible enough, and there will be no need for piracy.
- Redefine the network talent model. Networks bring three core pieces of equity to their talent. (A) A paycheck for their services, (B) resources and investment in their talent's programming and (C) attention, celebrity and fame (a fan base). Seth MacFarlane may be incredibly talented, but he wouldn't have the fan base he has today without the attention and resources networks deliver. Sure, his fans brought him back to Fox, but he wouldn't have had the fans without Fox funded and initially distributed content in the first place.
- Rethink talent negotiations. Really talented people can go rogue and build their own revenue streams independent of your network once you have invested in building their following. Howard Stern could leave Sirius, keep a good portion of his subscribers by delivering his content via the web, and still make a killing. He would then be his own network, his own distribution. He could create his own programming beyond his show, and sell it to whomever he wanted. This is the new celebrity reality. It's time to adapt your talent's contractual model accordingly.