By Dan Pappalardo
We’re entering television’s golden era of choice – and choice is the domain of branding. With audiences facing an unprecedented number of options for what and how to watch, defining your network brand in a way that is clear, concise and easy to say ‘yes’ to in that moment of choice has never been more important.
Sure, people come for the shows. And yes, a single hit can change the entire course of a network. But shows have a shelf life, while brands are the one constant that can help carry you through the roller coaster of hits and misses. Brands transcend the ebb and flow of show launches, and brand affinity drives choice at a completely different level. At the very least, a strong brand can get you first looks – perhaps a small percentile advantage that can make a huge difference, like that small house edge in Vegas.
From the audience’s point of view, your network is a combination of content and brand. But which is most important? The answer is both. Viewers choose shows, and they give preference to network brands. Think about the shortlist of channels you check when first clicking the ‘on’ button. If you’re doing it right, the two work hand-in-hand to build audiences and support your ongoing cycle of new show launches.
That’s not to say the relevance of show versus brand doesn’t shift over time. Like a pendulum, the precedence constantly swings back and forth depending on the prevailing marketplace. But that doesn’t mean you should forsake one for the other.
The first explosion of choice in television came with the cable boom of the 1990s. The number of cable networks tripled in less than a decade, all the way up to 171 choices by 1998. Before that, most people in the US chose between a few shows airing at that moment on just three major broadcast networks. With so few options available, the show mattered more to the viewer than the network on which it was running.
The branding of TV networks came of age in the cable boom. With the rapid expansion of cable channels came the need to distinguish between them all. It was pretty straightforward at first, as many cablenets aligned themselves with relatively clear-cut categories. If you were a history buff, the History Channel was clearly for you. If you were in the mood for a classic movie, you’d go to American Movie Classics. You like arts and entertainment? A&E might be your preference.
While the broadcast networks catered to the broadest audience possible, cable networks were niche destinations. With 200-plus specialised channels to choose from, network brand took a front seat to the individual shows. Compared with today, the choices were easier when the channel names defined their content.
Today, things have grown more complicated. Most cable networks have abandoned their limited niche strategies in favour of a broader programming slate as everyone seeks to grow their audience. History Channel expanded its line-up under the slogan ‘History made every day,’ adding contemporary reality series like Ice Road Truckers and Pawn Stars. AMC is now better known for popular originals, like Mad Men and Walking Dead, than for its classic movie roots. The last fine arts programme to run on A&E went off the air in 2007 to be replaced by popular entertainment shows like Duck Dynasty and Bates Motel.
No longer are premium original series the sole product of the big broadcast networks, and cable – the land of niche content channels – is scrambling to launch original series that appeal to a sizable audience. As a result, show marketing has taken precedence over branding. It’s understandable, as drawing an audience to the premiere of a series is critical to a network so dearly invested in that content. At a time when a single show can change the course of a network, if not the industry (think AMC’s Mad Men), shows have taken precedence.
But we are now at the dawn of another profound shift in the television marketplace and – watch your head – the pendulum may be close behind as we confront a perfect storm that also brings mass audience confusion. There is an unprecedented level of choice, brand names per se are not at all brand-defining, and networks of all kinds compete at the same level of content quality.
But the real breaking point has been reached just recently: media has become democratised. Content creation and distribution are up for grabs, thanks to the internet, and traditional business models that were firmly entrenched – namely bundled cable subscriptions and lucrative commercial breaks – are starting to break down.
October 15 and 16, 2014 may well have been the tipping point for distribution when HBO unveiled its over-the-top service HBO Now, followed by CBS’s OTT service All Access. There has been a steady stream of OTT announcements ever since with no end in sight. Showtime, NBC Universal, NFL and countless other media brands are following in HBO and CBS’s footsteps and offering content direct to the consumer.
The proliferation of slimmed down cable packages, or skinny bundles, is another significant shift towards consumers paying only for networks they want. Traditional cable providers are competing with lower-cost streaming services offered by such heavy hitters as Apple, Verizon and AT&T.
Meanwhile, Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu are redefining television altogether. Reid Hastings, chief executive of Netflix, put it in perspective in a recent New York Times interview: “We’ve had 80 years of linear TV and it’s been amazing, and in its day the fax machine was amazing. The next 20 years will be this transformation from linear TV to internet TV.”
In this context, audiences possess even greater freedom of choice, not only around the sheer volume of content available but also with respect to how, where and when we want it.
With that comes a dizzying array of decisions and brands have an opportunity to meet consumers at the first important decision point. At the forefront of consumers’ growing options is the power to choose the individual networks for which they are willing to pay. They overtly choose network brands when they select a skinny bundle, create their own customised bundle or purchase an OTT brand directly. Brands create a trusted filter in an overwhelming landscape of options and help consumers make that choice.
Having a meaningful brand matters more now than ever. A strong, relevant brand platform with a trusting consumer base has power, if the brand continues to deliver the content and other brand experiences expected of it. If your network hopes to endure as an audience destination in the years ahead, then branding must take a priority role in your business strategy. The alternative, as many have suggested, is to follow the studio model: limit your role, and your business opportunities, to producing and selling content to other, stronger brands.
It’s impossible to know exactly how the market will unfold. But one thing is clear: consumers and distribution partners will be dictating the fate of your network, in large part based on the strength and promise of your brand, now more than at any other time in the 80-year history of television.
Originally published in C21.