In order to counter fierce competition from streaming TV services like Apple TV Plus, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix, U.S. broadcast TV networks have had to come up with competitive strategies to win back viewers. At the Television Critics Association (TCA) Press Tour — which held its winter edition January 7-19 at the Langham Huntington hotel in Pasadena, California (pictured above) — network programming heads discussed their plans ahead of the up- front presentations, which will be held in May in New York City. Some 300 participants, including journalists and TV executives, were in attendance.
Dominating the event were Disney with its ABC, Hulu, and FX, and ViacomCBS with its All Access, Showtime, and Pop. Both clearly brought streaming into the strategy mix.
“At ABC we’re creating big, culturally impactful entertainment events that deliver enormous audiences,” said Karey Burke, president, ABC Entertainment. “Our strategy going forward is to present at least one live or big tentpole event every month.”
After adding more live American Idol and The Bachelor episodes to its schedule, ABC is considering “leaning into” eventizing the franchises it already has as part of this strategy.
“Those events have, as a level of entry, a broad appeal,” noted Burke. “When you look at Little Mermaid Live!, when you look at Jeopardy!, those appeal to kids and families, and parents and young adults. And I think that is the secret sauce in what unites people to watch those.”
Also, the network launched female-forward series that were broadly appealing and diverse, Burke said. “We’re now home to three of the fall’s top five new series in Stumptown, Mixed-ish, and Emergence, and three of the top five scripted broadcast series overall in Grey’s Anatomy, Modern Family, and The Good Doctor.
Burke noted that multi-platform adds a whole other dimension to ABC’s success story.
“Ten series grew more than 200 percent [in audience], and half of those grew more than 300 percent, which is pretty incredible. Led by double- digit growth on Hulu, our digital viewership is actually up year over year. That gives shows like Grey’s Anatomy, in its 16th season, higher viewership than last year, which is amazing.”
Burke pointed out that Hulu helps ABC sig- nificantly broaden its reach to a younger audience. The median age of ABC on Hulu is 23 years younger than on linear. “With multiple platforms servicing multiple audiences, The Walt Disney Company has set us up with a comprehensive distribution strategy that no other platform can match,” she concluded.
In March, FX will be on Hulu, a move that John Landgraf, chairman, FX Networks and FX Productions, sees as a “transformative” opportunity for the brand, its shows, and its talent. “We hope it will be of great benefit to our partner Hulu and their almost 30 million subscribers,” he said. “From this point forward, Hulu will be the most comprehensive streaming service for future, current, and library FX original programs.”
Landgraf feels “incredibly fortunate” to have been acquired by The Walt Disney Company, calling it the “best possible home” for FX.
“Disney is, and always has been, in the business of storytelling, now going strong for almost 100 years,” Landgraf said. “They have made Disney one of the greatest brands in the world, while also acquiring and supporting many of the other great entertainment brands. Our [former] chairman and CEO, Bob Iger, has proven over and over that brands matter. Nothing demonstrates that more clearly than Disney Plus, an instantly beloved consumer offering in which outstanding design and streaming technology rests on the foundation of five great brands.”
Landgraf described Disney, Star Wars, Pixar, Marvel, and National Geographic as some of the most successful and well-known entertainment brands in the world, and noted that bringing their past, present, and future together all in one place on the Disney Plus platform could only bring more success.
“This has instantly made it one of the most impressive streaming services available to con- sumers, as proven by the public’s extraordinary response from day one,” he said.
“One of the reasons Disney has chosen to program its entertainment platforms, specifically Disney Plus and Hulu, through multiple brands, is to maintain centers of creative excellence, run by experienced executives, each operating at a human scale that allows for the intimate relationships and collaboration that underpin great storytelling.”
He added: “It takes a lot of volume to create a must-have streaming platform, but I think Disney has found a way to marry the volume and value consumers crave with the quality they will continue to cherish for years to come.”
Paul Telegdy, chairman, NBC Entertainment, spoke about the new reality of the TV biz, by saying that “shows are being successfully developed outside of pilot season. We’re never going to give up pilot season, but our development is really, really year-round now. So we’re working closely with creators and asking them what works best for you and what works best for the storytelling.”
He continued: “They’re open to the idea that there are multiple pathways to success. And this has been a bit of the business everyone’s obsessed about, but it feels very natural to us.”
Telegdy mentioned that the “excellent off-cycle development” would not have been implemented if the network hadn’t been open to thinking differently.
One show that falls into that category is the still untitled project from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock that’ll star Ted Danson, Holly Hunter, and Bobby Moynihan. “Tina and Robert came to us with a version of the show, and over time, it morphed into something that last July we were able to pick up straight to series for next season,” he concluded.
FOX didn’t offer an executive session. It did, however, host panels for some of its TV series, featuring cast members and executive producers. During the day, FOX reps sent out a few press releases about The Masked Singer spin-off, The Masked Dancer, which will have Ellen DeGeneres as a co-executive producer.
The CBS TV network was also present at the TCA, but ViacomCBS chose to focus on its streaming service, CBS All Access, and its premium services, Showtime and Pop TV, instead.
“We have always looked at the so-called streaming wars as being anything but a zero-sum game,” said Marc DeBevoise, chief digital officer, ViacomCBS, and CEO/president, CBS Interactive. “And consumer behavior is continuing to prove that point. As we’ve previously shared, independent studies show today’s SVoD user has more than three services on average. Actually, about three and a half. This has grown meaningfully over the last few years and is something we expect to continue to grow.”
The network recently implemented a research study to look at these types of trends within its own subscriber base, finding that “nearly 80 percent of CBS All Access subscribers are also getting TV via a multichannel service, like from a cable company or a virtual MVPD, demonstrating that we’re truly a premium add-on service, an additive to the overall market.”
DeBevoise said that All Access subscribers are spending an average of $50 a month on other SVoD services, and their overall average spend on digital subscriptions, including multichannel services, is $120, “meaning it’s already not a zero-sum game, and there’s plenty of room for us to grow.”
He was equally enthusiastic that CBS All Access continues to do well. “We’re now more than 10 million subscribers combined between All Access and Showtime OTT and are in a great position to hit our goal of 25 million combined subscribers in 2022.”
DeBevoise was also elated that CBS All Access is growing at the same 60 percent rate and off of a bigger base than last year. “That’s an even bigger deal. We’re engaging our subs even more, with streaming growth at 80 percent, and originals being a key driver of that, with 100 percent growth on original series. And all of this is reducing churn and extending the life of our subscribers. And 65 percent of those subscribers continue to be in the demo sweet spot of 18-to- 49, with an average age of 44, roughly split 50/50 between male and female,” he explained.
When it was Showtime’s turn, Jana Winograde, president of Entertainment, Showtime Networks, said: “Showtime has had an incredible year from both a programming and a business standpoint. For the first time in Showtime history, we had three- and-a-half hours of original scripted programming every Sunday in the fourth quarter.” With its “rich and diverse” content, the network has increased to 27 million total subs, “including a 35 percent year-over-year increase in streaming customers,” said Winograde. “And this December was the largest sign-up month since the launch of our OTT service, with 52 percent growth in sign-ups,” she concluded.
Pop TV was on the calendar, as well, and presented its TV series with panels that featured the casts and executive producers of some of its shows. Its executive session, however, did not present anything worthy of note.
By Susan L. Hornik