Media Summit 2018: Tech inflicts pain as consumers gain

Features
Technology

As in the wider world of global content consumption, Digital Hollywood’s recent annual two-day Media Summit in New York was full of chatter about the furious streaming onslaught. The conference’s overall goal is to provide insights into the latest entertainment, media and advertising-related trends and confusions that challenge media people across TV, film, advertising, the Internet, technology, gaming and just about everything else.

Expressing the conference mood, one panelist suggested we’re living on a hamster wheel of innovation and change where technology seems to be changing every six months to a year. That means there’s always something new to think about, but this “constant state of disruption” is a good thing.

As digital design executive and panelist Fabian Bingfeld put it, “There’s so much change and disruption from all angles and the momentum behind this is accelerating.” And how about that little matter of profits? Stephen Oh, a top executive at online news giant TYT (The Young Turks), noted that Netflix is certainly making money but is still not profitable. But paradox too informs the chaos: “Everyone wants to be the next Netflix,” said media entrepreneur Bruce Tuchman. (Is that the rattling of the robber barons of old capitalism we hear from their graves?).

Much continues to converge and convulse so that everyone’s feeling the ubiquitous disruption. Nano-speed new gizmos have become the new rage (e.g., Alexa and Google’s gadget in the new Voice arena are increasingly helping users instantly find content and take care of little chores).

The notion that the entire world is moving toward all content all the time and everywhere permeated the conversations. Long-form video production is soaring (with services like Netflix and Amazon each spending billions a year for new programming) and “consumption of video is up,” reminded one panelist, “because you get it quickly and in so many places.”

With all of this, “the challenge to deliver better content grows more intense” and “the race is on to amass the best content.” The result of is that, undeniably, quality is significantly higher, especially in the long-form (films and series) world. We’re in a flourishing on-demand era of greater concentration and growing volume. (And let’s not forget that plenty of gaming, music, live TV and podcast content is also sent our way.)

So why aren’t we happy? As business minds struggle to get their brains around all this frenetic activity, consumers benefit from a huge range of choices. But such plenitude also brings the dilemma of finding stuff. There’s the “discoverable” content we haven’t seen but might like, and the other content we’re dying to watch but might not be able to find. Media Summit speakers discussed two distinct dilemmas of “discoverability” (what’s new that we’d like to stream?) and “search” (where are those specific classics or great recent films or series we want to stream?).

Both “discover” and “search” are in need of improvement, and the business side is on the case. Comcast subscribers, for instance, might be in the front seat on this one, as the media giant (also home to Universal) offers a set-top box that is voice-activated and does content searches.

However elusive the content, it still wears that kingly crown. A panel of venture capitalists, with VC execs from companies like Time Warner and Comcast onboard, agreed that now is a great time to own film libraries, that franchises like Star Wars are more valuable than ever and that with streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon offering viewers so much and other outlets so loaded with content, the viewer menu stretches from big movie franchises to niche-y content like the live streaming of oyster shucking. Underscoring the appeal of content, one panelist even went positive with the notion of investing his company’s capital in a single indie film, not even a slate.

It’s not just the shock of content volume but the reality that what you want to watch can be “everywhere.” An executive from the Young Turks online news show conveyed that reality by hailing YouTube TV, which brings live broadcast and cable TV to his phone and other devices. This invasion of OTT (over-the-top) streaming capability to screens that bypass broadcast or cable “happened so fast,” only in the past four or five years. Younger viewers were first onboard, but panelists predicted that thanks to services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, older viewers, already growing, will also become a significant demographic.

What is needed as so much content pours forth (heads up, entrepreneurs and investors!) is a comprehensive electronic programming guide to everything, an idea one panelist called “on the precipice of something new and interesting that already has the best brains working.”

Besides finding the content they want, consumers have other pain points to deal with, including unwelcome ads, trying to master so many devices and a variety of navigation systems, and remembering so many passwords. Further pain points come from streaming services endlessly picking up and dropping programming.

On a tempering note, media entrepreneur and executive Bruce Tuchman suggested that maybe recommendation and navigation capabilities aren’t so urgent to improve, as “younger audiences don’t mind looking.”

But young audiences do mind ads and the antipathy is catching on with older viewers. The pain has spread to advertisers whose brands today are even more covetous of engagement with consumers. So the challenge of initiating instant transactions from ads just seen on screens is hot, as in: “Oh, nice! Love that SUV, want it now!” (click).

Panelists noted that ad loads in programming are “often intolerable” and ads, especially 60-second ones, “seem doomed” in this digital age because of their interruptions. Cable is also feeling plenty of pain because of cord-cutting. One panelist said that the only thing keeping him “tethered” to his cable service was the broadband access it provides.

A bright spot at Media Summit amidst the complaints came from observations about the growing power, ubiquity and promise of voice technologies and devices, Alexa being a key example. Voice, suggested panelists, is “just at its beginning” and Bingfeld opined that whoever can deliver “voice discovery” will be in a very powerful position.

Other takeaways from a range of panelist observations included:

  • Unlike its big-boy rivals Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO and so many others, hugely successful Vimeo (part of former studio film exec Barry Diller’s digital IAC empire) thrives as a high-quality, niche programming streaming service and link enabler.
  • Panelists from CBS and Vice, commenting on Millennial programming tastes, observed that “many kids watching documentaries want to go deep and more international” and favor “true, authentic, impactful storytelling.” They “love to give feedback” and “are a generation that wants to give back, so we ask how to empower them to do that?”
  • As linear TV fights to survive in an increasingly on-demand world, traditional TV (broadcast, even cable) is getting more competitive for eyeballs by cutting back on commercials or working very hard to improve their appeal.
  • Content suppliers value “reliability,” which is all-important in holding on to loyal viewers.
  • There’s no shame in mistakes, as they’re part of staying ahead in a changing world. The call was to be “risk-averse but go in and learn.”
  • A distinct majority and ever-growing number of U.S. homes (65% was one number offered) have smart TVs (for streaming and Internet viewing).
  • Suggesting TV programming won’t go 1950s-bland again, panelists expressed a pervasive focus on “diversity” and “inclusion.”
  • The data-intensive discovery process isn’t really there and, as the film industry has been hearing for years, the best, most effective content recommendations still come from (drum roll) word of mouth.
  • Also familiar: Streaming viewers tend to be fickle, young, fragmented. But, reflecting theatre traffic, older viewers are showing significant growth.

Looking into the future, panelists guessed that the biggest winners in the new streaming world will include companies like Netflix and Amazon that are “sitting on a shitload of cash and will be gobbling up others.”

Panelists also saw the number of over-the-top channels and streaming outlets jumping well into the thousands but then retrenching as “ultimately we’ll arrive at a simple time.” The big movie franchises with their built-in appeal and recognizability are in good shape for the future, they felt. And a big winner in all of this will be whoever creates the operating system for our TVs.

For now, one winner that Media Summit suggested (by omission) is the exhibition community. Their future went unaddressed at the Summit, perhaps a sign that—to harken back to the olde days when the onset of TV, VCRs and DVDs sent shivers—cinemagoing and small-screen viewing (not that a 120-inch panel is small) will each continue healthy and on parallel paths.

The exhibition community can also take comfort in knowing, as Summit panel conversations suggested, that everything is being disrupted and everyone needs to remain vigilant and agile.