A panel of cable industry leaders closed out day one of the Promax/BDA conference in New York Tuesday with the talk turning to the pros and cons of putting content online for free and the need to identify viable revenue streams for online content.
"Putting content online for free is not a business," said Jeff Shell, president of the Comcast Programming Group.
While the entire panel was leery of giving away the store, NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Universal Cable Productions President Bonnie Hammer said there was good business sense in making some videos available online.
"We think there's an upside for promotional reasons," Hammer said. "[If] people see episodes off channel, they'll be pushed back to watch it on-air in a scheduled way. We also know what our bread and butter is. We're a cable company. We want to make sure we get paid for our content, and we want to make sure that that model holds. So it's really a balance."
Disney Channels Worldwide President Rich Ross said the media giant has used the Web as a kind of trial ground for shows, particularly old episodes from the Disney archives, to see what had value online and what should be moved to a different platform. When reruns of Disney's Even Stevens failed to draw much online interest, Disney took it offline and found room for it on an exterior TV channel.
"It made sense for that," said Ross. "We found a value there. We didn't want to make it just valueless by chucking it on and just having anything [online].
Nickelodeon and MTV Networks Kids and Family Group President Cyma Zarghami pointed to Nick's success with cross-platform programming like the hit iCarly to highlight her organization's online relevance.
When asked what the biggest challenge facing her organization will be in the next few years, Hammer said for a network like USA, the charge was to modulate the network's brand of scripted drama and dramedy to keep it intriguing, while maintaining its ratings strong hold. Hammer discussed the challenge of Sci Fi Channel's rebrand (as SyFy) and working towards "the evolution of their new brand to grow internationally."
"[The] top of our list over the next five years is to expand our sports business," said Comcast Programming Group President Jeff Shell. He talked about the opportunity for Comcast "as newspapers struggle and the radio struggles to take a more active role in the regional sports networks." Shell said Comcast also hopes to grow the Versus brand, a network that has had some success with college football and NHL coverage.
All four executives said their organizations were keenly aware of the ongoing economic struggles of their viewers and trying to produce programming that reflected those new economic realities. Hammer said "we really struggled" when deciding whether to program Royal Pains, a new show about a doctor in the Hamptons, the uber-wealthy New York summer enclave, but ultimately decided audiences were tuning in for escapism.
"It is a guilty pleasure, but they are watching," Hammer said.
Shell agreed that the element of escapism has always been an important part of television, but alluded to some viewer exhaustion to programming about coddled celebrities and the fabu life of the super-rich.
In the kid's space, Zarghami noted that Nickelodeon has often tried to create programming that reflected a changing society and how it affects young people. When Hey Arnold came out in the mid-'90s, she said, it was one of the first kid shows that depicted a city kid living with his grandparents--as opposed to a traditional nuclear family--and hanging out with a diverse group of kids. Zarghami said Nickelodeon and the MTVN group would continue to develop programming that was "reflective of a new kind of storytelling."