Final Project: Looking at TV’s Present and Future with Chuck Saftler

There’s no denying the world of television is changing. Streaming services and DVRs have moved people away from watching TV as it airs. A lot of the coverage has been about how the traditional television industry has been overhauling their ways, though that might not necessarily be the case.

I spoke with Chuck Saftler, the President of Programming Strategy & COO at FX Networks, to find out how the network group is responding to these changes.

The past several years have been a massive period of expansion in the amount of scripted shows. Last year, FX Networks reported there were 412 total scripted series on the air, up 93% from  2009, where there were only 211 scripted shows on the air. A lot of that change  come mostly from basic cable (where FX and FXX live on the TV spectrum).

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As that graph shows, the number of original, scripted shows on basic cable has tripled in the past seven years. Saftler feels, across their two networks, FX has been reasonable in the face of this massive growth across the industry.

What will likely happen is it will be discovered that 500 shows, because that’s where it looks like it’s headed, is too many shows to sustain. And, as a result, there are going to be less shows that will get made, there will be a bubble. There’s certainly a potential for a bubble if you can’t justify 500 shows standing on their own merits. We foresee that day, and that’s why we have a sober approach to the amount of content we’re willing to create. The last thing we want to do is make promises to the creative community we can’t sustain. Meaning, we don’t want to say we can make double what we’re making today and then find out we can’t, ultimately, [putting] a number of creative people that we support and believe in on the unemployment line.

Still, Netflix’s strategy of spending billions on content seems to be working for them. Their subscriber numbers have reached new highs and their stock is up 71% from where it was a year ago.

However, the future might not be so rosy for the new and developing streaming sites who are paying for huge amounts of content. Industry sources have described what will happen to Netflix in the future. They currently bank on subscriber growth to keep their investors happy. However, these sources see the subscriber growth as leveling off, and once that happens, Netflix will need to answer for how exactly they’re spending money and their shows will need to stand on their own. Though, this won’t happen for several years into the future.

the-simpsons1One of the most important deals FX has made in the past few years is their pickup of the digital and on-air rights to the entire run of “The Simpsons”. The deal will ultimately be worth billions over its lifetime. They bought the rights both to bolster their new comedy-based cable channel FXX, which launched in 2013, and their new streaming service FX Now. Though, Saftler says that it might be difficult to do a deal like this in the future.

(Please note: that clip was recorded from a phone interview.)

Traditionally, cable networks wait three or four years into a show’s run before buying the off-network syndication rights, which conflicts with the new SVOD (or Streaming Video On Demand, sites like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime) strategy of buying the episodes very early in a show’s run. Cable likes to air multiple episodes of a show per day, so having many to run prevents them from repeating episodes too quickly. However, SVOD doesn’t need to air the episodes like that. It’s also advantageous for studios to sell to SVOD early because it gives viewers an opportunity to catch up, potentially bringing a new audience to the series.

b7f64d6c-b38b-4149-952f-3d506fbb76caYet, just because FX Networks only has one big investment in exclusive SVOD content doesn’t mean that it’s not trying to bolster streaming. The network has created what’s called a “TV Everywhere” platform. TV Everywhere is a special kind of streaming site where subscribers of cable services can log in and view a particular network’s content. Rollout for has been slow, as the networks had to wait until they could make deals with cable companies including these special login rights. It’s taken them a along time to make what’s a crucial transition for the network, as live viewership of programming continues to drop. Saftler describes why he views this to be an important move for the network.

We acknowledge that people are going to want to watch content when they want to watch it and on what device they want to watch it, and on whatever platform they want to watch it, be it if it’s on a TV, tablet or phone … We know people are moving more and more over to those other platforms, we are making sure that we are ready for that transition as it happens. … FX Now is a part of TV everywhere. It’s just our brand version of our TV everywhere and so I think, considering TV Everywhere hasn’t been fully deployed, that’s why I’m so happy with 14 million downloads of our app.

the-americans-echo_article_story_largeIn an age where shows have more value than they ever used to for their producers in the past thanks to services like Netflix buying up the rights. Content ownership has become a key part of the decision-making process at all networks. Two years ago, FOX merged its studio and network operations to run underneath Gary Newman and Dana Walden. In the basic cable world, AMC Networks created AMC Studios to produce content for its network after taking “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” from outside studios.

FX Networks has followed a similar path. While they used to bring in their series from outside studios, all 18 shows on their network right now are either produced or co-produced by FXP (their studio arm). This means that they not only get the ad revenue from TV airing, but they also get all the money from syndication, international and SVOD sales. Though, Saftler sees another reason for owning the content he airs:

Self-ownership, and producer deals that we have that are with truly exceptional creators, is our way to get a first look at what could be an exciting new series and have a chance to put it on our air. … That doesn’t mean that if we have an opportunity to buy an amazing project from another studio or content creator, that doesn’t mean that we won’t make an effort to go get it, because we will. We want to put the best possible shows on this network and if we have an opportunity to do that we will.

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Another area where TV networks are experimenting with attracting viewers who have moved on to SVOD and cancelled their cable subscriptions is through selling programming directly to them. An example of this is CBS All Access, where viewers can pay $5.99 per month to access current and past CBS content through their portal. HBO and Showtime also have their own way of reaching consumers without cable packages. Though, Saftler doesn’t see FX going down that path in the near future.

The potential reality one day of direct-to-consumer a-la-carte certainly exists but it’s not there right now and as we stand and look today,  we’re still very much believers in the MVPD [Multichannel Video Programming Distributer, industry jargon for cable] system. If a change to the ecosystem comes, we certainly haven’t buried our heads in the sand and we certainly see the potential, we still are very much a believer in the bundle. We’re still very much a believer in the economic value that it provides the consumer because we see the a-la-carte pathway as someone that is far more more expensive for the consumer. In essence, channels would have to be priced at a much higher price a la carte than they would as part of the bundle.

While some are saying a-la-carte is the direction the industry is going, it seems that Saftler’s right about this one, as CBS costs $6 when being sold directly to the consumer and reports show that it costs cable companies $3 for the rights to the network.

Saftler sees a part of the future for cable companies lying in so-called “Skinny Bundles,” where consumers can pay a smaller amount for a lesser lineup of channels. FX Networks has gotten involved with one of them: PlayStation Vue, a service offered by Sony through its PlayStation Network platform.

[They] have less technological cost tied to them and hence can be priced at a reasonable price point for consumers that can’t afford the big bundles. We also see the existing and traditional MVPDs going down the pathway of creating these bundles as well understanding that there needs to be an option for every socio-economic class that wants TV. Right now we continue to be incredibly supportive of that pathway in terms of how we offer our content.

Though, the digital era of TV is still new. Even though FX hasn’t overhauled the way they do business based on digital innovation, that doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. Instead, they’re dabbling with products like FX Now and linear and SVOD deals like the one they did for “The Simpsons.”

As Saftler puts it:

Our primary business is still linear. [However] that doesn’t mean that we have our heads buried in the sand and we don’t see the needs of our customers and our viewers. It doesn’t mean that we don’t see the importance of non-linear to our future.

 

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Debate Blogpost

Sites like Gawker and Buzzfeed are ruining the news industry. While some of them do provide news coverage, when you look at how they’re going after ad dollars, it’s going to kill one of the key pillars of the news industry in a terrifying manner.

Take a look at the homepage of Buzzfeed at the time of writing:

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If you notice, right at the top-center of the page, buried in the list of articles, is a promoted story. It’s called “18 People Who Got Wild AF in Austin,” promoted by The CW TV Network. Later that day, there was another piece in the top bar, “Definitive Proof Bacon and Burgers Are Forever,” promoted by Wendy’s.

This is Native Advertising, and sites like Gawker and Buzzfeed are trying to make it one of the pillars of their business model. In an era of ad blockers and people trying to avoid ads as much as possible in their content, they think it’s a great way to work around those problems by creating content sponsored by advertisers.

Unfortunately, by putting content like this on their main page, they’re violating one of the key elements of journalism: the separation between editorial and business sides. In fact, the barriers are breaking down across the industry. The Independent, an important British news source, is hiring writers who will write for both the editorial and advertising sides of the company.

To me, this idea is horrifying. What happens if an advertiser does something awful that the public needs to know about? Does the news organization not report on that story because they’re afraid of retribution and lost revenue? When the answer to the last question is yes, that’s a sign the news business is ruined.

Also, when you look at the above homepage, the lead story is not something newsworthy, it’s about dress selling scams on Facebook. Though, later in the day, they did update it to be about the Mississippi Governor signing a “religious freedom” bill into law and the Alabama being impeached, stories below the main headline remained clickbaity.

Just for a point of comparison, the New York Times had a story on the Panama Papers Scandal causing Iceland’s Prime Minister to resign and the NCAA Tournament at the top of its page.

Yes, listicles about floral tattoos bring in readers, but they’re not what news sites should have on their front page. News needs to be putting important stories at the top and not be worried abut pissing off their advertisers.

Who is Alan Sepinwall?

Alan Sepinwall stands out above the rest of the field of television criticism because of how he has shepherded his form of criticism into the mainstream and has leveraged his brand in different ways across the field of TV criticism.

Sepinwall has been credited with the popularization of the weekly “review-cap” form of criticism. While he does write reviews of shows before they premiere, he built his online presence off writing about each episode of series as they aired.

Though, in a post responding to the Slate article linked above, he was reluctant to agree with he claim that he’s the master behind weekly reviews.

I should say, though, that whatever level of credit you want to give me for popularizing this type of episode-by-episode reviewing, I didn’t invent it, in either of my iterations as an Internet writer. When I started doing the “NYPD Blue” recap/reviews in college, I was inspired by the writing Timothy W. Lynch had done on the “Star Trek” spin-offs for the Usenet “Trek” groups. And during my long time in the jungles of print journalism, I began spending a lot of time reading both the recaps and discussions at Television Without Pity. Seeing that kind of robust discussion and community had as much to do with me starting up the original blog as the success of my “Sopranos” morning-after pieces did.

Though, whether or not he wants to take credit for it, Sepinwall is one of the most powerful voices in criticism. In fact, David Sims, a respected critic in his own right, called him “the king of our industry.”

chuck-tv-show-season-5-imageIt’s not just within criticism where Sepinwall has found himself to have an impact, but also in the TV industry itself. When the NBC series “Chuck” was in danger of cancellation after its second season, he wrote an open letter to the network where he described his affinity for the show and his hope that it would return for another season.

In the post, he wrote:

Dear Ben, Marc and Angela: I know this is a busy time for you. Two weeks from today, you’re going to be announcing your prime-time schedule for the 2009-10 TV season, and you still need to figure out how to make that work when you’re devoting the 10 o’clock hour to Jay Leno five nights a week. So I’ll get right to the point:

If that schedule doesn’t include “Chuck,” I’m going to be very unhappy. And, I think, you might come to regret it, too.

Later, when the NBC President at-the-time Ben Silverman announced the renewal, he gave credit to Sepinwall for playing a role in their picking up of the series.

As Sepinwall put it:

“Chuck” owes its continued life to fans, Subway, and… me?

Just finished up back-to-back phone calls: first the NBC upfront conference call with Ben Silverman and company (but mostly Ben), then a quick interview with “Chuck” creator Chris Fedak.

On the NBC call, Silverman raved about how “the demand for Chuck that came out of the online community, the critical press and our advertising base made us have to pick up that show.”

Later, when it was my turn in the queue, he told me, “It’s because of you” that “Chuck” is coming back.

Although there were definitely other factors at play, to have a network president openly acknowledge Sepinwall’s voice shows how much of an impact the man has through his writing. Something like that is rare in the current discourse of television, but it was even more uncommon in 2009, before the broadcast networks began to react to fragmentation in the industry (and accept critical acclaim as a factor in their decision-making process).

51mavodmmalIn terms of his personal brand, Sepinwall has expanded his writing into a book called The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed Television. In it, he discussed 12 series that he views has an impact on the “Golden Age of TV.” When discussing his goals for the book in an interview with critic and academic Myles McNutt, he explained his goals for the book:

I wanted there to be a kind of permanent record of the era in TV I’ve been fortunate enough to be covering. Yes, there are individual columns and reviews and blog posts, but they’re scattered across multiple websites (or sometimes not online at all), and are often focusing on the trees rather than the forest. A book has a sense of weight to it, but also a kind of compactness. I’m obviously not sharing every opinion I’ve ever had about The Wire, nor every Milch anecdote I know about the production of Deadwood, but you can read each of those chapters and get a very good sense of how those shows were made, why they were important, and how they relate to each other in the bigger picture of 1997-2012 or thereabouts.

Sepinwall’s book was successful enough upon its initial release to get a second printing after the conclusion of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” where he updated those sections of the book to reflect on their runs and impact on the medium.

All this goes to show just how strong a voice Sepinwall is in the world of TV journalism and criticism. Even though he doesn’t directly profit from most of his writing (as he writes exclusively for HitFix.com), he figured out ways to make his voice heard and have an effect on how the industry works.

Device Blogpost

The idea of a Set-Top-Box (STB) isn’t new. The Apple TV has been around for a decade, but recent advancements have completely changed how these boxes are used, especially as television becomes more “app-centric” and less reliant on live viewing.

Each of the streaming boxes share several characteristics and the differences between them are very subtle. There are four major companies going after the space right now: Roku, Google, Amazon and Apple. However, I’m going to focus on one of them: the Apple TV. It’s the device which had the most recent overhaul, and one that represents where the STB space is going.

If you visit the website for the Apple TV, a big message hits you right away: “The Future of Television is Here.” The biggest feature which the company likes to focus on is its app-based nature. When you turn it on, you’re greeted with a multitude of options for different applications you can download and use. There’s Apple’s own iTunes video service (where you can purchase or rent content), Netflix, and Hulu Plus. In addition, many linear networks have created applications for the box, including HBO, Showtime, NBC, FOX and ESPN.

By taking this approach, Apple is saying the future of TV doesn’t lie in watching your favorite show when it airs on linear TV. Instead, it’s an on-demand world where you pick when you watch your show, and you go into an app to find it. Instead of flipping through the channels, you’re flipping through apps.

The app-based approach isn’t the only way Apple is going to try to sell its STB. The Hollywood Reporter has gotten word that the company is financing a new scripted series starring rapper and a major voice in Apple Music (Apple’s music streaming service), Dr. Dre. While this THR report doesn’t say specifically that the show will be marketed on the Apple TV (in fact, it only mentions Apple Music), it’s a reasonable jump that the company will try to market this show as a reason to spend as much as $200 on an Apple TV when competitors are available for as low as $35.

This is a device that is attempting to go after the cord cutters who don’t watch live TV anymore. Apple and the other figures in the market have noticed the viewership of primetime programs erode, people shifting to more limited cable packages or people just using streaming services to watch TV. Looking at how television viewership is going, it’s likely that these boxes will continue to grow, especially if Dr. Dre’s attempt at a series is a success.

Behind the Scenes of WOLV-TV

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to tell a “photo” story on digital disruption and the future of television in pictures from Ann Arbor. However, there is a student TV station at the University of Michigan, WOLV-TV. So, I decided to go behind-the-scenes to take some photos of the production process of one of WOLV’s programs, “E-Buzz”. Here they are:

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Staffers of “E-Buzz” mingle before the taping

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Hosts Karen and Aisha go through discussion topics before the taping

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The Stage Manager waiting to prompt hosts

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The shooting of a segment where hosts talk about a variety of entertainment subjects

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The monitor in the room, showing what gets filled in on the green screen

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Members of the crew making the show

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Inside the control room, as other members of the crew watch the taping

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Student Nick Shahin works the teleprompter in the control room

 

Visualization Blogpost

Vulture’s visualization of the number of Netflix’s original series against linear television powerhouses illustrates a major story in the television industry in a simple and easy-to-understand way, but it could use more to make it engaging and an update to take advantage of the last six months of news.

Netflix’s rise to become one of the top producers of television has been one of the dominant stories in the industry for the past few years. In this graphic (a line graph), Joe Adalian and his developer show how quickly it reached its level of original content. In a more traditional article, Adalian would have just listed out the numbers and the shows, using text to tell the reader about the comparisons. With the visual, Adalian doesn’t have to tell the story; the graph does it for him.

The Data Journalism Handbook discusses how there are three reasons why a journalist should tell a data-driven story “Enable a reader to discover information that is personally relevant, Reveal a story that is remarkable and previously unknown, or Help the reader to better understand a complex issue.” This graphic fulfills the third of these points. Netflix’s rise isn’t a story that’s personally relevant to many users or something which is previously unknown, but it does illustrate the topic in a clear way, showing readers who aren’t following this story as closely as he has what he’s noticed.

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The Netflix Original Series “Daredevil”

Yet, I found myself thinking that there could be more to the visualization of the data. It’s a fairly simple line graph with a little interactivity. The Data Journalism Handbook talks about different ways that news organizations took a data set and mapped it out in an interactive manner (like The New York Times’s visualization of the census), and it made me wish that the graphic had done more to keep me on the page and interacting with it by including some more data about the series.

Also, this graphic is six months old, meaning that the information in the “2015 and Beyond” section is out of date because of announcements made in the timespan. I would love to see Adalian go in and update the graphic by adding the many new series announced by Netflix in the past six months. Not only would it add to the awe-factor of the graphic, but it would further prove Adalian’s point by having Netflix’s original series number increase significantly from where it was.

Still, those problems are nitpicks. This visualization takes an important television story (how huge Netflix has become) and brings it to life in a clearly-comprehendible manner, fulfilling its goal.

An Hour with NPR One

After one hour using the NPR One app, I didn’t get a chance to see the customization really take place. The app provided me with a range of stories from the start to the finish covering many different subjects, only a couple of which seems to take my skips and “interesting” marks into account.

Here’s the list of stories from the hour of listening:

Looking at the list, I don’t see much that suggests customization of the content. According to this piece by Nieman Labs, the app is supposed to use my skips and “interesting” stories to guide what plays later. I only saw this take effect towards the end of my listening, as a technology story on Elon Musk popped up after I marked a story on social media interesting.

Yet, until the last couple stories, it seemed like the app was still trying to gauge my interest in different categories. The second half had two stories belonging to single categories: the story on “The Birth of a Nation” is an entertainment piece and there was a health story on the Dog Flu virus. It appears I was not listening long enough to get more stories on entertainment subjects, which is a shame.

Given the range of stories, it doesn’t seem that much more different from listening to something like All Things Considered on Michigan Radio, except the ad breaks were shorter and less frequent. (Though, this could change the more I use the app.)

On the local content, three of the stories covered Flint and one was a piece on a woman asking the state of Michigan to honor her father’s fight against the Japanese Internment Camps. Because the Flint water crisis is a story that has gained attention on the national news, it was interesting for me to get the local perspective on the issue. Michigan Radio brought in experts and local minds to discuss why the crisis happened and how it’s impacting the community. The one thing I wish I heard from the local content was on-the-ground reporting, but the station might not have the staff for those types of stories.

Michigan Radio’s presence in the app shows how local stations are embracing NPR One (like this article by Kelly McBride discusses) and is putting up their stories for the app’s audience to hear. The NeimanLab article also discusses how local stations can use the app to push for donations, and after one of the local pieces, there was a request for a donation from Michigan Radio.

I want to give my NPR One experience an incomplete. If I listen for more than an hour, I will probably find more customization in the stories shared with me. However, in the first hour, the algorithm was throwing different stories at me to see what I would like. Still, if I had to give it a grade, it would be a B+. The app is simple and easy to use and great content gets shared, but I would’ve liked to see more of an impact from my tagging.

Live Tweeting!

This past Thursday, I attended a 90-minute colloquium talk by Professor Amanda Lotz on the changes in television caused by broadband. My tweets from the experience are below:

After the event, a professor in the Communications department came up to myself and my classmate Ashley and spoke to us in an encounter perfectly described by Ashley:

Thankfully, when we told her we were there for a class she was no longer angry.