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A roundtable on TV's future

From new ways to watch shows to the rising cost of sports, programming, East Coast TV execs weigh in on the rapid changes to the industry, what it means for their networks and viewers.

February 18, 2013|By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles is still the center of television, but thanks to the rising power of cable, New York City is drawing ever closer.

This month, The Times assembled a roundtable of leading East Coast television executives to discuss the dynamic technology-driven shifts that are rattling the industry. From Netflix's streaming new series "House of Cards" to the rising cost of sports programming, the four executives weighed in on what the rapid changes mean for their networks and ultimately what it means for viewers.

The panel featured Charlie Collier, president of AMC ("The Walking Dead" "Mad Men"); Michele Ganeless, president of Comedy Central ("The Colbert Report," "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart"); Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC ("Hardball With Chris Matthews," "The Rachel Maddow Show"); and Norby Williamson, executive vice president of programming and acquisitions for ESPN ("Monday Night Football," "SportsCenter").

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Below is an edited transcript of a 45-minute discussion moderated by Times TV reporter Scott Collins at the SoHo Grand Hotel in New York City.

The pace of change in the industry has really gotten intense over the last several years. How do you think this is changing the experience for the average TV viewer?

Charlie Collier: Well, I think it's more opportunity to see great content.... The most important part of your question is about the pace of change. Because we spend so much time not just looking at what things are, but more, we look at something and say, "What's it going to be?" And I think for us, if we had been having this panel five years ago and you asked me about Netflix, I would've said, "Well, Netflix sends me my DVDs in the mail."

Right.

Collier: If you look at it, instead of as what it is versus what it will be, Netflix doesn't just send you DVDs, and your iPhone is not just a phone, and your Amazon is not just a bookstore. And so we look at the way things are happening today, and Netflix, and the consumer experience. We say, "What's it going to be for us?" And so I should start by saying Netflix has been a great partner for us now for years, and we looked at it as an opportunity to do, well, to help us do what we've doing for years already, which is to help us create opportunities to drive water-cooler television.

Given the pace of technological change, do you think having a network still matters? Because people are talking about programs, programs, programs.

Michele Ganeless: For us, it's not programs, programs, programs, as much as it's hits, hits, hits, because none of this matters. The platforms don't matter unless you have a hit that people want to see. But for us, we started thinking about ourselves in the last couple of years, we're not a network, we're a brand. So we're a brand on your television, we're a brand, we do live events, we're a brand on your phone. So for fans of brands, you know, when you talk about a fan of a football team, or a fan of a brand like Apple, they're passionate, and they're loyal. And that's what we develop with our viewers. They're no longer viewers, they're fans. And so we're so much more than a network. And internally, we've stopped using that term, because we can't think of ourselves as a network, because our audience, especially young guys, they don't distinguish between platforms. It's not the TV screen, it's the Comedy Central content.

Collier: For Colbert and Jon Stewart and the other shows that you have on, those very popular shows, have you noticed more people watching those things, time-shifting them, watching them the next day, watching them online, bypassing the television set altogether?

Ganeless: Yes and yes and yes. This year, our ratings are up actually 5% over last year on the linear TV screen. Our streams are up. People are watching it on their tablets more, because we have apps on tablets for each show. It's additive. If you look at total viewing of content, just across all platforms now, it's up 10% versus five years ago. So it's giving us an opportunity to reach people who are not sitting in front of TV sets, or the people who might not have cable, misguided as that might be. They can watch it wherever it's best for them.

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My nephew's in his 20s. When he watches sports, he's got Gamecast going on his laptop, he's checking scores on his cellphone, he's watching another game. Is that the viewer experience now, just multiple screens?

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