In the grand scheme of history, it wasn't that long ago that families with televisions were few and far between. And those that were lucky enough to have a TV set still only had access to a few hours of programming a day distributed over three all-powerful networks.
My, how times have changed!
Today the take-what-we-give-you paradigm of media consumption is as outdated as 8-track players and rotary phones. Yet it is through this lens that many of the television industry's savviest executives still operate when making decisions. Intellectually, they might know digital is changing everything, but most of them haven't developed a comprehensive strategy to protect TV from the same fate that has befallen the publishing and recording industries.
Gabriella Mirabelli has a different perspective. As CEO of Anatomy Media, a boutique creative consultancy that works with the world's biggest television brands, she has had a front row seat to the changes the industry is undergoing. That said, it is her experience with a far different cohort that has provided her with her true lightbulb moments: her kids.
Mirabelli noticed the shift almost a decade ago while dealing with her young son, who wanted to watch a particular show "right now."
"His approach was one of demand and expectation," Mirabelli said. "Not only did he want it but he was going to get it. All children are narcissistic but it was very durable narcissism and it was enabled. The technology was beginning to enable his narcissism."
It was eye opening, so she dug deeper. She learned by talking with twenty-somethings in the office that young people didn't have cable subscriptions, and that they were finding their content online. People were no longer watching television. They were watching shows. These days when she asks the teenagers in the backseat of her car if they watch TV, they laugh at her as if she'd asked if they churned their own butter.
"They watch shows, but they won't watch them on television," Mirabelli said. "They watch shows on their phones. They watch shows on their iPads. They'll play Xbox on the TV. It's a gaming screen. They may watch sports on the TV but they wouldn't classify that as watching TV. They're watching the game."
The television set itself is no longer the unique portal to programming. The future we once imagined -- a thousand channels! -- is now limitless. The number of "channels" to be found on the internet is infinite.
In this new world order, two factors are most critical: discovery and experience.
"Discovery of content isn't what it was in the linear television world," Mirabelli said. "People don't surf channels; they surf their social feeds. Yesterday was the age of search; now we're in the age of referral, so having clippable, sharable elements ready to go is critical."
Perhaps more important is the viewer experience itself, which is often vexed by ill-fitting advertisements. "If there must be advertisement, then the context and relevance matters more than ever before. Networks need to be thinking differently about how spots are scheduled and what messages are allowed to intrude into the viewing experience."
In order for inherently distracted viewers that are flooded with choice to become loyal to a 20th century entity like a network, they must see it as the most dependable channel for getting the media they want when they want it. For those networks that are seeking a path to new viewership (presumably all of them), they must, of course, have uniformly high quality shows, but this is simply the ticket to entry.
After that, the branding begins. And these days, branding is a whole different animal.
Taglines, logos and good intentions won't convince people to part with their free time. There is simply too much competition. Instead, networks must make people aware that the high quality shows they put out into the world are their high quality shows -- that these shows exist because of what the network stands for.
To cite a notable success story, Veep and Game of Thrones may not have a lot in common in regards to specific details, but the deep storylines and top-notch production values invariably scream "HBO". It is clear to every subscriber that they can trust the network to vet great content on their behalf.
In short, 21st Century media brands must flow from content rather than the other way around. It is a lesson that companies of all stripes would do well to note.