The Right Stuff: Is Original Content Still A Smart Move?
An extremely positive earnings call from Netflix last week reignited the industry’s love affair with original content. The company’s success is widely believed to be the result of its content strategy; one that features buzz-worthy shows like House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black. (Since Netflix doesn’t release ratings numbers, we can only assume that this buzz translates into actual subscribers.)
At a time when much of the industry is drowning under the weight of low-budget reality shows, well-written, well-produced, and well-acted series remain a breath of fresh air and audiences still flock to them.
But for how much longer? As more networks and streaming services begin producing their own high-quality original programming, will such content become table stakes for networks looking to expand their user base?
The answer to these questions is quite simple. As more networks up their game and double down on the sorts of series that appeal to a thinking audience, that audience’s attention will be splintered and sub-divided further still. There are only so many hours in a day to watch television – even great television – meaning viewers will be forced to make some difficult choices.
The plethora of high-quality television programs makes it harder for any single show to stand out. Harder still is standing out on a network not traditionally known for its original programming. It can be done – both AMC (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead) and FX (The Americans, Sons of Anarchy, The Shield) have made the transition. Unfortunately doing so becomes more difficult with each new entrant into the ‘original content’ game.
Promoting new series can also be very difficult unless your network happens to have a very large audience. This was true for Netflix, which was able to promote its original series to more than 40 million subscribers via ads inserted on its home screen (among other methods). For niche networks, however, getting the word out for free is not so easy, meaning greater marketing costs (such is the price of success).
For consumers, the abundance of high-quality content makes discovery all the more important. How are viewers to keep track of everything they want to watch? And how does a new series make it onto the radar? The answer often involves spending millions on promotions, more than most networks are willing to spend.
Even if a show does become successful, the network’s problems are far from over. Actors and writers will want more money. A lot more money. And there will be increased pressure to produce more wins, more critical darlings, a task that’s easier said than done (as many network programming chiefs are beginning to learn).
So is it worth it?
Probably. Strong programming choices can help build and retain audiences, and give the network a more loyal, less-fickle audience by more precisely defining the network’s identity. But at a time where everyone seems to be jumping on the ‘original television’ bandwagon, we’d like to offer networks a few tips on how to stand out.
- Think niche. If your current audience is relatively small or you are not known for original content, focus your new shows on an underserved target. The History Channel found this out when it launched the hit series Vikings, which, while historically accurate, features a Game of Thrones-like amount of fighting and gore.
- Focus on actors/directors/producers with strong social media followings. Not every actor on your show needs to be a social media star, but a few main characters with lots of followers can mean instant audience, instant evangelists, and greatly-reduced marketing costs.
- Consider alternate monetization schemes. Interruptive advertising shouldn’t be the only way to make money off your shows. Consider new options like branded content, co-branded promotions, and merchandizing as a way to capitalize on your show’s audience. Also be certain to use your social media networks to increase awareness among potential partners.
There is one final, compelling reason to continue to produce original programming: the long tail. Good programming is becoming evergreen, with shows finding new audiences five or ten years after they’ve first aired. That scenario not only creates long-term monetization potential, but also raises the possibility of revivals. That alone is reason enough to focus on quality over quantity.
Alan Wolk is one of the industry’s most influential thought leaders and futurists. He writes frequently on advertising models, OTT and social TV.