Getting Into the Content Development Game #2 – Understand the Market


This is the second article in a 5-part series, “Getting Into the Content Development Game.”

DOES EVERYONE (REALLY) WANT TO GET INTO CONTENT?

In my first article in this series, I told the story of Tim Thompson recently asking a group of owners at one of our Creative Entrepreneur events, “Who here wants to get into content development?” The response in the room was overwhelmingly “We do!”

But do you really?  Are you approaching content as a means to an end or an end in itself?  For those of you that truly know this journey will be:

  • Hard work
  • A long-term commitment of resources and energy
  • A component of your overall growth strategy

I contend that it is indeed worthwhile for you to further explore a content development strategy.

But where do you begin?  How do you figure out if you have what it takes to be producing content that is distributed on TV, cable, OTT, digital, social, etc.?

In this article we will look deeper in the first major area of focus that you will need to understand: the market.

WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE

In the not-too-distant past, producing content meant producing for television.  There were ” The Big 5” (ABC, CBS, CW, Fox, NBC) and then, in the 1980’s, cable opened up another tier of channels.

When I started producing in the late 1990’s it was still the Wild West in cable: there was vastly more demand than supply.  It was not unheard of to be awarded a content series order of 39, 52 or even 65-episodes.  My career changed dramatically when I was plucked out of another part of the industry (law) and given a chance to produce, because people felt I could contribute as much as other producers.  My first show? An episode of Biography on Sylvester Stallone for A&E.

Fast forward to today: can you imagine being awarded a marquee series… without first demonstrating a track record?  As someone who lives in the creative sphere – but you are looking in on “the cool kids” working on TV series – I’m sure that is hard to imagine.

What was once a market hungry for supply is now one that is hungry for expertise, which translates into a highly complex array of networks and distributors, all demanding more than mere content to fill air time.  They demand ideas that drive ratings, also known as “sure-fire hits.”

No pressure, right?

With the explosion of digital entertainment outlets in OTT – and accompanying budgets which compete favorably with traditional linear networks – some would say we are back in the Wild West. But is demand outstripping supply?

The answer is more nuanced.  While it is true that the need for content is increasing, distributors are still chasing the elusive “hit.” The new players like Amazon, Hulu and Apple are willing to throw major money towards buzzworthy projects that might turn into hits.  The same holds true for Vox, Mashable, Vice (now a network), RedBull, etc.

Nonetheless, all these distributors have a finite amount of advertiser and subscriber funds to cover costs and turn a profit.  Thus our media jungle is growing more dense, the ‘animals’ more fierce, and the stakes even higher.

“WE WANT SOMETHING DIFFERENT, JUST LIKE THEIR HIT”

The biggest challenge in this broad content landscape: while distributors say they want content unique for their respective demographic, in reality it is very much a crap shoot as to what will become a hit.  For example, several years ago A&E had a hit on their hands with Duck Dynasty.  With the antics of the Robertson family being the water cooler talk all across the US, every distributor was soon asking:

“What’s OUR Duck Dynasty?” 

The distributors wanted their share of that lightning in a bottle.

At HGTV, the success of Property Brothers saw the network directing their production companies,

“Find us the next great family in real estate and renovation!” 

At the time, I was SVP of Development for a large supplier of Scripps programming. We set out looking for the next brothers.  What we found was a married couple running a real estate agency, a construction company, a design company… and who possessed great personalities, as well.  Today they are known as Fixer Upper. In the last few years I’ve heard from multiple TV networks,

“What’s OUR Fixer Upper?” 

So while distributors say they want “different,” what they really want are “hits.”

This explains why in the last decade, many networks have begun to look alike.  Animals became secondary on Animal Planet, music was rarely heard on Music Television( MTV). Established brands like Discovery, Nat Geo, History, Spike and even Weather Channel began airing series that mirrored each other.  And in this blended environment several ‘specialty’ nets have disappeared altogether (think: H2, Esquire, Style, and more).  The harsh reality is that pursuing a “What’s our version of their hit?” strategy has resulted in distributors becoming harder to differentiate, harder to generate ratings, and harder to increase ad revenue dollars.

The jungle can’t sustain all this biodiversity, if you will.

Today in the industry, we are seeing a swinging of the pendulum, with many distributors going back to their core focus and POV. Will this succeed in more diverse programming options?  That is still to be determined.  But curiously, the timing for distributors moving back to their core loosely coincides with the growth of non-linear options like OTT, etc.

“Diversify or die” might be the motto for those distributors competing for eyeballs… and profits.

WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH

It is very hard to predict what kinds of content will turn a profit in this dense landscape.  Creative regimes change all too frequently, and with them, the mandates.

Advertisers are lured to the shiny penny and promises of hits and audience engagement.  Audiences are no longer loyal to a network, but rather willing to go from place-to-place to get what they want.  Bundles are no longer solely based on channels, but also based on talent or topics.

You would think that in this crazy soup of needs that it would be easy to pitch and sell your content ideas.  But you would be wrong.

I view distributors like a classic high school party:

  • The Jocks (think: the guy channels) over here
  • The Cool Chicks (think: the major networks that skew female) over there
  • The Nerds (think: the science and engineering channels) in the back by the kitchen
  • All the other Cliques standing by the wall, not even sure they can get a beer

In this tight-knit creative community, when the going gets tough, rather than looking broadly to everyone in the room, humans turn inwards, to those they know and trust.  It is very hard to get into the party if you haven’t been there before.

So how do you get into the party and get noticed?  Simple: you must be YOU.

FIND YOUR CORE

It may sound like I’m arguing you to forget your creative goals and find a different party altogether, but I assure you its actually the opposite.

I assert – just like distributors are increasingly moving back to their core – you likewise need to speak from your core to get noticed.

Yes, the marketplace is crowded, and yes the competition is fierce, but nobody does what you do.  (This might sound like a bumper sticker slogan, but I actually mean it!)

When you are ready to pitch to the market you will, of course, have done all your necessary due diligence.  You will know what each distributor is looking for (not right now, but 9 months from now) and how your portfolio / passions align with theirs.  You will know the budget ranges for their various types of projects.  You will know their demographics and ratings.  You will have researched their advertisers and what they want.

To sum it up, you will understand your place in the “high school party” before you even enter the room, and you will connect that to your unique DNA.

WHAT CAN YOU BRING TO THE PARTY?

While you might say that its your idea that is unique, I promise you that there is no such thing at a truly unique idea.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve pitched a “unique” idea only to find that its been pitched five times that month, or that the network recently greenlit two pilots in the exact same unique space.  So much for “unique.”

But while your ideas might not be unique, you are unique. 

Don’t think in terms of WHAT you do, but rather WHO you know.  Because while many production companies have strong Rolodex in one area, yours resides in another area.  That means you may be “outside the party,” but that also means that you have access to other parties which they do not.  Point, you!

My biggest recommendation: once you identify the content that is possible for you to sell to distributors, scour your unique world for talent (people) and intellectual property (ideas which exist, are documented and have a large following) that you can build content around. 

If you control an idea because your talent is the only person who has done X, Y and Z… or your IP gives access to a world to which no one else has access, then you have found something only you can bring to the party.

Does this mean a distributor will instantly hand you a deal on a marquis series?  That I cannot guarantee.  But I do believe that bringing something truly unique puts you in a far better position than just having an idea… and hoping it elicits excitement.

Note: although you believe you have something truly unique, those that you are pitching may have a different litmus test.  For example, while you may have the foremost expert on a topic — someone who is not only qualified but funny, good-looking and great on camera — the distributor might only be willing to take a risk on someone with, say, a million social media followers.  Or maybe the distributor was already pitched your talent by a competing production company who threw the name out (without first securing a deal with that talent) as part of a horribly pitched idea, so now that distributor views your talent as a liability.

Believe me – I’ve had all of the above happen so this isn’t hypothetical.  Content development is always a gamble.  You have to really understand this from the very beginning.  There is no such thing as a guaranteed hit.

IT AIN’T WHAT YOU DO, IT’S THE WAY YOU DO IT

So how do you put your best foot forward?

How do you pitch your unique POV in a way that gets distributors excited?

How do you stand out so they take notice?

The answer may sound simple: you leverage your “outsider” status to your advantage.  And then, most importantly, you present your ideas in a way that dazzles.

Ready to dive in?  In our next article, we will discuss that element which everyone must master: the pitch.


Patrick Jager is Content Consultant at RevThink and CEO of strategic advisory firm CORE Innovation Group. He is a frequent speaker, panelist and author on the topics of media, brand, and business leadership.

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