Last week I attended the Future of Television conference in NYC from Digital Media Wire. I had a lot of high hopes for the conference but came home afterwards with just a feeling of disappointment. I attend a lot of conferences, especially about Internet video and TV so maybe I’m just getting jaded. But I just expected more about the “future”.
I was full of high expectations–there were some interesting sessions and speakers and I am intensely interested in the future of TV so I couldn’t miss this conference. It was a beautiful, and bright Monday morning in lower Manhattan and as I walked in the event people were hopeful and eager to talk and connect.
But it was clear early on that the crowd wasn’t really engaged. They were mostly paying attention to their laptops, smartphones and tablets rather than what was happening on stage. This happens all the time, you say, right? True, but I bet if there was something interesting happening up on stage everyone in the room would immediately put their phones down and pay attention. (Then immediately grab their devices and tweet what they heard, of course!) The audience would be much more engaged. They would ask more questions.
Overall, the main problem with a lot of tech conferences today are that they are just so boring. Unfortunately, they are also necessary mostly because that’s where people go to meet face to face. Companies that I want to speak to are attending. And the best kinds of interactions today and networking opportunities are still face to face. Weird, eh? But most sessions are just filled with boring. Moderators let speakers and panelists drone on and on. Everyone is afraid to give an opinion because (gasp!) someone else might disagree! People might get called out on Twitter and then who knows. Apparently giving out your opinion in a public forum can be very dangerous in 2013.
Many of the panels I attended had people agreeing with everything that was said before or trying not to disagree with anyone else. I want to hear opinions and facts. I want disagreements. I want people to strongly state their case or talk about the future of TV, or say something that is mildly interesting. Moderators plod along with their questions and don’t interrupt speakers. They don’t challenge or follow-up. They don’t put things into context. It doesn’t flow very well, from one topic to another. I wanted hard questions. I wanted more.
At the Social TV panel, I realized quickly that there was nothing new going on. No new ideas or insights. No new technologies. Just a bunch of panelists droning on. The moderator did his best to spice things up, by having topics flash on the overhead screen, but even that couldn’t liven up the panel. Things just droned on. “Well that’s 45 minutes of my life that I won’t get back,” said someone I sat next to in the audience. Someone else at the table simply nodded and smiled.
My Teachable Moment
The best moment of the conference happened at the afternoon session called “Television Marketing Leadership Roundtable” but I think no one else caught it because it happened off stage. The panel consisted of two people, Linda Schupack, Exective VP of Marketing at AMC Networks and Don Buckley, Executive VP of Program Marketing & Digital Services at Showtime, along with moderator David Berkowitz from MRY. The panel went along quite nicely and politely but I can’t quite remember anything they actually said. And I was very curious because AMC and Showtime have some really great TV shows and I was interested in learning a bit about marketing hit TV shows like The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Breaking Bad (for AMC) and Homeland, Dexter (for Showtime).
But there were no hard hitting questions. Here’s what I wanted to know:
- How do you market your TV shows across platforms? What are best practices? What doesn’t work?
- Consumers aren’t really interested in TV networks, so how can they remain relevant to consumers?
- How can you best develop new properties, especially in the face of shows like Dexter and Breaking Bad which are ending their runs in the next week? (To be fair, Don did talk about how Ray Donovan was promoted alongside Dexter.)
- As on-demand viewing increases, how can networks adapt their marketing strategies to capture younger viewers who aren’t watching live?
- How can you best take advantage of existing properties to create new experiences or spin-offs, like for The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad?
And the one question I got up to ask: “AMC announced that the last season of Mad Men would be broken up into two half-seasons, even though production was going ahead as one season with no breaks. It seems like just a marketing strategy so can you explain why you’re taking this approach?”
Linda said that they were giving the audience time to grow and catch on to the series, and that there would also be a longer finale for Mad Men. To me, that didn’t seem like the right way to go, at least for dedicated fans and viewers.
“Is AMC just doing this to prolong the season,” I asked in follow-up from my seat in the audience. No, not really was her response. I think Linda had had enough of me by this point. Fortunately the session was almost over. But I wanted to get one more follow-up.
So I waited and caught Linda one more time after the session was done. “I hope you understand why I was asking this. You know Netflix does the complete opposite, they create shows and release them all at once, while AMC seems to just be doing this to expand the season.”
“Well we have a different model than Netflix,” Linda said as she was leaving. I thanked her and sat down.
Why Are Conferences So Boring? Why Don’t TV Networks Adapt?
But then I had a revelation. Of course Netflix and AMC are different. They do have different models. AMC is trying to get the highest ratings they can get for their shows. Their first priority are advertisers. Netflix, on the other hand, only is worrying about viewers. About consumers. They don’t have to worry about advertisers or ratings. They have to worry about consumers cancelling their service. This, more than anything, really showed me how different online TV is from traditional TV.
And it also highlights the state of boring conferences today. I think conferences are worried more about not offending speakers and sponsors than about informing attendees. Who is more important to them and why? What would a new kind of conference that’s focused on learning and the needs of attendees look like? Netflix understands their audience and are changing distribution in order to appeal to them. Traditional networks are doing everything they can to cater to advertisers and keep their ratings high, at the expense of viewers.
I hope that both traditional TV networks can embrace this new paradigm and make viewers number one. And I hope conferences can do the same for their attendees.