TV Viewers Only Care About 4 Adjectives: Funny, Interesting, Gripping or Cool

DCNF, Upfront presenters need to grasp content's kingdom is changing

More than twice a week, I'm asked what I think about the future of media. I find that I give two answers that, at least to me, are not at all contradictory. I say that everything will be completely different, and everything will be exactly the same. Yes, different and the same.

But first, I don't think anyone can talk about the future of media without acknowledging its history. We've seen monumental changes in the past century: print supplanted by radio and radio in turn overtaken by television. Now we find ourselves trying to put down foundations in an exciting but unstable estuary, where the raging river of TV has flowed into the vast ocean of the Internet.

Today's technology has democratized content creation. Any and every smartphone owner suddenly has the power of a production studio in her pocket. This comes in stark contrast to 40 years ago, when Norman Lear was effectively the nation's tastemaker, producing seven of the top 10 shows in America and reaching tens of millions of viewers.

The proliferation and commoditization of smart devices has even reduced the television—the once unassailable bastion of American life and entertainment—to just another screen. My own kids, now 11, 12 and 14, barely turn the thing on, instead opting for their mobile phones, tablets or laptops.

This brings us to a reality oft-overlooked or forgotten by industry folk: Today's viewers don't differentiate between "traditional" and "digital." Today's viewers watch what they want, when they want. The average consumer is not thinking about whether it's scripted or unscripted, user-generated or premium. They care that it's funny, interesting, gripping or cool. Brands need to recognize the power of those four adjectives, and take risks alongside today's leading content creators. If brands can meet this challenge, the aftershocks will reveal new possibilities and opportunities for both the industry and consumers.

There will be no difference—no more arbitrary distinction—between traditional and digital content. The NewFronts and Upfronts will no longer be individual events, but rather a single forum for content creators and brands. And branded content and content will simply be content, and its success or failure will be determined by whether it is simply good or bad.

Contrary to what most of Madison Avenue wants to believe, consumers don't always want their viewing experience interrupted by clunky and sometimes irrelevant ads, nor do they want to be thrown out of their immersion by disrespectful plays for their attention. But just as much, advertisers should not want to be the brand responsible for disrupting the narrative flow.

This essay was sponsored by Dunder Mifflin. (See what I did there?)

While we have the hood open, why don't we transform advertising and the way it works alongside the technology and content we are currently upgrading? There is tremendous opportunity here. To catalyze the seismic changes I've described, I challenge brand advertisers to start taking real creative risk. Think beyond pre-roll, or standard product placement, and let your brand have a personality that contributes to the story. Millennials will accept brands in stories more than any other generation, as long as it's transparent and serves a purpose.

All of this change, and yet—everything will remain the same. From the days of cave paintings on the wall to whatever will come after Netflix (and there will be something after Netflix), humanity has had an innate need to share its own stories, and to follow along with the stories of others. Storytelling will undoubtedly remain an integral part of the human experience and continue to inform the way we produce and consume media.

Technology is the vehicle, and content is the fuel. You can change the color of the paint, add a sunroof and even replace the entire engine block, but nothing will run without truly compelling content. We are, at our core, storytellers—and storytellers we remain, regardless of the medium or screen. Content is still king; it's just the kingdom that keeps changing.

Dermot McCormack (@dermot100) is president of video at AOL. This opinion piece is the first in a weekly series leading up the the start of the Digital Content NewFronts on Monday, April 27.