Fox TV Boss Kevin Reilly Says a Good Tale Still Matters

And so does the 30-second spot

TV has always been a dog-eat-dog game. These days, there are so many dogs in the mix, someone better alert the ASPCA. So why, in the midst of massive digital disruption, does every feature film producer and half of Silicon Valley want in? Because in this confounding, fascinating, exhilarating time of transition, TV is more amazing than ever.

The resilience of narrative storytelling and people’s love affair with television is impressive. It has bucked trendy prognostications over the last decade that interactive, short-form, user-generated content—anything but traditional, professionally constructed stories on TV—would swallow up the “old ways.” TV consumption is now at an all-time high.

The free market still works in America, and the expansion of platforms has fostered an explosion in imaginative programs as well as ever-addictive ways to consume and talk about them. You can stack, binge and stream on-demand—and blog, chat and tweet all about it. The new ecosystem compounds success—the Sleepy Hollow premiere surpassed 27 million viewers across all platforms, and established hits like Sons of Anarchy and The Walking Dead come back bigger every season.

The advertisers who underwrite the vast majority of this product should take some solace in the endurance of the 30-second spot. (I know, “no one watches commercials anymore.” But they actually do. And yes, they still work.) In the age of big data and cool tech, television is still irreplaceable for both building brand and market share. Wanna sell a smartphone or a soda? Buy some spots!

All of this excitement does come with strings attached. So many viewing options have diluted both urgency-to-view and passive audience flow—the two opposing pillars that programmers have relied upon to generate tune-in and maintain circulation. Some of the greatest shows in history—Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond and House—had puny starts but the benefit of schedule protection, increasingly scarce in today’s DVR world. Cable nets can tolerate small ratings, building hits in progress like Breaking Bad, or marathon their way to a Duck Dynasty.

Broadcast networks feel more pain from “holes” in their schedules (with shows that are often higher rated than most cable hits). Frustrating for broadcasters? Yup. That’s the game, dog.

Audience measurement is more maddening than ever. It was bad enough to start your day with a ratings report card—now the report card dribbles in over weeks, as Nielsen measurement no longer captures the full picture. Many shows see dramatic increases—often 60 to 80 percent-plus—across the officially measured seven days. And with more adoption of video on demand and streaming, viewing continues over 30 days and beyond. I can’t tell you how many times someone has raved to me about a show they are obsessed with and they are clearly talking about the previous season. It turns out the biggest challenge to TV is TV!

Those of us in the network business feel it’s vital to evolve sensible consumer options, like streaming full-season stacks during our network window. Sensible, except that Netflix is threatening to whack its syndication investment if networks are granted these stacking rights. Old Dog meet New Dog, with a big bark.

What a network is today is very different than it was five years ago, and will be more radically different five years from now. Creating more direct relationships with consumers, utilizing the resulting data and insights, is increasingly more valuable—and an evolution of the traditional competency of ad-supported television networks.

The challenge going forward is to continue turning the traditional media barge in new directions, reimagining our paradigms and processes on the fly, all the while staying ahead of pop culture and making hits.

God help me, I feel lucky to have a shot at that fantastic challenge. And that pit in my stomach? Well, dog is hard to digest.

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