Broadcast television is withering on the vine, they say. Especially in the summer months, when the heat from cable competition is indeed withering.
Well, “they” know nothing, according to CBS. And you, if you’ve been watching Under the Dome on Mondays, you’ve been helping to prove that “they” are wrong.
According to Les Moonves, president and chief executive officer of CBS Corp. (he oversees the TV network, mini-network The CW, cable channel Showtime, CBS international and local television), the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Under the Dome has “changed the face of summer television.”
“And it’s the highest premiere of a drama since 1992,” Moonves told TV critics here. “It’s the way television can be. Obviously, it’s a very different model.”
What he means by “different model” is that Under the Dome has 13 episodes, runs in the summer and disappears until next summer.
“Obviously, the whole model for putting on a big summer show, it’s hard,” he said. “A lot of people, including us, brought in Canadian exports, which were very cheap.” Ouch, take that Rookie Blue, Motive and Flashpoint.
Moonves said the key to making money from Under the Dome, as opposed to those cheap Canadian exports, was “a huge international sale of the show, as well as the participation of Amazon.”
What happened is that Amazon paid CBS for the rights to stream the series to its Amazon Prime customers, a deal that made sense, since Stephen King sells a lot of books.
Not every show gets a sweet deal with Amazon. But many run for fewer episodes. The short-run business model is now rampant, especially at CBS. Two new series, Hostages and Intelligence, will have 10-to-15-episode seasons in 2013-14 rather than the usual 22. While Moonves posits this as progress and good business, it still suggests shrinkage.
And there’s another new and notable financial twist: ever more emphatic product placement. The upcoming sitcom The Crazy Ones, with Robin Williams as a wacky-genius advertising man, spends most of its first episode talking about McDonald’s restaurants. Moonves acknowledged that the show came with a built-in deal with the fast-food chain, which helped to get it on the schedule. Take that, Robin Williams.
Still, Moonves sees no reason for negativity: “I’ve been in the network television business over 30 years and people have been saying, ‘Oh, the model is dead.’ The model’s never been dead. It’s just evolving. It’s changing. So, look at Under the Dome, and consider that 20 million viewers watched it, and we got paid for that, not the 13.7 the ratings suggest.”
He means that, officially, Under the Dome opened with 13.7 million viewers in the United States. But, when DVR, video on demand and streaming are counted in, that number increased to just over 20 million viewers. And advertisers pay more to reach 20 million people.
“Everything is not quite being counted yet, although Nielsen is trying to get there,” Moonves said.
While Moonves might be said by some people to be whistling past the graveyard, CBS’s research backs up his confidence. After he introduced the CBS portion of the TV critics press tour, Dave Poltrack, the chief research officer for CBS, talked numbers and stats to a small group of reporters. It was an interesting defence of the strength of the old broadcast model adapting to the new digital world, in a policy wonk kind of way.
One of his main points was that online streaming, DVR usage and video on demand do more than add to the ratings numbers. They help viewers find a program, and that means CBS has to do less direct marketing of shows. He describes it as a “discovery and adoption process.” Potential viewers can now find a program they missed and stick with it, and that continually increases a show’s audience.
Further, Poltrack notes: “More younger viewers are discovering our programs through distribution on these new platforms. On average, the online viewers are about 20 years younger than the on-air viewers. Right now, we make more money when somebody watches our show online than we do when they watch it live on television and far more money than we do if they watch it in playback [on DVRs]. So our goal is to monetize every viewer and the only viewers that we can’t develop a monetization scheme for are the DVR audience beyond a certain point in time.”
The real point, of course, is that advertisers pay more to reach younger consumers and that people watching a show on DVR skip the ads, making them less easy to monetize.
The most interesting portion of Poltrack’s presentation was about Twitter. He said: “Online communication through social media accounts for just three per cent of all daily communication about television programs.” Take that, Twitter.
As he went on to explain, broadcasters and advertisers are deeply interested in knowing and shaping the conversation about TV shows, but Twitter can lead them astray. He asked, rhetorically: “Is the three per cent of the total conversations representative of the other 97 per cent of the conversation?”
Then he continued: “Let’s look at a recent example: Sharknado versus Under the Dome.” This produced some laughter in his small audience. Sharknado is the wacky made-for-TV disaster movie about freak weather tossing sharks out of the ocean and throwing them into Los Angeles. It aired on the Syfy channel in the United States on July 11 and caused one of those Twitter sensations that make people highly curious about something.
Poltrack’s message was this: If you use Twitter as the sole barometer, Sharknado was enormously impactful. “The numbers vary widely, but they all show Sharknado to be the clear winner,” he noted. “There is only one problem. Under the Dome drew almost 10 times as many viewers as Sharknado. Where is the disconnect? Remember, these services are only capturing the conversations of those who talk about these programs online.”
This is true. Twitter attention drew about 1.6 million viewers to Sharknado. Under the Dome is hitting about 20 million.
Take that, Internet and Twitter. Shut up.
Like Moonves, Poltrack jawed on about Under the Dome. It can be monetized. The other stuff, not so much. Take that, skeptics.