Entertainment Chiefs Talk COVID-19’s ‘Generation Defining’ Impact at NAB Executive Leadership Summit

Will Thorne

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There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has had a “generation defining” impact on the entertainment business.

During the NAB Show Executive Leadership Summit, produced in partnership with the Variety Streaming Room, leaders from across the business gathered virtually to discuss how COVID-19 is changing the business across all platforms, and how Gen Z’s viewing habits are guiding their decision-making.

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With the pandemic forcing production on pretty much every single film and television project to shut down for the time being, the depth and quality of a service’s library is proving key to getting through this difficult time for original content, according to Alison Hoffman, president of domestic networks at Starz, who was speaking as part of the “A View from Above: TV Transformed” panel.

“We’re seeing increased acquisition, subscriber acquisition, increased viewership, increased engagement, meaning views per customer, I think like a lot of streamers are,” Hoffman said. “The value of library at a time like this I think can’t be understated. People are plowing through content at record pace right now because they have available time. And so I think the better your library, the more diverse your library, and the deeper your library, the more satisfied your customers are and stickier they are right now.”

Jeff Grossman, executive vice president of content strategy and operations at CBS All Access and CBS Entertainment Digital, echoed the importance of library content, pointing to escapist fare such as “Star Trek” as being at the center of the COVID-19-related viewership bump.

“We’re seeing live TV consumption up over 40 percent. A lot of that’s driven by our news content and our live linear news content, and then I think some of our programming has really resonated with audiences, first and foremost, ‘Star Trek: Picard,’ which was an original on the All Access service,” Grossman said. “I think there’s something in addition to a lot of the classic and nostalgia library programming, shows like ‘Cheers’ that we have and a great compliment of Paramount movies. I think there’s something in the ‘Star Trek’ DNA that is embedded with sort of a hopeful kind of look at the future. And that type of content is also really resonating with fans and viewers right now.”

The nostalgia factor is definitely something that Sony Pictures Television president of networks and distribution Keith Le Goy is also noticing. Some of the studio’s shows, such as “Community” and “Outlander,” which it would had previously viewed as “maybe a little marginal,” are now seeing their audiences “explode,” per Le Goy.

With audiences turning out in larger numbers and more engaged, content providers are being presented with a new chance to define themselves to viewers.

“Traditional broadcasters, new streaming platforms…for the first time in a long time we have the opportunity to re-engage audiences with our products and with our content. And this is an opportunity that I think everybody is leaning in very hard to say, ‘Well, how do I do that? How do I build a new viewing habit?’ So that when we come out of this, and we will, we can come out of it stronger and more connected to our audiences than ever before, and to have a really firm foundation that we can continue to build off of,” Le Goy said.

However, while the older brands in the game are clearly benefiting in some respects from the current predicament, there are also several new disruptors, such as HBO Max and Peacock, who are about to enter the fray.

The question of just how many subscription services any one person is willing to subscribe to is one that nobody has a real answer to, but one that Tiran Dagan, chief digital officer of communications, media and technology business at Cognizant, gave some insight on during the panel.

“A lot of this is market forces that will have to play out because it’s a balance between pricing and the desire to reach content,” Dagan said. “If you’re a cult-based content creator versus live stream programming, then you’re going to be targeting a different slice of audience. There’s going to be room for the audiences to be sliced and diced in different ways. We’re not anticipating any particular number for it to be reduced to, because it’s more a matter of the supply and demand and desires of the audience and how it’s being addressed, and at what costs. At some point people will look to add up how much are they paying now compared to my $200 cable bill. And am I spending more or less? But there’s a lot of room to play in that span.”

Looking more closely at the Gen Z audience, content providers are seeing their streaming consumption increasing significantly, especially given the self-isolation circumstances.

“They’ve gone in the last year and really in the last month here, from doing about a third of their media, their TV viewing time in streaming, to pretty close to half. We’ve seen 30% growth in that demographic just since the beginning of March. They’re growing just much faster on streaming than they are on linear, and really adding to that overall momentum I think we’re seeing in the streaming space today,” said Roku vice president of programming Rob Holmes.

Several panel participants discussed the mental health problems that are on the rise due to mass self-isolation, with Brianna Cayo Cotter, senior vice president of social impact and ViacomCBS youth and entertainment, saying the “collective trauma” that everyone is going through has the potential to hit the youngest generation hardest.

Content platforms that cater to younger audiences have the potential to be a part of the solution.

“This is a generation-defining moment without a doubt,” said Cayo Cotter. “There’s all sorts of things that are happening on Nickelodeon to help support kids understanding and how parents can help support their children on that. And then more broadly across the brands….mental health has been a major issue for our audience and our demo for a long time now…and it is going to be only a more important and urgent thing to make sure that we’re modeling through media and entertainment, healthy coping and resilience and help seeking, and then making sure that our audiences are actually connected with the help seeking resources that they need.”

With schools shut across the country, platforms like YouTube are being used more than ever as an educational resource, and a place to find some comfort during this ordeal, according to the Google-owned company’s global head of brand marketing Angela Courtin.

“We see this with both broadcast and late night turning to YouTube, as well as someone like John Krasinski doing Some Good News,’ and how that’s actually transcended the ability to start something on linear, but actually really born out of digital and YouTube,” Courtin said. “And then really just this idea that self-sustainability. I’m sure we’ve all turned to cooking or gardening or baking sourdough or cutting our own hair…Those ordinary tasks that once we could go outdoors to do, we are now finding ways to learn them and do them on our own through this beautiful creative community that we find on YouTube.”

No conversation about how Gen Z is coping with the coronvarius can be had without mentioning TikTok. Although the video-sharing social network is taking the internet by storm, brands (and perhaps older generations) are still learning how to fit it into their marketing strategies.

“The way that we’re currently leaning into (TikTok) is letting our talent lead, because it is very personal and talent driven,” said Freeform marketing SVP Tricia Melton. “What I also think is fascinating about Tiktok, is how this demo, Gen Z, has basically taught and introduced their grandparents to TikTok. Who could’ve imagined that eight weeks ago? That’s what I find so fascinating and fluid about this particular platform. It will be interesting to see where it goes and how brands in general begin to really use TikTok.”

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