Dear Marissa: Want Yahoo! to succeed in the TV biz? Reinvent how it's measured.
Hello, Marissa. I'd like to preface everything I'm about to say with the acknowledgment that you're a great executive. You're a consummate professional, a strong leader and you've taken on one of the most challenging jobs on the planet.
That was a doozy of an article, that New York Times piece stating Yahoo! is getting into the TV biz (again). All of it seemed to be encapsulated in the request for "series that are ready to launch and don't require a lot of development." I think two guys, recruited into Yahoo!, said a similar thing a decade ago.
I remember the day clearly. I was 31, and had started my own branded entertainment boutique. Over at Yahoo! (not too far from my offices at that time), Terry Semel and Lloyd Braun were officially building a slate of content described as "immersive original programming". I thought to myself: "Finally, the world is going to change! This Internet thing is going to liberate content creators and create a whole new marketplace!"
There are lots of reasons why that didn't happen. Chief among them has been the long-standing idea -- an operating ethos, if you will -- that technology companies know media, and media companies know technology. Well, they do. Sort of. They just don't know how to innovate and how to monetize at the same time. The AOL-Time Warner merger was a great example of this pervasive reality.
Of course, plenty of other attempts have been made ever since.
Remember Julie Roehm of Wal-Mart infamy? She and a motley crew of folks tried to reinvent the upfronts. Then several other attempts were made to reinvent the set-top box (remember Slingbox?). Then panel research. Then surveys. Then brands slowly evolved this idea of entertainment. And so on.
What do we have today? We have video upfronts and digital content 'newfronts' (yes, a marked improvement), but more or less fancier, shinier boxes (read: prettier set-tops and ad units), and more or less the same system of measurement, and more or less the same territorial squabbles for rights and distribution amongst cable nets and 3rd party providers. All of which, suffice to say, hasn't stopped storytellers from making some amazing stuff.
And that's just it: this is the golden age of storytelling. Not advertising. Not content marketing. Not alternative programming. Not social TV. Not online video.
I've been experimenting in media and entertainment for a long time, and as much as I love technology and hate the status quo, last time I checked, Hollywood and a significant long-tail of independent content creators had the storytelling gene, not Silicon Valley. Yet, there remains a silver lining.
What's novel about shows like House of Lies and House of Cards and True Detective and Game of Thrones isn't just the fact that they are great shows with great writers and great casts -- it's the fact that TV has become serialized in a really special kind of way. Netflix, of course, has completely changed the game by producing great material and serializing it for those wonderful, binge "TV anywhere" experiences. Serialization means that creators can develop shows with more imagination and depth, and audiences can be more preferential in their tastes than ever before. This also means that data are really important in understanding these respective behaviors.
The online makers movement has changed the game a little, but I don't think it's much of a stretch to argue that the bar on quality and scale hasn't been raised much. Part of this has to do with the fact that these content channels aren't really looking at how to sustain audiences for the longer haul, and how to shepherd them into different areas of media and social environments. Not yet, at least. Then again, we're talking about different markets with derivative business models. Disney just spent $500+mm on a service platform (Makers Studios) in the hope that something will change. Or not.
But where the rubber meets the road for large Internet companies still remains to be seen. In Yahoo's case, I don't think it's some half-baked decision to develop a programming slate. Excuse me, a pre-developed programming slate. If history has any bearing on the learning process (which most times it doesn't), then the "been there, done that" credo might need a little more greasing of the gears. Terry and Lloyd knew how to attract talent, but didn't understand the Internet. The grand irony in all of this, of course, is that good storytelling and audience retention are inexorably linked, and the Internet could be the great wide open for 'new' forms of storytelling. Those of us in various storytelling communities have been pushing the boundaries in our own ways for the last 18+ years, waiting for the big guys to catch up.
Problem is, no amount of money or acquisition power can buy you that kind of talent and those kinds of skills. If they did, Hollywood would be a very different business today, and companies like Google would have a far more diverse core search and advertising business. But they're not and they don't. So companies like Yahoo! need to get real about what the opportunities are and how they can be cultivated.
You've already played a tremendous hand in developing and enhancing Yahoo's impressive slate of utilities (apps, news, content, etc.) and a publisher network with a diverse array of content creators, news makers and media buyers. Let's not forget its impressive video capabilities, which hasn't quite suffered the fate of MySpace. And your support of Yahoo! Studios has been a smart play not only in terms of its successes, but in having a front-row seat witnessing the shifts in online content.
However, what that shift translates into is intelligence. I like to call it 'audience intelligence'.
As you may have already discovered, there are caveats to what data can do in the form of intelligence. TV audiences don't behave the same way that Internet audiences do, even though there are quite a lot of overlaps. The TV experience itself isn't typically "lean in" or "lean forward". And yes, people have device preferences, but they also have genre preferences and are willing to participate in the creation of show content. This, in my opinion, is the true value of social networks. They are participatory, not just vessels for ads and content. Your competitor cohorts don't seem to get this, or maybe they don't want to.
See where this is leading?
To be perfectly clear: just because we can measure everything, doesn't mean we can create anything we want. I saw this paradox play out in spades when we were building enhancements to the Coincident TV platform. We were using video and digital content ('social media') to provide show runners with data and insight they couldn't get anywhere else. We also had a markup language that allowed them not only to have a second screen (or multiple screens), but a means to distribute content attuned to the sharing behaviors of their audience segments.
The net-net of that experience was two-fold; first, what we measure, how we measure and who we target are contingent upon the ways in which a network behaves. I'm talking about channel to channel, peer to peer, online and offline, and most importantly, how people tell stories and share stories in different media environments. The whole enchilada. On the flip side, we can't keep looking at reach and frequency as the only core metrics that matter... Because if the social web has taught us anything, networks spread information through common interests, intentions and relevance to ideas (or in the case of programming, themes).
Google recently announced that it has a new system to measure across channels. Problem there is, it still wants to funnel people into its own pages and channels so it can sell ads against the impressions. Old model. Bing has an entity search system that can run high-end video content with geolocal data. Cool stuff, but the audiences aren't very captive, nor do conversions lead to much in terms of repeat views, or in some cases, repeat purchases. AOL has been silently stepping up its content capabilities, but relatively speaking, doesn't have much traffic or effective reach across channels, despite some very smart partnerships. Facebook, despite its recent advances in mobile, is still shoehorning ads into people's feeds. And Twitter, despite entering the original programming space through various deals, is still struggling to understand how to monetize content with and without ads.
The Nielsen-Twitter deal? I won't go into specifics here, but let's just say that the social TV revolution hasn't quite arrived. Not yet, at least.
See, none of these companies are measuring and levering networks of people. You know, audiences. They're acting like old media companies. Truth is, audiences don't prefer channels or platforms in the same way 'users' do. And users don't like to discover that their identities, their data, and more importantly their ideas, can be gamed and used against them, no matter how cool the content thrown at them can really be.
Meanwhile, all the usual suspects -- cable nets and primetime networks -- are continuing to do their thing by making programs that people actually like to watch, and show content they talk about. Just two weeks ago, I watched a panel of five top cable network execs wax on about how the broadcast model "isn't going to change for another 10 years." If I were in their shoes, I'd probably think the same way. Heck, I applaud their tenacity.
That said, there is one big Internet company that does 'get it', and that's Amazon. Amazon has all the creative, production, distribution and processing power, and soon it's search and discovery capabilities will catch up with its investments in a real, sustainable information ecosystem. In plainer terms, Amazon is investing in media by learning how information systems actually operate in the 21st century -- this is why it bought newspapers and is building software tools for storytellers, among other breakthrough efforts.
If you look closely, Amazon is investing, literally, in networks of people. Amazon doesn't need ads or impressions to rule the roost because information systems aren't really about ads and impressions anymore. They're about distributive purchasing power.
I'll repeat that last phrase: distributive purchasing power.
So what's the game-plan actually gonna be for Yahoo?
If I were a betting man, I'd say it has one, huge glorious chance to help networks of all kinds reach and captivate new audiences, and connect to 'brands' in a totally different way. But in order to do so, it's going to have to get deeper into the information business, not media or entertainment, or God forbid, advertising.
Please, Marissa, do us all a favor, don't make the same mistakes Terry and Lloyd did. Let's not wait another 10 years to 'figure it out'. You're too smart for that, and besides, it's time for someone to leave behind a different kind of legacy -- a sustainable legacy made for a brand that's been lost in the woods since Lloyd and Terry came riding into town (not Tinsletown, the Valley). It starts with data, and it builds momentum with content that audiences actually want. You're kind of doing that already with your news digest. Now think about the implications when themes are pulled from those respective data sets to understand what types of show content can be created. You might even be able to create whole new subsets of show content.
If you're game, here's what you'll need to get there (I'm leaving out the how-to parts, of course ;). In no particular order:
1. New research capabilities that talk to all lines of the business and can break free of ad, media and survey biases;
2. Creative and storytelling teams that can build disciplines that are multiplatform in nature and multifaceted by design, and based on 'new' forms of data (like social strata);
3. Lots of experiments with media partners, independent creators and data folk. An exact, adaptive science that constantly improves upon itself. The critical part? Running these experiments in-market, unlike university labs or media labs that operate in silos;
4. A new means to do content discovery based on interest, social and knowledge graphs, and not based just on media consumption;
5. Lots of courage in the face of media conglomerates and analytics companies that are wildly averse to change, but many that would be willing to accept a new approach if they could actually 'see' what it looks like.
Good luck, Marissa. There are more than a few of us rooting for you. Personally, I would love to see you win this game.