NATPE Panel: Execs Talk Digital Content, Engagement, Linear’s Future


MIAMI: In a panel discussion moderated by World Screen’s Anna Carugati, executives from Zodiak Media, Modern Times Group, Keshet International and Z Living discussed how each of their companies have adapted to shifts in viewing trends.

The panel, Multinational Companies in a Multiplatform World, featured Grant Ross, the executive VP of global creative development and format acquisition at Zodiak Media; Merrily Ross, the VP of formats and content development at Modern Times Group (MTG); Sebastian Burkhardt, the head of business development and acquisitions at Keshet International; and Rafe Oller, the general manager of Z Living Network.

Carugati began the session by asking the panelists what the biggest change has been for their businesses in the multiplatform era. MTG’s Ross noted the fall in linear viewing numbers in Scandinavia. “Where are they going? They’re moving onto digital: AVOD, SVOD.”

Declining linear rates in Israel were mentioned by Keshet’s Burkhardt, who also discussed the importance of coming up with new business models for producing premium content as well as the need to explore new narrative techniques in storytelling. “We’re experimenting in unscripted, scripted, short form, long form, really trying to crack the market and moving along to see what is working, what isn’t working. We’re in the business of creating but also trying to adapt rather quickly and tailoring our content to this ever-changing market.”

Zodiak’s Ross stressed that linear is still the company’s core business. “We produce predominantly for linear broadcasters. That’s where the money still is, so that’s where we concentrate. Of course there are challenges. We’ve got audience erosion—they’re going onto other screens. We’re chasing them, trying to get content onto other screens, but above all we’re trying to monetize them and find those business models to be able to monetize those viewers that we’re losing elsewhere. In many ways our challenge is to do this with smaller budgets. Because that’s what a lot of these broadcasters are now offering us. So we’re trying to reinvent our production methods to produce better shows that make more noise to bring people back to these big screens, for a cheaper price.”

For Z Living’s Oller, digital has made the media companies “metrics obsessed—the true rock stars of the future are mathematicians,” he quipped. “The grave danger with being data or metric obsessed is that you forget that at the end of the day, entertainment or any kind of engagement is an art.”

Oller added, “All of us are competing for only one thing, and that’s your time.”

Oller went on to caution companies to not become the next Blockbuster as they figure out how best to adapt to the new content-consumption models. “This is a shift in behavior. We’re not losing customers, they’re going somewhere else, and you have to find them. We get rewarded for one thing: their time.”

Zodiak’s Ross added, “We tend to panic, don’t we? We tend to believe the Millennials are no longer watching television. There’s a bit of truth in that, but they’re still watching screens, in fact they’re consuming a lot more than what we did when we were at a younger age. So in many ways we’re not losing eyeballs, these eyeballs are just going elsewhere, and it’s up to us to be sharp enough to find out where they are and to get our content in front of them…and monetizing it wherever we find those eyeballs.”

MTG’s Ross noted that it’s not just Millennials whose viewing habits have reshaped the landscape. “Ask everyone in the audience, when do you watch television? It’s when you have time. You can watch a late-night entertainment show on catch-up. I don’t watch linear television—but I watch a lot of content.”

Carugati asked the panelists about the impact of OTT platforms like Netflix now angling for first-run rights—which used to be the domain of the world’s big free-to-air broadcasters. Keshet’s Burkhardt noted: “The long-tail value of a piece of content, that’s what drives our international distribution strategy. Any piece of content comes with a funding model, a business model, attached to it. OTT in general provide possible funding for your content. As a distributor it’s really about figuring out what is the right strategy to adopt for each piece of content. It might make sense on a scripted show on which you have a big deficit attached to do a worldwide deal with one of the big OTT players. On other pieces of content where you know this has a lot of commercial potential and maybe you haven’t exposed yourself as much on deficit financing, you can do a combination of linear money and OTT revenues. It really depends. I wouldn’t say it’s a big threat to the market. It’s just been a big challenge for the distributors operating in that field, just getting their strategies right and making sure they don’t damage the long-tail value and the overall potential of every piece of content they produce. There are more commercial opportunities out there, it’s just up to us to optimize them.”

MTG’s Ross said that for distributors that do deals with big broadcasting companies like hers, “we can keep the tail going. We can have [a show] on SVOD, take it to linear, put it on pay TV, put it back on catch up. We’ve got that flexibility.”

The panel ended with a discussion about how linear channels remain relevant. MTG’s Ross stated that some success strategies haven’t changed: “You want the best content in the best position on your channel…. We still want to watch big entertainment shows on the weekend with our families. We still want to watch crime mid-week with our TV dinners on linear. But also want to be able to scroll through and say, I missed that, I want to watch it, now.”