What Comes After Networks? Neo-Studios

Please, let’s not argue whether the age of traditional TV networks is over. It is, and you know it. Older viewers may be keeping it on life support, but if that fills you with optimism, we have a buggy whip factory to sell you.

A friend, a veteran producer at a major TV network, put it this way: “I’ll still be here in 10 years — but the networks, not so much.”

So what comes next? After years in the network TV trenches, we believe the answer is: studios. Neo-studios, actually — a new breed filling the void left by the inevitable disappearance of networks as we know them. Neo-studios will build tomorrow’s media empires.

In the modern TV era, networks have been more than distribution platforms. They‘re brands. Branding has helped forge relationships and create fans (“I want my MTV!”) and helped those fans discover new shows and characters (AMC: “Something more!”).

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Branding Across Platforms

But the new digital distribution mega-platforms — we’re looking at you, Netflix, YouTube and Hulu — strip branding away. They just plop content out there naked. And then they dangle algorithmically chosen video-bait — unbranded video-bait — to keep viewers viewing.

To these platforms, content is commodified and fungible. (Unless, of course, it’s their content, which they brand as their own and promote heavily.)

Neo-studios are the new networks. Untethered to any one platform, they distribute their IP over neo-networks — a web of media platforms customized to the nature of the property and needs of the audience. A neo-network could incorporate everything from streaming video to games to books and movies and toys.

Neo-studios understand that successful properties must be media-agnostic in this way, but must also live under the umbrella of a consumer-facing studio brand.

A few smart media companies are well positioned for the age of neo-studios.

The Walt Disney Co., for example, views its branded channels as just one of many platforms for its venerable properties. Its Marvel division, eschewing the Disney brand, is free to leverage its considerable brand equity to become a neo-studio of its own.

WWE has built an empire on the mythology of its story world — live events, television, video games, music, merchandise.

Even Hasbro (Transformers, Monopoly, My Little Pony) understands it’s not in the toy business anymore. Said president John Frascotti: “The business we are in today is really about building multidimensional franchises that are rooted in great stories and great characters.” In other words, Hasbro is a neo-studio whose key franchises are intellectual properties.

As we see it, successful neo-studios share seven traits:

1) Stand for someone and something. They will do their homework — and reflect deeply — to determine exactly who they’re for and what they will promise them.

2) View shows as media-agnostic IP franchises. Digital is more than “brand extensions” and “ancillary content” — it’s a platform equal to any of the others.

3) Spread across the media-verse. They will use all platforms and all formats to architect a media structure that is right for for each IP franchise.

4) Produce a lot of meta-content. Content about content not only promotes properties. It satisfies fans’ hunger to experience properties they love in deeper ways.

5) “Marry” their fans. They’ll recognize that their consensual relationship with fans is an intimate partnership. They’ll listen, respond and give them a sense of ownership.

6) Turn fans into superfans. Using audience management strategies, they’ll drive current fans to new properties, deeper engagement and a role as a kind of marketing platform.

7) Build a realistic business model. Before their subscription VOD and direct-to-consumer dreams can come true, neo-studios will have to become truly indispensable to fans.

The networks that survive today’s upheaval will be those that evolve into neo-studios. Successful media startups will be born that way. And in this new environment, the best content and most well-crafted brands will rise to the top. It’s survival of the finest.

Scott Webb, managing director of brand and content-development company Static-Free Media, was executive vice president and creative director of Nickelodeon during its formative years. Dave Goldenberg, chief brand strategist of Static-Free Media, was part of the Nickelodeon brand team.