MBPT Spotlight: Look to the Stars to Better Navigate Television

Not long ago, I was asked to speak to a business group about the television ecosystem and how it’s changing. 

I was thrilled. To me—a media professional—I couldn’t wait to give my speech. After all, the TV industry seems to be in the news every day. All sorts of things are changing, from how and where people watch, to how it’s being sold to advertisers, to why younger viewers are cutting the cable cord and to how older viewers are complaining they can’t figure out how to use the latest remote.

So I made my speech—but as I progressed through it, I realized I had made the classic mistake of assuming everyone in the audience had been following TV’s changes the way we in the media industry have. I needed a better way to keep my audience’s attention.

Fortunately for me, I had stumbled on a way to explain today’s TV landscape after I happened to visit the Griffith Park Observatory.

Broadcast and cable television can be compared to our solar system. But in our ‘media solar system,’ the viewers are the sun, and for a long time the broadcast television channels were the planets. And there weren’t too many of them, so just about everyone was familiar with them—ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, as well as a few independents. We tuned in to watch our favorite shows at pre-set times, Nielsen figured out how many viewers watched, and that was our currency.

But then came the first television Big Bang: the astrophysicists of the media business expanded our solar system by creating hundreds of national cable networks; think of it as television’s asteroid belt. A lot of those asteroids were small…but boy, were they interesting. And definitely worth exploring.

Of course, science and technology never stops reaching for the stars…literally. Thanks to satellite and telecoms, our telescopes got more powerful and we were able to reach beyond our solar system into an ever-larger galaxy of channels and programming.

But that was just the beginning. A few years back, the industry discovered the equivalent of Warp Drive: streaming television. Hulu, Amazon, YouTube and Netflix took us to “where no person had gone before”—the outer reaches of the known universe. And those entities are now being joined by HBO and CBS, which in 2015 will be offering their programming to consumers on a streaming basis.

What this all means: viewers will have more choices than ever before about not just what to watch but where and when to watch it. Viewers are no longer just the center of the solar system; they are the center of the universe, and they are in control. 

It took a while before the western world realized the world wasn’t flat. But once that happened, exploration began and it hasn’t stopped since. As media professionals, we should look at the media universe the same way the scientists look at the cosmos. They’ve sent rovers to Mars and exploratory vessels to the rings of Saturn and beyond. Like those scientists, we need to explore the ever-expanding video universe to get a better understanding of viewer dynamics than we have now because it’s all about data.

As marketers, we need to rethink our traditional models of tune-in and viewership, as traditional schedules will be thrown out the window. As a first step, our TV buyers need to evolve into video buyers. This doesn’t just mean a job title change; it requires a new mindset, new information sources and new skill sets.

While 80% of TV viewership and more than 60% of primetime viewership is still live, there is no doubt that those numbers will shrink in the coming years. But we should not be forced to face this evolution; rather we must celebrate it and get ahead of it.

The greatest challenge we face today is that the conventional ways of measuring audiences must change. We need to be able to measure consumer engagement across all platforms simultaneously to gain a complete understanding of the cosmos we now operate in. We must broaden the way we think, redefine job roles, educate our staff and involve our clients in ways we never did before. And we had best do it fast. As Leo Burnett said nearly 80 years ago, we must “reach for the stars.” Except now, we mean it literally!

Rosenberg, who has spearheaded the growth of Horizon Media’s Los Angeles office for the past 13 years, is responsible for increasing the agency’s core business, as well as that of its specialty divisions—Scout Sports and Event Marketing, Direct Marketing, Eden Road Trading and Columbus Media International, Horizon’s international agency network.