Why Your TV Show Needs To Always Be On

In this era of highly fragmented audiences and on-demand entertainment, the opportunity for success is less about developing a TV show, and more about building an always-on brand.

It’s a concept that many TV shows—including Warner Bros.’ Ellen and TMZ, CBS Television Distribution’s Entertainment Tonight, NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live and many more—have honed to a fine art. As content producers and programmers head to NATPE in Miami Beach this week, how to build brands and monetize shows in an age of declining ratings is on everyone’s minds. And it’s a topic that will get a lot of play as NATPE continues to evolve from a syndication and distribution conference into a content one, with attendees and exhibitors from across the television industry.

Today, development still starts with the TV show, but almost as much consideration must be given to concurrent platforms, whether those are the Web, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Vine, Snapchat or all of the above. While social media performance isn’t counted in a TV show’s ratings—something that needs to change—it’s certainly factored into a brand’s overall performance and value.

As CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves told the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) audience on Jan. 7, “Overnight ratings are virtually useless right now. The idea of success or failure is very different. Social networking becomes a metric that is very, very important.”

Ellen, for example, is averaging nearly 4 million viewers season to date, according to Nielsen Media Research, through the week ended Dec. 21.

That’s the lowest number out of the following list: her show’s 17.4 million followers on Facebook, 37.3 million followers on Twitter (where DeGeneres is the 10th-most-followed user), 10.6 million subscribers on YouTube (and 3.4 billion views) and 8.6 million followers on Instagram. The show also launched its own videosharing site, ellentube in October, which currently has more than 2 million subscribers and boasts 22 million views per month.

That said, TV shows are still mostly monetized based on C3—ratings for commercials viewed within three days. The rest is gravy, but sometimes, that’s a lot of gravy.

It Starts With the TV Show

Producers may have grand dreams for brands they are building, but the TV show still comes first.

“No matter what, you need a big television show and a big brand for all of those other things to operate,” says Mike Darnell, Warner Bros. president, unscripted and alternative television. “It’s very difficult to do it in reverse.”

“You still have to start with the TV show. You have to make it work on TV and then think about how you can organically build out the digital and social platforms and really build that into the DNA of the show,” says Hilary Estey McLoughlin, CBS Television Distribution president, creative affairs. “Still, it’s critical to build these shows as brands that are not just standalone half-hours or hours.”

That lesson has been a hard-learned one in some cases, with NBC’s Million Second Quiz and ABC’s Rising Star as convenient cautionary tales. Both shows were designed to be highly interactive, with apps and websites, but neither show scored high ratings.

“What we think about first is what’s the funniest thing we can do on the show today, what’s the most compassionate thing?” says Andy Lassner, an executive producer on Ellen. “Once we have that, we decide where it goes on social and digital.”

“What we have always found is that if somebody comes to us and says ‘we want to put out a viral video’ or ‘we want to make money on a social media platform,’ it’s the wrong way to go about it,” says Mary Connelly, also an Ellen executive producer. “We let the content lead the day and then the monetization and the ‘viralness’ of something comes from that.”

If You Build It, They Will Come

Once the TV show is on and working, it’s time to build out the brand. Large social media followings composed of millions of people have a way of attracting advertisers like bees to honey. The trick is incorporating those hungry advertisers in a way that won’t turn off audiences.

“As this went on and our followings grew, we started having these major companies come to us and say, ‘can we have a meeting with you, we can help you,’” says Lassner. “But we quickly realized that they wanted us to help them. That’s how we learned we had something here.”

Today, Ellen probably turns down more sponsorship opportunities than it accepts.

“It’s very important that you remain authentic and true to your talent’s voice,” says Ed Glavin, the third of Ellen’s three EPs. “It has to be about Ellen, not about deals, brands or integrations. It’s about us doing that successfully and not exploiting our friends and followers. We resist unless we can make it feel organic.”

That said, Ellen certainly does its share of brand integrations. On Wednesday, January 6, singer Joshua Radin was on to sing “Beautiful Day,” a song that is also licensed by Subaru. Subaru called up the show and asked if they could do a partnership, and a deal was done in one day.

After the performance, @TheEllenShow tweeted “Hey @joshuaradin, great performance today! Look! Your song is in this @subaru_usa ad,” with a link to the ad for the 2015 Subaru XV Crosstrek on YouTube. Radin then retweeted that to his 75,800 followers. The deal wasn’t complicated, but it was effective.

And that example illustrates a truth about building these brands: There’s no way to implement a turnkey strategy that works every time. Content producers have to build as they go, organically creating content that feels authentic to them and integrating brands when it feels appropriate.

Take Creative Risks, Capitalize on Them

It’s tempting to approach brand-building like producers approach many other things, with careful planning and thought-out strategies. But some of the best content happens spontaneously. The trick is having people on staff that can take advantage of those moments.

When Steve Harvey took over Family Feud in 2010, people paid little attention. But about a month in, a video from the show went viral with more than 1.5 million views. After that, it was a constant growth curve for the game show, which now beats CTD’s Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! among syndication’s key women 25-54 demographic.

Creating viral videos isn’t something producers can plan for, but the key is to know it when you see it.

“When you get great content like that, you need to be ready, you need to have a strategy to capitalize on it,” says Gayle Gilman, executive VP of digital content for Family Feud producer FremantleMedia North America. “You learn from those moments and then can kind of engineer them from there.”

Fremantle, which has plenty of experience creating social and digital content for game shows, is piloting a new YouTube channel called Buzzr, which features new takes on game show formats, such as Password and Family Feud, and also will create new game shows to incubate on YouTube.

“We’re sitting on a motherlode of IP that can be reimagined,” says Gilman.

FremantleMedia has both experience and formats to contribute to the digital space, but that’s not always true for new series coming online.

“I would imagine that a show just starting out would feel pressured to come up with a strategy to do all of this, and I would imagine that to be overwhelming,” says Ellen’s Connelly. “What we had the benefit of was that we were growing along with these platforms. As things came out, we got on board. It’s been a gradual process and that gradual process has required us to have less of an overall strategy about it all.”

Today, however, Ellen has a team of 10 to handle its digital platforms, indicating that once things are up and rolling, maintaining these platforms requires manpower and expertise. It is, as they say, a good problem to have.

Pick Your Platforms

A new social or sharing platform emerges almost daily, and it’s impossible to take advantage of each of them. For example, Wendy Williams’ social media producers focus on three or four platforms; Ellen includes more in its purview, including Vine, Tumblr and Pinterest, but even then, it’s still about staying focused.

It’s also important to pair the right content with the right platform. An animated GIF is perfect for Tumblr, a seven-second video for Vine, while Instagram is the right spot for photos and increasingly, video. YouTube should be the home for short, curated videos and clips. Gilman says it’s now common practice for Fremantle to launch a YouTube channel whenever it launches a show.

On Dec. 3, Sony Pictures Television singled out Tumblr to partner with on the official Seinfeld blog, and Tumblr modified its logo to look like the Seinfeld logo for the day. Even though Seinfeld went off of NBC in 1998 and has aired in syndication since 1995, social media platforms give SPT the opportunity to keep the show fresh.

“We picked Tumblr because we discovered there was a really active and robust community of Seinfeld viewers who were already engaging with the Tumblr platform,” says Sheraton Kalouria, chief marketing officer, executive VP, Sony Pictures Television. “We woke up to the fact that being present on platforms like Tumblr keeps the show relevant to younger viewers.”

Be Shareable

Although everyone wishes it were so, you can’t just decide to make a viral video—it has to become so on its own. You can, however, create content that encourages people to share it. As is often said, word of mouth is the best marketing, and that’s the principle guiding shareable content as well.

“It’s about creating content that’s almost an event in itself,” says Kalouria. For NBC’s primetime hit, The Blacklist, SPT created a video of all the Blacklisters that Red Reddington (James Spader) had scratched off the list. “With a wink and a nod, we cut it like an In Memoriam piece at an awards show,” says Kalouria. “Because it wasn’t an on-air promo spot, because it was meant to be shared, it defied expectations a little bit.”

In fact, obvious promotions tend to fall on deaf ears in the social media sphere.

“Most of the time, when brands go wrong in social media, it’s because they are constantly promoting and the audience rejects that,” says McLoughlin. “If it’s a constant barrage of promotion without any entertainment value, it doesn’t work. There’s so much the audience can engage with, there’s no reason for them to engage with it unless it’s really compelling and unique.”

Monetize, But Don’t Sell Out

TV shows still need to keep a laser-like focus on the bottom line, with the majority of revenue coming in from in-show advertising. But more and more, companies are monetizing shows’ extended platforms, especially on YouTube, via apps or with social integrations.

“It is definitely a growing revenue stream, depending on how successful the platform is,” says McLoughin. “Whether it’s advertiser integrations or sponsorships, you can monetize it if the platform gets large enough.”

YouTube channels are one obvious way to monetize social followings, although with YouTube’s low cost-per-thousands and hefty split in favor of the site, it’s not as lucrative as content providers would like it to be. In fact, one of the reasons Warner Bros.’ created ellentube was to develop an advertiser-friendly video platform that allows the company to retain more of the revenue.

Other ideas, such as apps and interactive games that charge millions of users small amounts of money, are good ways to create ancillary revenue streams. For example, Kim Kardashian’s app—“Kim Kardashian: Hollywood”—earned $43 million in the three months after its launch, while Ellen DeGeneres’ app, “Heads Up!” costs $1 per download on the iTunes store. Similarly, The Simpsons’ “Tapped Out” app earned $130 million after its March 1, 2012 iOS release, said gamemaker Electronic Arts in a January 2014 investor call.

Syndicators are working with stations to translate this kind of success to their local businesses. “We’re providing content to the stations and hopefully elevating their platforms so they can monetize this content as well,” says McLoughlin. “We’ve been working closely with stations to figure that out.”

For example, SPT’s Dr. Oz offers local stations sponsorable vignettes tied to health issues, says Kalouria.

Dr. Oz might be talking about how to get better sleep, and then the local sales team could go to a mattress retailer and sell a sponsorship around that.”

While TV shows may turn in smaller ratings these days, they continue to have huge revenue potential, whether they air in syndication, cable, primetime or late night.

“The only thing that people absolutely know is that as long as you are a great content provider, you are in great shape,” says Darnell. “If you have compelling content, you can monetize it.”

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.