Linear to Online: Thoughts on the Evolution of Original TV Programming

Linear to Online: Thoughts on the Evolution of Original TV Programming

From traditional broadcasters, to consumer technology giants, it seems that all eyes are on the TV honeypot – thanks in large part to the changing ways in which we are consuming content. At Brightcove, we've been vocal about our belief that Apple has the potential to be a real game-changer for future TV experiences, and moves such as its acquisition of second-screen TV app plus the addition of Sky News, HBO Go and WatchESPN to Apple TV are evidence that the company is looking long and hard at how to crack the living room. And, perhaps there will be more to report on that front next week...

But one TV evolution that's already in full-swing is that of Netflix. In April, CEO Reed Hastings announced that the TV streaming company aims to double its original content in 2014. And it's not the only video streaming entity ramping up its exclusive online content offerings; Google has been in talks with programme providers about exclusive Internet distribution, while Amazon has also begun its first foray into original content, announcing plans to create five original TV series of its own.

Netflix, with almost 30 million subscribers, has already won an audience that rivals HBO and it's looking to surpass that figure by continuing to invest in the original TV shows its become known for – from 'House of Cards,' to the resurrection of Fox's 'Arrested Development' – content which has attracted Emmy nominations in a first for an Internet-only TV service.

But the Netflix story has striking parallels with HBO's own evolution from content distribution to content production. HBO started with a great proposition – selling subscriptions by targeting a niche audience with sports and live music content. As this audience grew, they switched their focus to original programming and continued to invest more and more in this area – which in turn built the enormous subscriber base they enjoy today.

So is Netflix headed in the same direction, in an Internet-parallel of the HBO story? It seems so, but only time will tell. The combination of original content and its successful targeting of a wider audience (especially the harder to reach Generation Z via their natural home, online) are no doubt paramount to its success. Portable devices are driving up the amount of TV we're watching, but how and where we're watching it is also changing – late Millennials are now more likely to subscribe to an online pay-TV service such as Netflix, than a traditional cable or satellite service.

It's a reality that can't be ignored, and that's why we're seeing a rise in pure play content online such as Discovery Network's TestTube – short-form content, unique from its traditional cable broadcast content, that's designed to reach new audiences – and CNN's partnership with Buzzfeed, which is designed to allure the Generation Z audience by curating archive footage designed for social sharing.

Whatever the content offering, consumer insight remains vital to ensure relevancy. Speaking at Figaro Digital's 'Digital Marketing Conference,' Channel 4's director of audience technologies Gill Whitehead illustrated the extent to which customer data is driving their success with a younger demographic. By encouraging viewers to register and share their data, the broadcaster has an invaluable means of understanding what this audience wants to watch, so is able to provide highly relevant content. As part of the research, Channel 4 looked at the digital engagement habits across their different types of viewers from the 16-24 generation mentioned above, who are much harder to target, through to the older generations who have traditional linear viewing habits. Understanding that one approach does not work for all when it comes to engaging with your audience and providing relevant content has been critical to their success of their programming in the shifting digital world of their viewers.

In a New York Times interview, Netflix’s chief content office Ted Sarandos claimed that: "Television is television, no matter what pipe brings it to the screen." But the reality is that success in the TV space does encompass the delivery strategy you take. As we've seen in the case of Netflix and HBO, the evolution from niche content distribution to original content production is not new, but it's an expertly delivered online strategy that's propelled Netflix to TV heavyweight status – along with its innovative programming. Whether they're integrating second-screen into the fabric of their content, or allowing social media to dictate a show's format, companies that are extending the reach and scope of their programming – and who focus on deeply understanding their audiences – will continue to be the TV winners.

I think Kevin Spacey summed it up in his McTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival: "Be prepared to fail aiming higher than playing it safe."(His full lecture is definitely worth a watch!)