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US cable execs upbeat at Banff

BANFF: Top execs from US cablenets offered an optimistic view of the challenges and disruption facing the TV industry at the opening session of the 39th Banff World Media Festival in Alberta.

Jeffrey Hirsch

The International Media Leaders – View from the Top session saw execs from A&E Networks, Starz, TruTV, Armoza Formats and Corus Entertainment tackle a variety of topics, from cord-cutting and the impact of the FAANG firms (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google), to the recent spate of mergers and acquisitions and the impact of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

The freewheeling panel mostly saw the US execs sticking to the party line – namely that they continue to experience growth and gains despite the influx of new players into the market.

TruTV president Chris Linn said the US network had dramatically reduced its ad slots in a bid to retain a younger audience and give them a less fragmented viewing experience. “The burden falls on you: how do you compensate for what’s happening in the landscape?” he said.

“By developing content that is multi-layered, that is mash-up, we cut our commercial and promo loads in half in 2016. And it’s just a better viewing experience. We’ve been able to have two years of ratings growth, and we’ve dropped our median age from 43 to 34.”

Elsewhere, Starz Entertainment chief operating officer Jeffrey Hirsch touted the fact that “the digital disruption allows you to actually be closer to the consumer” by providing “more data than we’ve ever been able to get before, so we’re now smarter about our programming budgets.”

Barbara Williams

Representing Canada, Corus Entertainment exec VP and chief operating officer Barbara Williams talked about the problems created by the arrival of SVoD players such as Netflix and Amazon in the market.

“There’s no doubt the huge investments of content these companies are able to make without the same metrics of success is making things very difficult for us,” she said. “We are measured in very different ways, in the stock market, than some of these new players are – that makes it very difficult in terms of how someone measures ROI.”

She added: “We all should know that audiences in Canada, as a total of viewing, went down 14% this year, but we had key channels that actually went up. W went up, Showcase went up; YTV, Treehouse, they went up. Even in a Netflix world, there’s still a way to do something meaningful in our business while we continue to invest in the new things.

“I remember when there were no specialty channels and we thought, ‘Oh my god, how will we survive?’ Well, I’m hanging in. I do not believe the future is ad-free. I know a lot of people don’t like commercials, but I don’t believe that, because I don’t think we’re going to finance all of this stuff without advertiser dollar, and because I don’t believe the advertisers are going to allow themselves to be cut out.”

Sean Cohan

Sean Cohan, A+E Networks’ president of international and digital media, said he shared Williams’ optimism. “We are all fortunate to be in a business in which consumers want more and are consuming more of our product than they were yesterday,” he said. “People are spending as much or more time on consuming video content today than they were yesterday.”

Linn also cautioned that “everybody’s trying to compete with the scale of Netflix, Amazon, Apple,” but added: “One of the opportunities that comes along is different ways to connect to the consumer. The first impulse is we’ve all got to be big to survive, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. It’s shaking it up, it’s making people think differently about the goods they’re consuming.”

The opening day of the conference also saw Netflix throw its support behind the Banff World Media Festival’s Diversity of Voices Initiative.

The SVoD service has formalised a five-year financial commitment to be title partner for the initiative, which offers training and development for underrepresented emerging and mid-career producers of TV and digital media content, with a specific focus on supporting indigenous, francophone and female industry professionals.

“Netflix’s new commitment to the Diversity of Voices Initiative is a pledge of confidence in Banff’s ability to mentor, train and develop emerging creators in Canada,” said Chris Regina, Netflix’s director of global television.

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