Losing the audience

Not sure if CBS chief Les Moonves was in attendance in Edinburgh last week when House of Cards star and producer Kevin Spacey delivered the annual James MacTaggart lecture at the International Television Festival, but if he wasn’t someone might want to send him the video. While CBS stations remain dark on Time Warner Cable systems due to their ongoing retransmission dispute Spacey offered as trenchant an analysis as you’ll come across of why CBS’ efforts to keep its content on a short distribution leash are misplaced.

“Clearly the success of the Netflix model — releasing the entire season of House of Cards at once has proved on thing — the audience wants the control. They want freedom,” Spacey said. “If they want to binge — as they’ve been doing on House of Cards and many other shows — then we should let them binge.”

To the new generation of viewers, “there’s no difference between watching Avatar on an iPad or watching YouTube on a TV and watching Game of Thrones on their computer. It’s all content. It’s all just story,” he said. “The device and length are irrelevant.”

Even more than the risk of losing a generation of viewers accustomed to getting what they want when they want it, Spacey warned the industry’s adherence to a decades-old business model, and the programming formats that come with it, risks alienating the next generation of creative talent keen to use all the tools available to it today to tell stories in new ways — just as the movie studios ceded a generation of talent to television.

Spacey recalled a speech given by director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) to the American Film Institute in 1990, in which Lean warned against the increasing conservatism of the movie studios at that time, with their growing reliance on sequels, prequels and other “pre-sold” fare at the expense of creativity, which put the studios are risk of losing a generation of creative talent to television.

“No one paid any attention to [Lean’s] warning in 1990,” Spacey said. “No one took him seriously that night. The film industry didn’t believe that television could ever become its biggest competitor. And yet it would be just eight years later that The Sopranos would debut on HBO. And the tide of actors, writers, directors, and producers seeking and finding a more fertile playground than the film industry was offering them had begun.”

As I’ve argued here before, the real long-term threat to the traditional TV networks from OTT services like Netflix is not a question of distribution, it’s a question of where the A-list creative talent decides to set-up shop. The audience will follow the talent, wherever it ends up.