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Tails of the TV

A few months ago, I posted on why the Long Tail hypothesis that technology would reduce the importance of general “hits” in favor of the “long tail” of niche products was wrong and how businesses should respond. In the Economist’s recent coverage of the television industry, they note how this has played out when it comes to how American studios have done overseas:

A few years ago there was much talk of localising television shows. Stung by charges of cultural imperialism, which were particularly loud in France, the big media conglomerates encouraged their foreign subsidiaries to develop their own programming. Although some still do so, it is no longer the rule. MTV India, for example, is dominated by local acts but MTV Poland is a vehicle for international music.

These days MTV International is run “more like a global multinational”, says Bob Bakish, its president. It produces local content where there is demand for the stuff. But it is also a co-ordinated distribution engine for American programming. Series like “Jersey Shore”, an oddly compelling show that trails Italian-American youths around beaches and bars, are now released simultaneously outside America. When Michael Jackson died, MTV quickly assembled a reel of the singer’s performances and dispatched it around the world.

imageHow could American hits possibly outcompete localized content? In my last post, I discussed some of the consumer-oriented reasons why this was true. First, an abundance of choices encourages consumers to make sure they watch the same content as the others in their social circles. Secondly, the same technology which makes it easier for people to access the “long tail” also makes it easier  to access and engage with hits through websites, chatrooms, online “webisodes”, in-show music, related graphic novels/magazines, smartphone apps, games, social media, etc. This sort of multi-platform content strategy even has a Hollywood buzzword to go with it: transmedia.

But, consumer-oriented reasons aside, there is also a fundamental business reason for the dominance of Western television overseas: those studios with the biggest hits are also likely to have the wallets needed to pay for better directors, better cameras, better editing, and better special effects. Combine that with the impact of Moore’s Law on television quality and you have an enviable virtuous cycle which most businesses dream of getting:

Get hold of a copy of a drama made by Hollywood for American broadcast TV—“CSI”, “Glee” or “Heroes” will do fine—and, at a random moment, press the pause button. What do you see? Handsome actors, no doubt. But also a well-composed shot that resembles a photograph, with the actors well positioned within the frame. The shot will be well lit, too. Now do the same for a show made by a foreign broadcaster. The result? Probably less impressive.

Finely crafted television like this is expensive. It costs more than $3m for an hour of drama that is good enough to pass muster on an American broadcast network. The visual acuity of Hollywood’s best shows is a big reason why they can compete against home-grown products that are more culturally relevant. Their advantage is growing as households across the world invest in bigger, sharper televisions.

I don’t think this changes any of the lessons I discussed in my previous post (build a strong PR machine, find ways to cross-sell/bundle, build an efficient and repeatable content creation engine which can survive a few failures but capitalize on a hit); it only raises the stakes – if you don’t have the PR, the bundle, and the repeatable formula: your hits won’t be nearly as big and your failures will be all the more painful.

(Image credit – transmedia diagram)

Published in Blog

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