I published the following piece on Forbes.com on 4/18/15:
I began my career on the content side of the television business (putting aside my groundbreaking work acting in industrial videos) at NBC when that network dominated the Primetime universe (“Must-See TV” anyone?). I well recall my first couple of advertiser “upfront” presentations in which NBC trotted out some of its grandest stars like Jerry Seinfeld and SNL performers. Fast forward nearly two decades later, and yesterday I was lucky enough to be in the audience for the first formal “upfront” presentation from Crackle, Sony’s over-the-top, advertiser-supported online video service. And the stars on hand included….Jerry Seinfeld and former SNL performer David Spade! What is it the French say? La Plus Ca Change….?
In fact, the Crackle upfront presentation was a fascinating mix of old and new sharing the stage (or should I say “the platform”?). This was the first time that Crackle labeled its spring pitch to the advertising community as part of the “Upfronts” (a term originally limited to broadcast networks but expanded to cable as well over the years) as opposed to the “Digital Newfronts”. I don’t know how much of a distinction there is between those terms any more (I suspect the sliders look and taste much the same at both receptions), but the nomenclature shift is still meaningful.
Crackle certainly emphasized the innovative nature of their approach to delivering premium quality, original video online. Of course the focus of these types of events are often original programming, and Crackle put forth several enticing new series, such as “The Art of More,” an art industry-based thriller starring Dennis Quaid and Kate Bosworth (both also in attendance), and “Super Mansion,” an animated series produced by and featuring the voice of “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston. With Netflix, Hulu and Amazon in the original series business as well, Crackle’s announcements don’t themselves necessarily break new ground but quality original programming from outstanding professional talent should always be applauded and (when worthwhile) supported.
Upfront attendees also heard Crackle’s pitch as a “trailblazer” that is “reimagining ad supported TV”, and delivering a unique audience they identified as “rechargers” (a new term, although a familiar target of “young, affluent, college-educated adults” that, in David Spade’s words, wouldn’t need to be told to go to “www.crackle.com”). Crackle (not unlike others in the digital world) is seeking to serve brands more effectively by providing them with ads more narrowly targeted to an intended audience as well as by addressing long-time concerns top advertisers have had with online advertising such as viewability of ads (or the lack thereof) and verification of who is actually watching the ads.
And yet despite the buzz surrounding Crackle’s original programming and new value propositions for brands as well as audiences, what struck me at this event was the continuum between television’s past, present and future. It may have been mere coincidence, but I couldn’t help but note that the upfront event took place in midtown Manhattan’s Hudson Theatre, the original home of NBC’s The Tonight Show when it starred Steve Allen. Seinfeld himself, who provides one of the anchors of Crackle original programming through “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” (entering its 5th season), cracked that when all is said and done, what he is doing is just transmitting pictures…in other words, “television.” Even Crackle’s innovative addition to its service is itself a throwback, albeit to very recent past. Crackle is adding an “Always On” experience, which means that there is always a live stream of viewing available. In fact, if you want to “start over” on that live streaming show, you can, similar to various cable and satellite services today. In other words, this looks a lot like…hmm…television.
The event also highlighted the continuing power of recognizable brand-name stars (which of course has only been in vogue since, oh….Jack Benny moving from radio to TV?). In response to a question from me, Seinfeld said that he aspires to an online world where consumers could go to one place to receive all of the content they are interested in from a name-brand performer – in Seinfeld’s case that might mean his old shows, his stand-up routines, and short form videos like his Crackle work (I suspect digital rights are going to be a drag on execution of this idea for a while). But what about user-generated content Jerry? “The less the better.” According to Seinfeld “I like hierarchy and I like being on top of the pyramid.” You can take his sardonic sense of humor with a grain of salt, but this view is increasingly reflected in the real business of online video – consumers and advertisers both increasingly expect and spend their time online with high quality storytelling. Time to short that cat video company stock!
There’s a whole lot of experimentation underway in the over-the-top video world (certainly Netflix, Amazon and Time Warner’s HBO Now have placed their bets with subscriber rather than advertiser funding). As Dennis Quaid told me, it reminds him of “the 1970s – when the inmates were kind of running the asylum.” For sure everyone is testing new technologies, new business models, and new programming strategies. But in the end, that old friend television provides a comforting model if you can make it fit – deliver high quality content, with a lot of talent, get people to watch it, and get advertisers to pay for it. Stay tuned.