Author’s Note: This is the second in a short series of pieces in which I will be sharing insights from this year’s annual pitch to advertisers from television networks (“Upfronts”) and digital video platforms (“Newfronts”).
The 2015 Digital Newfronts have barely begun and Jerry Seinfeld is already ubiquitous. He previously popped up as the main attraction at the presentation for Sony’s Crackle service (this was the topic of my first piece in this series), and yesterday he was the piece de resistance at the Hulu event. For those unfamiliar with this world, Hulu was one of the very first “premium” online video services (no cat videos allowed), with ownership shared by 21st Century Fox, The Walt Disney Company, and Comcast’s NBCUniversal.
Between the continued cultural relevance (if not dominance) of Seinfeld, Hulu’s trumpeting of its South Park distribution, a new album from X-Files’ David Duchovny, and a seemingly never-ending series of uncomfortable ethics-related questions involving the Clintons, it feels like a bizarre 1990s. But for me, a particularly fascinating question that arises is not the star power of the programming of 2015 (and the revival of the stars of 1995), but rather who will create the stars of the 2035 Newfronts (OK, they won’t be so new then)? And will the digital video ecosystem (what will “television” even look like then?) be able to produce new ones?
As for the Hulu event itself, it certainly did satisfy the glitzy attributes of the television advertising marketplace. SNL regular Taran Killam served as a glib, self-effacing master of ceremonies, and encouraged the audience to applaud “the world’s most amazing PowerPoint presentation.” Hulu announced a series of big ticket content acquisitions, including streaming exclusives from Turner, FX and AMC, and rolled out some impressive new series ranging from a Hollywood-blockbuster mini-series based on Stephen King’s 11/22/63 novel (with JJ Abrams and James Franco producing and starring, respectively), to Freddie Wong’s Rocket Jump (still awaiting some demographic translation on that one). Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins and SVP Advertising Sales Peter Naylor tossed out an array of impressive statistics ranging from a 50% growth in Hulu subscribers in the last year, to growth of 30% in content consumption by Hulu subscribers, to significantly amped marketing investment from the company itself, growing over 150% since 2013 (I would guess that’s not slowing down anytime soon with Seinfeld in the house).
So back to our initial inquiry. There may not be a bigger star in the entire entertainment firmament of the last generation than Jerry Seinfeld, and the audience’s reaction certainly confirmed that. And remember, by the way, that the audience was filled with media pros – there were very few “civilians”. But if we think about how a superstar like a Seinfeld gets created (and there is a lot of creation at work), it sets you wondering about how to ensure the equivalent foundation gets laid down for building future stars.
In my experience, you’ve got to lay down a series of key bricks that form the foundation of the building of a true entertainment “superstar”:
Great talent meets great content – I’m not talking about building a reality television star, in which talent need not apply. The most fundamental element of an entertainment superstar is talent, which can take many forms from acting to singing to writing. There isn’t very much you can do about DNA (not yet; apparently the studios are investing in some genetic research which is very hush-hush). I’m pretty optimistic about the human race continuing to churn out people with talent. But most superstars can really only break through when they either create or become a part of a memorable (and lasting) piece of content, and one with staying power. The talent of a superstar creator is not to make talent, but to recognize it, and to see potential links between talent and between talent and content that others don’t.
Years of practice – We live in an impatient, impatient world (to bastardize Jerry Maguire), and it’s getting more so. Fifteen years ago one of the fastest ways to become a star was on American Idol – but that took a whole season. Now it takes six seconds of Vine for someone to become known everywhere. Yet Seinfeld himself is a great example of the success of honing a craft. Seinfeld and others like him in the pre-Internet age refined their native talent and enhanced all of their skills over a long period of time whether acting, writing or storytelling. The venues might be small comedy clubs, Yale Drama School, Juilliard or regional theater, but these are the platforms that nurture not a quick hit, but an enduring superstar. To nurture more of them in our on-demand environment, we’re going to have to find the venues and the time to let talent grow.
Business infrastructure – Big media companies are under siege in the disinter-mediated Internet era (Hulu and Crackle are examples of such companies learning new tricks). And they are often seen as the enemy of creativity and innovation by the hipster (although anyone will take their money). And yet, building an enduring superstar can’t be done alone – it takes an infrastructure of marketing, public relations, talent management, accounting (making sure royalties are properly negotiated and paid), and occasional plastic surgery to not only build but sustain superstars and their reputations. We’ve kept watching Seinfeld for 20 years due to a lot of very profitable syndication deals and clever promotion. Are Amazon and Netflix prepared for that long-haul nurturing?
Scarcity – This one is probably the toughest nut to crack. Superstars get created not only when there are a limited number of media choices (when we’re all watching the same thing), but when the stars themselves have created some demand for their presence. Celebrities of today of every flavor are constantly tweeting, appearing on a raft of late-night talk shows, and then dancing with (other) stars. It may make them more famous, but will it create the allure and desire that defines a true superstar? Who among today’s aspiring star-makers can choose discernment and discretion in managing exposure in the social media meet market? That’s how we’ll determine who stands astride the (not so) Newfronts of 2035.