TV’s brand illusion

It’s no longer about the network. And it probably never was.

Gad: It was bound to happen. As the telecom goliath AT&T muscles its way into the television business, and as executive leadership changes as it does when new owners take over, somebody was certain to restate the “brand” bromide. This week it was the incoming AT&T/WarnerMedia programming head Robert Greenblatt, a respected and successful executive with a blue-chip TV pedigree tracing to stints at Showtime and NBC-TV.

Brace yourself:

“Netflix doesn’t have a brand. It’s just a place you go to get anything — it’s like Encyclopedia Britannica,” Greenblatt said during an NBC News interview.

There is an unwritten rule that every 30 days or so somebody somewhere in network television must remind peers and investors and partners of the supremacy of brand or the whole thing will collapse. This is consistent with my view of how jet airplanes work: The people on board believe they will fly, and their faith thereby provides the power to keep the things aloft.

I’m pretty sure Greenblatt’s sentiment was authentic, which is exactly the problem. In the 20-plus years I’ve written about television and the cable industry, the “network-as-brand” concept has risen up as a reliable conceit across hundreds of interviews, panel discussions and the like. It’s where you go when you want to defend a business model (or a career that’s tied to a business model) which seems, on its face, indefensible.

Maybe, being charitable, it’s still possible to build a television business across the steely surface of a “brand,” or a sort of gathering point for emotional resonance. But the concept always had its limits, and only a handful of signature “brands” in TV have ever been able to pull it off. MTV in the day was probably one of them, given that for a while it truly did register as an understood concept in a TV watcher’s brain: It was a place where hip people gathered to perform and celebrate hip music; and when you tuned in, you got to be part of it regardless of what particular video was playing at the time. Likewise, Discovery’s Food Network or HGTV have a certain claim on a certain sort of experience that transcends individual programs. Or C-SPAN, a place where, reliably, a slow parade of studied “what ifs” abounded and where people in suits quietly milled about imposing-looking chambers. All of these represented what an iconic TV “brand” could actually be: a housing for a generalized vibe more so than a collection of programs. A handful of others ran the same path: BET with its calculated urbanism, maybe, or, in its early incarnation, A&E (which once was a place for a reliable stream of “upscale” television and, as evidenced by a popular show about pawing through abandoned storage pods, is no more).

TV does Pepsi

But these were the outliers, the rare representatives of a concept drawn from the consumer products domain that many thought could translate to television. If Pepsi could hoodwink a generation of thirsty people into thinking they were buying into a lifestyle, not merely slurping a fizzing syrupy beverage, then why couldn’t television? Thus were born dozens if not hundreds of television networks which, lacking signature programs and the budgets required to acquire them, instead leaned on the concept of brand as a selling point. Within industry circles, Bravo was highbrow entertainment, E! was Hollywood glitz and HGTV was home and family. Outside the industry circles, though, the conceit of brand persona as a means to save the day collapsed. Consumers didn’t so much see through the ruse as ignore it entirely. TNT and its ilk, despite their best intentions to rise above the mere presentation of TV shows, were in fact exactly that: collection and delivery vessels for programs. Even in the heyday of cable television’s growth era, nobody I knew ever sat down on the couch to immerse themselves in a “brand experience.” Rather, they knew “Trading Spaces” was on at 8 p.m. on TLC.

Other networks ran in the same sphere. They were…wait for it…collections of TV shows. Examples abound. For me, USA Network never had a discernible cultural or psychological identity. TBS, FX and Bravo were and are channels on the set-top, not immersive brands. Even Lifetime, which tried hard to exude a sort of modern-woman mystique, was really, when you got down to it, a linear schedule of movies and TV dramas. Within the real world, during the actual on-the-couch moment, these were all nominal choices on a scrollable TV menu, battling it out with a hundred other channels that also televised discrete, identifiable programs. The idea that a viewer might select a “brand” to hunker down with, rather than a show to watch, was (sorry, TV friends) silly to begin with.

I say this as a huge fan of HBO, which AT&T now owns. I’ve loved for decades what HBO has brought to the screen. “The Wire” was and is television’s finest creation (no arguing, please). I was riveted as everyone was riveted by “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under.” And the “Game of Thrones” franchise hardly needs mention: It’s a grandiose, thunderous work of majesty.

But is it majestic because it’s on HBO? Because it’s tucked within a whole that’s more than the sum of the parts? Not so sure. In fact, come to think, I watched “The Wire” after the fact on iTunes, renting episodes piece-by-piece. That each was introduced by the familiar HBO logo and that little flash of electronic sound added…what? Maybe not much of anything.

It’s possible Greenblatt recognizes this, but probably can’t afford to acknowledge it out loud, because to do so would be to admit what Netflix already has figured out and run with: It’s not about a TV brand. It’s about individual, itemized, packaged TV shows. Some you love, some you don’t. It matters little what the surrounding on-screen persona aims to convey. Nobody chooses to stay with a disagreeable TV show on the Discovery Channel or HBO or ESPN because to depart from it would be to remove oneself from a comforting and familiar brand environment. Remote in hand, choices aplenty on the screen, we simply whisk away.

Not-so-faint praise

This is why there’s such irony in the comment du jour. In attempting to box Netflix into a dark and murky corner — it’s the “Encyclopedia Britannica” of television — Greenblatt is instead conferring the ultimate praise. The Britannica model is exactly what television always wanted to be, or what television viewers wanted it to be.

It’s just that for decades the industry couldn’t deliver on the appetite. Instead of presenting consumers with television on their terms, we wrapped it up in force-fed packages nobody really loved. The disconnect between elites of industry and regular folks was never better reflected than in the television business, where executive after executive managed to convince themselves their vision of brand identity would carry over to the living room.

You can’t entirely blame them. In the heyday of linear television and the cable channel explosion, there was indeed evidence aplenty that it all was working. People were watching! Enjoying! Loving! Or as cable industry impresario John Malone once regrettably stated at an advertising conference in New York during the 1980s, referring to rising ratings for cable television programs, “the dogs are liking the dog food.”

And why wouldn’t we hounds snarf up the kibble? It was the only thing we were being offered. To get a TV show to appear on your screen and in your life, you had to consort with a network “brand” that served as an intermediary.

Until, at least, everything changed. Until somebody came along and ripped away television’s proscenium arch, the assortment of channels and networks and brands you had to get past to watch the actual show.

It was kinda like…wait, it was exactly like…what happened in music, as we one day woke up and decided maybe there was a better way to get a song transmitted into the ear canal than demanding that somebody drive to Sam Goody, pay $15 for a plastic-encased disc and fast-forward past 10 forgettable songs for access to the two gems.

I see irresistible parallels between music and video. Which is exactly what the television industry doesn’t want to hear, given that the digital delivery revolution had the effect of halving U.S. recorded music revenues from 1999 (around $14 billion) to 2008 (around $7 billion), per the Recording Industry Assn. of America. (Happily, the subscription/streaming model is reviving the category. It’s now the №1 source for music revenue and rising fast on the charts.)

In this way of thinking, though, the song is the TV show, and the TV show is the song. A discreet, neatly packaged media experience you can get to easily, quickly and affordably, without having to burrow your way through “brands” and “networks.” One click on my Sonos app tied to the Amazon Music on-demand library this morning and the Struts’ defiant anthem “It Could Have Been Me” blasted through the kitchen speakers. (At risk of ruining my rhythm here I can’t help but encourage you to watch and listen, although you have to get past the early film school nonsense to the 1:20 mark where the song begins and just absolutely lights up the world.)

Anyway, glad you’re back. So to my point: Guess what I wasn’t at all aware of as the opening chords signaled the presence of a great band in the Rolling Stones/Queen/Sweet mold?

Yep: the record label. I have no idea. Could be EMI (does EMI still exist?). Could be Universal Music. Could be an up-and-coming music label run by a guy from Sweden who grew up listening to Coldplay. I have no clue, nor do I (or probably you) care.

In this guise — and again I feel I should apologize to all my TV industry acquaintances as I do love you all — the record label is the TV network: in the background, all but invisible and, truthfully, not terribly relevant except for the hard work they did to get the song recorded in the first place.

Because, think about the Rube Goldberg contraption we’ve created to get a beloved TV show onto your screen and into your life.

  1. Creative people — a Hollywood boutique studio, perhaps — conceive of, write, film and edit a great TV show or series.
  2. They identify a “distributor,” often a bigger studio that can take the thing into the marketplace.
  3. The distributor finds a TV “network” (think AMC, FX, CBS, etc.) that’s willing to give the series a slot in the schedule.
  4. The network establishes dozens of independent relationships with dozens of different on-the-ground or in-the-sky distributors who can get the video content to your screen. These are the likes of DirecTV, Comcast and Verizon’s Fios. They negotiate deals with TV networks every few years, sometimes blacking out access for a few tense weeks when disagreements occur over price and terms.
  5. These distributors, having paid for the right to deliver the network’s content streams, send TV signals down the pipe to your TV set and/or wireless network. You get to (finally) watch it.

The new, on-demand and Internet-delivered TV firmament collapses this complicated set of arrangements into two or three steps:

  1. A studio makes a TV show.
  2. The TV show is bought by (fill in the blank: Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube, Shudder, Crunchyroll).
  3. The TV show appears on your screen without the overt intervention of a TV network or a cable/satellite TV company.

Who have we written out of the scene in this new world? The secondary distributor, for one, the pay-TV provider, for another (save for the essential broadband pipe), and the TV network itself. The “brand,” in Greenblatt’s parlance, is vanquished.

Do you care? Is the experience of selecting “The Handmaid’s Tale” from the Hulu SVOD library terribly compromised because it wasn’t first dipped into the gilding environs of a TV network or “brand?” Would you give it five stars if it came to you via HBO but otherwise only three if it was squished alphabetically into the encyclopedia repository presented by Netflix or Amazon Prime Video?

I would not make those value distinctions, but it’s a free country. Maybe you would.

Either way, I believe this is where TV is going: To a giant cloud of content you can pick and choose from without the guiding hand of brand. (Kinda being sarcastic there.) The TV show is the song, remember? There are lots of them. Something like 40 million songs, actually, which is the rough count generally available through the likes of Spotify and Apple Music. You get to pick the ones you want and ignore the rest. Because of this more direct relationship, going forward producers of TV shows (the equivalent of the band rather than the record label) are apt to develop a more direct and accountable relationship with consumers of TV shows. Names you hardly recognize — those appearing in the opening or closing credits — will become names you do. And in the end, the Internet will have done what the Internet does: commit an act of disintermediation that leaves bodies scattered in its wake. But you’ll still get to watch some great television.

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