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In front of a packed ballroom at the Driskill Hotel, with another 30 people outside hoping for seats to open up (they didn’t), three TV heavyweights wrestled with the herculean question, “Who am I?” ESPN President John Skipper, Univision President Kevin Conroy and PBS President Paula Kreger along with CNN reporter Brian Stelter attempted to define what a TV network is in the digital age and where well-established television brands fit in a rapidly changing video marketplace.
Without hesitation, Skipper launched a line that became the tweet of the hour. “TV is a dirty word,” he said. “That’s the T-word. We use the S-word. Screens.” With what could arguably be considered the most valuable collection of content in cable, Skipper and ESPN’s seven networks are in a unique position to innovate with content and redefine what TV is. Skipper is optimistic about today’s TV model remaining a primary source of entertainment. “98 percent of our content is viewed live,” he said. And while Monday Night Football is an expensive product, much of their live programming, Skipper explained, can be produced for very little. As a result, ESPN is willing to experiment. Today they’re a leader in second screen programming and native content apps.
Kreger and PBS on the other hand aren’t in the same experimental mode. They can’t invest first, and ask questions later. As an organization largely member supported, PBS depends on word-of-mouth and a date-night TV experience (see Dowton Abbey Sundays in pretty much every home in America). But Kreger too has a positive outlook on the state of TV. “People tend to gravitate towards the largest screens available to them,” she said. Hit shows like Downton Abbey bring back the importance of the live TV experience. “Each media property has it’s own attributes,” Krieger noted. “We all need to pay attention to that.” And PBS has. Understanding how their viewers consume PBS’ unique brand of content has allowed a potential digital-age casualty to win some huge and unexpected TV hits.
Univision’s Conroy too was confident about the state and direction of TV. Univision, a network primarily serving a Spanish-speaking audience, follows Kreger’s philosophy of delivering content with each network’s specific viewers in mind. “The demand for quality content is higher than ever,” Conroy said. The challenge isn’t reinventing the model, but “creating a seamless, easy way to get all the content”. He’s referencing the process of creating a single, unified digital platform on which everyone can sort through and easily experience television. Conroy seemed to imply providers and creators are in the throes of figuring this out, but all of the panelists were assuring they would get there.
If this panel was a check on the health of TV as entertainment resource, the report is very good. Content creators are innovating, finding new ways to attract viewers, and listening to audiences to help guide them through a rapidly shifting and highly competitive video marketplace. And while some may prophesize the end of TV as we know it, SXSW revealed a very different outlook.