In a Sea of Endless Content Choices, Will Brands Sink or Swim?

by Walter Levitt, Comedy Central


It’s a debate as old as the TV industry: do people watch shows or networks?

For decades, the debate has been heated and, if we’re being honest, dramatically over-simplified. Passionate programming and development people have been adamant that “content is king,” the centerpiece of success. A TV network without any hit shows, they contend, is never going to be successful.

Equally passionate (but, admittedly, usually much better-looking) marketing people have argued that viewers seek-out networks they know and connect with, and that without a powerful network brand, they would never watch any of the shows – no matter how great they are.

Fast forward to 2014. While the majority of viewing still happens on linear TV, consumers now have more viewing options than ever before. Hundreds of linear channels. Thousands of shows available instantly with a remote click thanks to DVRs and VOD.  Tens of thousands of viewing choices on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube and every TV network’s own site and app.   Some have even dubbed the last couple of years “the new golden age of television,” with more and more shows that rival or even surpass Hollywood films in quality.

With so much great content available on so many devices and platforms, it’s time to resurface the debate: do people watch shows or brands? (See what I did there? Replaced the old-school term “networks” with “brands.”)

In my view, the answer is simple (and the same one it’s always been): people watch both.

But I also believe that in today’s hyper-competitive and cluttered world, brands matter more than ever before.

Historically, the more cluttered a category becomes, the more important brands become. Without the benefit of brands, consumers are lost, overwhelmed by choice. Without brands, we would have no idea what shampoo formulation will be best for our hair…which coffee shop is likely to meet our exacting expectations…or which sneakers are the perfect fit for our unique personal style.

Video content is no different.

When we’re faced with a barrage of viewing options, human nature is to freeze up. What’s good? What’s bad? What should I watch?

It’s the feeling we’ve all experienced browsing through the stream of “Recommended for you” titles on Netflix. We scroll through once. Twice. Three times. We don’t recognize most of the titles. The ones we do we’ve either seen already or have no interest in watching – at least not today.  We scroll down to other categories. Repeat. 15 minutes later, frustrated and tired, we turn off our device and start a new game of Candy Crush.

But what happens when content is organized by brands we know and love? We suddenly perk up and become more engaged. “Hey look – Comedy Central has a new sketch show. I wonder if it’s a funny as Key & Peele?” Or “Wow – there are a bunch of new AMC shows. I love Mad Men – and that new show looks really good!”

Like any other cluttered category, media brands help us cut though the confusion, help us filter, help us hone-in on content we’re likely to love, and ultimately help us discover new content that we might otherwise pass by. With more content choices than ever before, we need brands more than ever before.

And of course, once you find it, the content better be king-worthy. Even in 2014, the most powerful brands can’t make you like something that sucks.

So what do people watch? Shows? Brands? In the brave new world of endless places to watch endless hours of great TV, the answer is the same it’s always been: Yes. And yes.

Walter Levitt is Chief Marketing Officer for Comedy Central.

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