Best of ’23: How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying? Listen To Those Who Analyze It

While the rest of the world slips into holiday mode, we’re devoting some of the final days of 2023 to revisiting some of what we would hope you would agree were some of the more on point musings we’ve done, particularly if something may be currently going on that in hindsight reinforced how on point they may have been.

This past week media expert Evan Shapiro has been busier than most, slicing and dicing the massive data dump Netflix gave the industry as a holiday present with particular precision, pointing out more than a few nuggets that their executives may have been trying to gloss over, as well as leading a charge of other invested pundits and researchers around the world to try and find additional spin and substance,  For example, by aggregating Netflix’s provided data to treat acquired series in their catalogue on a titular rather than a season-by-season basis, which is more an accounting measure than a reflection of how content is consumed, he revealed that fully half of their most-viewed titles, which themselves define the epitome of a long-tail that all but defines their current viewership skew, were from shows Netflix did not themselves produce.    

More attention that usual has been paid to this particular sharing, given the noise that Netflix itself chooses to make about what they consider to be a far more transparent view into their actual consumption than their competition offers, which was a critical component of the issues that led to the twin strikes of 2023.  And while this is far more than we’ve seen from the likes of MAX, Peacock, and especially Paramount+ (insert vomit e-moji) SHOWTIME, Shapiro is one of the more outspoken truth-mongers that help to bring balance to perception, and perhaps keep a few more people actually employed a while longer before these competitors choose to overcorrect and purge themselves of the very people who might be able to help them do a better job of attracting more frequent and connected viewers, let alone calm the reactions of board members and investors with hopelessly impossible expectations.

But as we noted even back in March, Shapiro and several others have been doing that all along:

Most of my more popular and attractive friends in high school did school plays.  They got to roam the halls freely after classes ended with lengthy rehearsals, often took to the front of classrooms to personally hock tickets, and since we had no football team and barely a basketball team, they were the closest thing to celebrities that we had.   The staging that many of us still remember fondly was the 60s Broadway hit HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, which some of you may know from its successful 90s revival, but we knew from the original that made Robert Morse, who ended his career and life as a beloved MAD MAN co-star, a household name.  The show revovled around an ambitious but naive window washer named J. Pierrepont Finch who is inspired by a book of the same name to passionately pursue a career in New York City.  Through some iconic musical numbers, and a whole bunch of corporate gerrymandering, Finch becomes vice president of advertising and convinces the company to sponsor a televised treasure hunt for shares of stock, an idea which the boss’ feckless nephew, Bud Frump. had originally pitched to his uncle, which was rejected.  But when Finch suggests his mistress be the face of the show, he ultimately signs off on it. In a moment of panic, the mistress accidentally reveals the location of where the stock shares are hidden, causing an internal riot among employees and, of course, blowing the opportunity that the show may have offered the company.  But instead of being fired, Finch makes a personal connection to the chairman of the board when it’s learned that the chairman, too, had a book that inspired him.  (In his case, it was a book of betting records),  Finch ultimately not only saves his job, but those of the rest of the compamy, save for that of the feckless nephew.

I sometimes wonder if those who are in charge of media companies these days are more like Bud Frump than J. Pierrepont Finch.  Because there’s an awful lot of excellent analysis out there from media observers that in a landscape  where more and more failure is happening, the fact that these insights-ones steeped in actual research and facts–are coming from those that report on business rather than those are running it is not only ironic, it’s damn frustrating.

Take the piece that Evan Shapiro teased on his LinkedIn feed yesterday.  We’ve crowed about Evan before; the self-described “media cartographer” uses strong visuals and solid research to explain why the multi-billion efforts of emulation and envy are failing.  His latest, revolving around “serial churners”, is paricularly enlightening:

To Every Season;
Churn, Churn, Churn 

No matter your opinion of the current state of Media or its major players, it’s hard to look at the chart below, and NOT see a dumpster-fire.

Premium streamers are spending more and more money every quarter to keep fewer and fewer subscribers.

Antenna released a crapload of subscription data yesterday, based on millions of actual transactions (not polls). The key takeaways should spark an epidemic of ulceritis in streaming C-Suites.
– Industry-wide SVOD churn has increased by 49% in the last 18 months.

– In Q4 SVODs collectively acquired 41.3 mil new subs. They retained just 18%. The same in Q3.

– THAT is actually an improvement over just 11% retention Q2 2022.

This is not sustainable.

And that’s precisely why major streamers have stopped focusing on total subs as their key KPI, and started focusing on the lifetime value of their users, and overall profits.

Great… Except that Serial Churners (who subscribe, binge and cancel) have 1/3 lower LTV than subs who don’t churn & burn.

Traditional Media entered streaming without understanding the basic fundamentals of direct to consumer marketing and service. They confused the new version of streaming subscribers with their bundled cable subs of olden days. Most importantly, they grossly misunderstood just how BIGLY customer loyalties would shift when the customer had TOTAL control over the relationship.

The big lesson they‘ve learned since: Serial Churners cost WAY more than Channel Changers.

In the #streamingwars Traditional Media players (like Warner Bros. DiscoveryParamount & Disney Streaming) simply chose to “copy Netflix,” without truly digging into the ins-and-outs of that D2C business. (Fittingly Comcast did so more than their peers.) CRUCIALLY, collective OG Media marched down that path, without even trying first to reimagine the protective, wholesale model(s) that MADE them Traditional Media.

The results are starkly demonstrated by the chart below, with a statistical equivalent of a revolving door.

As we see the machinations and spin coming from the likes of Max, Paramount+, Peacock and the Disney streamers, and the many moves Netflix is attempting to keep their tenuous best-in-show status as they try to convince a skeptical Wall Street that a penetration rate of roughly two percent of their estimated U.S. subscriber base for an ad tier is encouraging, Shapiro’s cartography and his insights are revelatory–and yet, all but glossed over by the companies that are in that Sisyphusian pursuit.

And as the economics of “peak TV production” are seeing the shows that are driving whatever short-term adoption services tap out at a few dozen episodes, Alan Wolk of TVRev.com pointed out in a piece released earlier this week that the concept of the lifetime ultimate that has sustained the media ecosystem for a century has all but been forgotten:

One of the reasons FAST services are so popular these days is that their linear and on-demand libraries are full of beloved network TV series. Viewers enjoy watching these shows because they’re so familiar, bring back good memories of earlier times, and feature well-known characters and plot lines. 

What often gets left out of this analysis is that a big part of these series’ appeal is their ubiquity. Network TV series had about 25 episodes each season, so if a show ran for seven years, it ended up with 175 episodes. Besides benefiting the producers and talent in the offnet syndication market, that also meant that a viewer could easily dip in and out on a daily basis without ever getting bored, regardless of whether they are watching on a linear channel or on demand.

This was the premise behind syndication — that local broadcasters could show a different episode of say, The Brady Bunch, every weekday at 4 p.m. and audiences would not get bored.

That is not the case in today’s streaming universe, where series have somewhere from eight to 10 episodes a season and are lucky to last three campaigns.

This is all well and good, but it means that the next generation of syndicated programs are nowhere to be seen.

Yes, Ted Lasso is beloved, but with only 34 episodes in total across three seasons, watching it years from now will be more of a once-a-year thing than a five-days-a-week thing.

Certainly not enough to sustain a Ted Lasso channel or even a part of a channel. (Compare that to the U.S. version of The Office, which notched 201 episodes during its eight-year run.)

Which is why if the current crop of SVOD services (or maybe even some of the FASTs) want to get ahead, they need to give some serious thought to longer, old-school style seasons.

Such a reality check might mean that passion projects, and the European model of limited series not necessarily dominate the landscape of what far too many executives are pivoting to.  But having a wider variety of content, both in style and volume, to give people a reason to subscribe and not churn, not to mention more episodes of shows that can break through that can creatively sustain it, is a pretty darn good idea.  Kinda wish it had come from one of the executives at these struggling services.

Finally, a somewhat parochial parsing of the limbo fate of Logo, authored by THE WRAP’s Joseph Kapsch, laments that not only has the life of the network been snuffed out, but even its demise is being screwed up:

Paramount has all but given up on Logo, a once-groundbreaking experiment in commercial media for LGBTQ audiences, insiders told TheWrap, confirming something that’s been obvious to anyone who bothered to tune into the creatively moribund cable channel.

It’s been a slow death, starting with the loss of the channel’s signature show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” first to sister channel VH1 in 2017, then this year to MTV. A “federation” of websites has faded away, with the leading NewNowNext property redirected to logotv.com. The Logo brand didn’t make the jump to Paramount+, though a handful of Logo-born shows like the “Drag Race: All Stars” spin-offs now stream there.

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