The trick to every financial transaction—and I’m using the phrase “financial transaction” in the Hollywood sense, to describe any encounter between two people who are not related by blood—is to know who is the buyer and who is the seller. Which isn’t always easy.
Every writer I know has sat down to a promising meeting with a producer to talk about a project only slowly to discover that the person he’s talking to is one of the many people in the entertainment business who do not have any actual money to spend, despite the expensive suit and the enormous wristwatch.
The meeting will begin with small talk and flattery. The producer will tell the writer how talented he is. The writer will be dazzled by the A. Lange & Söhne watch that flashes in the sunlight. But it will slowly dawn on the writer that the producer wants him to write a script for free. The producer was selling, not buying.
It’s something you can see at any restaurant where people in entertainment gather to do business. If you look at the table and see one person leaning forward and one person leaning back, arms folded, then you have the classic snapshot of a seller and a buyer. One person is on the attack, in pitch mode. The other in the power position, in talk-to-me mode.
If you have two people leaning back, or worse, two people leaning forward, then you’ve got a mismatch. You’ve got, as we say in show business, big story problems.
And that, when you get right down to it, is what’s happening in the entertainment business. I’m talking about Amazon buying MGM; the merger of Warner Bros. and Discovery; rumors that Apple is about to buy a movie studio; rumors that the recombined Viacom/CBS behemoth is about to make a major move.
But the buyers in these transactions aren’t leaning backward, arms folded. They’re leaning forward, too.
If all of the entertainment buying and selling were actually happening in a restaurant, what you’d see is a lot of leaning forward, a lot of enthusiastic buyers and cheerful sellers, a lot of people thinking that the other person at the table is the answer to their problems. Which, as we all know, is never the case, in life, love, or show business.
What you’d hear in that restaurant are the same three words spoken at every table. The words: Content is King. That’s what media executives are saying, that’s what investors are saying, and—especially—that’s what content creators are saying. Gaining access to content is the strategic underpinning of most of the buying and selling going on in the entertainment business right now.
That strategy—and as someone who makes money selling television shows, it kills me to say this—is the wrong one.
A successful modern media behemoth is a three-legged stool. The first leg is content. You need a creative operation like a studio or production company that generates and acquires new scripted and non-scripted fare, including sports and special events. The second leg is a streaming or premium cable service that requires a subscription and requires monthly credit-card billing, accompanied by an enormously complicated cancellation process.
The third leg—and this is the one everyone forgets about—is a broad-based platform, like a boring old broadcasting network, a basic cable channel, or a group of television stations. That platform is a business with a large audience that pays nothing to watch, and which allows you to promote your content and get a wide audience sample as quickly and cheaply as possible. A platform is a place where the audience already is.
That third piece is what is missing from most of the newly combined media companies or rumored merger-and-acquisition activity in Hollywood. But it is that piece—that extremely uncool piece—that will be the difference between a company that succeeds and one that is broken up and sold in pieces in a few years during the next big entertainment-industry anxiety attack—which is currently scheduled for sometime in 2026, when a lot of Netflix bonds mature.
Releasing a new title—any new title, on streaming, premium, or in the theater—into the kaleidoscope of the current marketplace is a difficult proposition.
Consider the case of Yellowstone, one of the biggest hits on television. The series premiered in 2018 on the Paramount Network. At the time, it theoretically reached about 80 million viewers. No one had ever heard of the Paramount Network. Now imagine if Yellowstone had premiered on a broadcast network in its first or second season. Or even in its first or second episode. On CBS—where the audience already is—Yellowstone might have garnered anywhere between 6 and 8 million weekly viewers. That audience sample could have launched its move to pay cable, subscription streamer, or anywhere else the producers wanted—with hugely remunerative benefits. But the show’s weak platform kept it from breaking out until its third season. By this time the studio had sold the streaming rights to rival studio Comcast’s Peacock streaming service for relative pennies. Peacock basically launched itself with the mishandled hit produced by one of its major competitors.
Platforms aren’t sexy. They are not talked about in fancy lunch spots. Their CEOs are rarely photographed on the red carpet or swanning around a Sun Valley media-mogul conference. But they still rule.
The Nexstar Media Group is in talks to purchase the CW Network from its joint owners, CBS and Warner Bros. The CW is the home of a lot of popular teen dramas like Riverdale. Nexstar owns a string of local television stations—exactly the unglamorous assets that make sophisticated entertainment-industry types snicker—but the resulting company will have a pretty impressive platform to reach into the young-adult audience.
Or how about basic cable channel INSP—pronounced, I’m told, letter-by-letter and not “inspuh”—which began as Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL Club and has transformed, over the years, into a channel that shows old movies, Westerns, and old-fashioned family entertainment. Its primetime audience is larger than TLC’s or Food Network’s, and in daily viewers it’s bigger than USA Network or TBS.
In a few years, both of those unsexy and little-known platforms will be crucial to a streaming service or media colossus looking to compete with Disney+ for the youth-and-family audience. Both of them are places where that audience already is. Nexstar and INSP and a handful of other companies are going to be very popular at the entertainment-industry deal-making restaurant. The next time you see them, they’ll be sitting back, arms folded.
Investment bankers get paid enormously for the advice I just gave away for free. This explains why many of them have summer homes on Nantucket and I am driving a 2018 Subaru Outback. But as a television writer and producer, I know that in the great Media Bazaar currently happening, what I need is for the buying and selling and leaning-forward and sitting-back guys to pause for a while and for someone to call my agent and offer me a job.
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