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After jumping from Warner Bros. to lead NBCUniversal’s TV and streaming efforts during the depths of the pandemic in October 2020, Susan Rovner was offered an anecdote from CEO Jeff Shell about how the company differs from its rivals. “‘When you walk in to our theme parks, there’s a feeling you have,” Rovner recalls Shell saying. “Our rides — it’s not Disney, where everything’s family-friendly — it’s a little more dangerous, a little more adult but you love it, you have such a great time.”
That approach has informed Rovner’s thinking as it relates to content strategy (the exec leads programming at NBC, Peacock, E!, Bravo, USA Network, Oxygen, Syfy and Universal Kids). As Hollywood studios have raced to send content directly to streaming platforms while balancing their declining (but lucrative) linear TV assets, she has been at the center of the action in decisionmaking on what to greenlight. And, during a panel at SXSW on March 13, Rovner pointed to a few areas where the industry is constantly making adjustments: chasing subscribers while balancing churn.
“One thing about NBCUniversal is that we have vast libraries, we have The Office, we have Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” Rovner said during a discussion with Google TV exec Rob Caruso. “When you look at a lot of the streamers and how they program now its ‘three seasons, eight episodes each season and we’re done.’ So they’re not building those libraries, and I think that’s a mistake. I think that’s going to catch up.”
Peacock is still in growth mode. As of Dec. 31 of last year, the streaming service hit 20 million paid subscribers (below rivals like Paramount+, which has 46 million, as well as entrenched streaming leader Netflix, with 230 million) and Comcast executives see 2023 as “peak expense mode” for streaming, with $3 billion in losses expected.
Rovner noted that, broadly, in the chase for subscribers, streaming services may be forgoing long-term value for short-term customers in ordering new series vs. building libraries. “We have to be careful,” the NBCU exec added, “if we don’t actually just say ‘you know, this is a good show I’m going to keep ordering it’” then there will be fewer libraries of shows ten years down the line.
“Everything right now is so driven by subscriptions and getting as many subscribers as possible and that’s why people are going after the shiny and new,” the exec said. Sometimes, from Netflix, the refrain can be “‘we’re good, we’ve got the subscribers we’re going to get’ and so they don’t make additional seasons. I think hopefully we’re going to get to a place that’s not just about new subscriber growth but it’s also about stopping churn and making sure we’re retaining people.”
As to making the call about whether a show gets cut short after, say, season three, or gets an order for season four or five, Rovner described it as a balancing act on whether to invest resources into a building a library or looking for a new series that could draw subscribers.
“We talk a lot about it, especially when you do a show that is heavy mythology that really needs a beginning, a middle and then hopefully needs to have that end,” the NBCU programming exec said. “You want to honor your viewers who have invested in that show and give them that end and, unfortunately, sometimes that means making the decision to order more episodes of a show even though financially it may not make as much sense. But you are gaining trust with your viewers and your audience and your consumer.”
The exec also says that its a signal to consumers for a network to renew a show earlier in its rollout cycle than in the past. (Peacock, for example, gave a season two order to Rian Johnson’s mystery drama Poker Face, starring Natasha Lyonne, weeks before its March 9 finale.)
“We do try to pick up shows earlier now to make sure that the viewers understand that we’re backing this,” Rovner said. “People now do know if a network is getting behind your show, so we do try to order a second season earlier so that people can hear ‘we believe in this, so we’re going to back this, we think it’s worth your time, please check it out.’”
While the drive to chase subscriptions at all costs seems to be fading away (the new narrative to Wall Street from Hollywood is emphasizing a laser-focus on profits), Peacock has been making changes as well. The service — which had a launch tagline of “free as a bird” — phased out at the end of January customer sign-ups for a free version, now giving users the option to join for $4.99 or $9.99 monthly plans.
In making greenlight calls for TV projects initially (whether on streaming or for older audiences on linear channels like NBC), Rovner noted that data initially doesn’t play much of a role. “I firmly believe that if there was an algorithm or data that could tell us if a show was going to be a hit we would all have it and we would only have hits,” she said. “And, since 95 percent of all TV shows fail I think that that is proof that there is absolutely no formula for a hit.”
Where it gets tricky, as Google TV’s Caruso observed on the panel, is weighing viewer drop off after a second season or a third season along with an imperative to keep costs down for the project. Rovner offered the caveat, however, that, “For season two, data becomes very important because you can actually see ‘do people stop watching?’ and when do they stop watching and why.”
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