TV Bosses Talk Diversity, Streaming and the Ad Challenge at Jerusalem Conference

From left: Rick Rosen, Kevin Reilly, David Nevins, Gary Newman, Casey Bloys

The heads of Showtime, TNT and Fox Television Group, together with the president of HBO programming, address the forces transforming the TV business at INTV.

They saved the best for last.

For the closing panel on day one of the two-day INTV conference, held in Jerusalem, organizers pulled out the big guns on Monday. Top executives from Showtime, TNT, Fox Television Group and HBO sat down with Rick Rosen, head of TV at WME, for a wide-ranging discussion on the present, and possible future, of the small-screen business.

David Nevins, CEO of Showtime; Gary Newman, chairman & CEO of Fox Television Group; Kevin Reilly, president of TBS & TNT; and Casey Bloys, president of HBO programming, spoke on the impact of streaming services (broadly positive), the importance of overnight ratings (dwindling in significance), and the challenge of diversity both in front of and behind the camera (some progress, but a long way to go). 

The specter of Netflix loomed large over the panel, as it has over the entire conference so far. The impact of the streaming giant is being felt across the TV industry, from the financing and production of series to the ways in which Netflix is changing consumer behavior.

But, surprisingly, the panel's TV heavyweights broadly agreed that Netflix has had a positive influence on the business by driving demand for more content.

"I think there is a perception that this is a zero-sum game, that someone else's success must be to another's detriment," said Bloys, "but (at HBO) we have higher revenue growth than we've ever had, and more subscribers than we've ever had. ... Streaming services have been good for TV. People are consuming more television and making more television."

When it comes to Netflix's impact on television's ad-supported model, the message was more mixed. Reilly noted that with regard to ads, consumer expectation "has flipped. People say they don't want ads, they can't watch them." One of the major challenges in the coming years, he said, would be to re-jig the advertising model to bring down the ad load while still serving up free TV to audiences and advertisers. "Ad-supported TV is here to stay, it's irreplaceable," he noted.

But while TV advertising may not be going anywhere, the panelists agreed that ratings, at least the overnight variety, are on their way out.

Nevins said less than a quarter of total viewership for Showtime series is live. "Seventy-five to 80 percent of our viewers watch on-demand, via streaming or delayed in catch up or replay," he said. "This is obviously a behavior taught by Netflix, by the streamers."

What that means, he argued, is that scheduling, traditionally networks' secret sauce, is practically irrelevant. "I tell producers: Why do you care where you play? It doesn't make a difference," Nevins added.

"Sunday night (live viewing) is still important for Game of Thrones, but it's become less and less significant," said HBO's Bloys, noting that for the network's Emmy-winning series Big Little Lies, around 50 percent of viewing was on-demand or digital.

Even on a big broadcast network like Fox, overnights are no longer the metric. "For Family Guy, for Bob's Burgers, we're seeing 160 percent to 180 percent growth on delayed viewing rather than same day," said Gary Newman. "We're pretty much as happy for a viewer to come in three to seven days after broadcast as to watch live."

Kevin Reilly of TNT was the only dissenting voice in the pro-on-demand camp. "My VOD (video-on-demand) numbers are up 70 percent this year, but it's still a fraction (of live viewing)," he said. But Reilly admitted that on-demand was only going to grow in importance. "If (you are) not pushing aggressively (into that market), you are leaving money on the table," he said.

Networks are also leaving money on the table, Newman argued, if they fail to diversify. Pointing to Fox Television's track record — with series like Empire and The Chi — of "casting color blind," Newman said while diversity was "socially good," the studio was driven less by altruism than by the bottom line. "It's really the commercial opportunity," he argued. "Our shows are just better when they are more diverse."

Newman and the other members of the panel — "all white males, though not all straight," as Bloys put it — talked up their companies' achievements in addressing gender and racial inequalities in-house, but all acknowledged the need to do more.

"At HBO we are close to 45 percent female writers and directors ... and there's not one programming decision I make that I don't run by a woman," Bloys said, "but we have been less successful in terms of diversity in the ranks" of the company.

Showtime's Nevins noted the importance of making "the workplace more welcoming to a diverse group," while Newman said Fox was working "both in writers and directors programs to attract minority trainees and to move as many as we can into shows."