Ziffren, Sweeney Talk Television Past and Future at UCLA

Anne Sweeney GETTY - H 2016
Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic

The TV vets are skeptical of a la carte models and queried Amazon’s business model.

Entertainment attorney Ken Ziffren and former Disney/ABC TV president Anne Sweeney held forth on television’s past — and peered into its future — Saturday afternoon at a UCLA Law School panel attended by several hundred entertainment attorneys and others.

“It’s a great honor to be sitting here with you today and not across the table in a negotiation,” Sweeney said, drawing laughs, and the impressionistic conversation touched on many topics. On Amazon, Ziffren opined: “Amazon doesn’t have, forgive me, a business plan to make money off of programming.”

“I hope they do,” responded Sweeney graciously. (She’s currently a Netflix board member.) That too drew laughs, but Ziffren responded, “It’s a loss leader into attracting the Prime shopping cart.”

“’I get everything else from them. Why should entertainment be any different from paper towels?’” Sweeney quoted her daughter as saying.

On a la carte programming models, both were skeptical, with Sweeney suggesting that a possible future might involve “a network made up of mini networks, a different construct but not an a la carte model.”

“If the problem is cost, address the cost, but I don’t think the answer is a la carte,” she added.

Ziffren offered some key statistics: “Six companies are producing roughly 94 percent of primetime television and on the cable side control roughly 90 percent of the revenue.” And on the viewer side, Sweeney had a figure of her own that may surprise those who focus on original programming: “40 percent of the people who watch HBO watch it strictly for the features.”

Over-the-air networks look different, of course. Ziffren said those are now 60 percent event programming — sports, news, specials and game shows — and 40 percent scripted.

Looking forward five years, Ziffren said he saw a bright future for new virtual MVPDs such as Go90 and Sling, predicting 17 percent market share for such networks.

ZIffren also talked features, noting that “the leading theater chains have a 17 percent to 21 percent ROI, which is better than the major studios,” but cautioning that the vast price differential between movie tickets and home video means that theaters need to experiment with variable pricing, dynamic pricing and even subscription models if they’re to maintain their audience.

The conversation between Ziffren and Sweeney took place on the second day of the 40th Annual UCLA Entertainment Symposium at UCLA Law School, organized by the school’s Ziffren Center for Media, Entertainment, Technology and Sports Law.

Ashley Cullins contributed to this report.