"If Twitter is the telephone, we're the conversation."
That comment was a highlight of Fortune Brainstorm Tech's "Future of Television" discussion on Thursday—even though the person who said it wasn't in the room.
No offense to the panelists on stage: Disney (DIS) Media Networks co-chair Anne Sweeney, CBS (CBS) exec Nancy Tellem, and NBC Universal's (CMCSA) Lauren Zalaznick. But the remark--which moderator Jason Hirschhorn said former MTV Networks (VIA) CEO Judy McGrath uttered to him--nails the point about what programmers must do today: Go two-way and way beyond the TV screen.
What makes a hit? TV ratings still matter, of course, but social engagement can make or break a show in this digital era. Tellem, who is senior advisor to CBS chief Leslie Moonves, pointed to Gossip Girl on the CW network (of which CBS is a part owner). The series, by measure of TV eyeballs when episodes premiere, might be considered a dud--or at least "a conundrum," which is what Tellem called the show. But TV execs learned to love Gossip Girl because the target--young women and teenage girls--are passionate viewers online, via iTunes (AAPL), Hulu, Netflix (NFLX), video on demand, DVR, whatever. Plus, Gossip Girl's 9.8 million Facebook fans chat and tweet up a storm.
Meanwhile, on ABC, Grey's Anatomy and Modern Family have huge audiences who time-shift viewing via DVR--and typically skip commercials. Which is why Zalaznick says: "The DVR is the biggest legal pirate there ever was....We've enabled legal piracy." Zalaznick, who oversees NBCU's Entertainment & Digital Networks and Integrated Media, made the point that TV execs must learn how to make good money serving consumers who want their TV shows anytime and everywhere.
Moreover, building a hit is ever more complicated. Big social buzz—top Twitter trends, for instance--is less predictive of big TV ratings than it used to be, said Zalaznick. The reason? Social-media noise is getting so loud, it's challenging forecasters. "We're at a turning point," she added.
So the TV execs soldier on. The web's exploding social-media platforms--Twitter, Facebook, and other second and third "screens" beyond the tube—invite them to get a lot more creative with their products and build profits too. Meanwhile, Zalaznick reminded the group of the everlasting No. 1 challenge: "It is really hard to make excellent stuff about compelling characters that you want to see over and over again."
FORTUNE -- As the most powerful woman in children's television, Anne Sweeney meets a lot of girls who wish they were Selena Gomez or Miley Cyrus or tomorrow's superstar.
But Sweeney insists that she sees plenty of accomplished women in business who do that very same thing.
"I see a lot of women of every age trying to be something else," says Sweeney, the co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of MOREPatricia Sellers - Jul 19, 2011 2:34 PM ET
I was on stage with Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the producer and director of Miss Representation, on Friday just after the news broke that Christina Norman was out as CEO of Oprah Winfrey's new TV network, OWN.
What an odd coincidence, since Newsom's documentary explores the dearth of women in "clout positions" in the mainstream media. Newsom says that this number is 3%.
Clearly, it is getting worse.
The day before Norman, a former president MOREPatricia Sellers - May 9, 2011 2:54 PM ET
by Patricia Sellers
I'm back from Brainstorm Tech in Aspen. Among the CEOs at Fortune's three-day confab: Ursula Burns of Xerox (XRX), Barry Diller of IAC (IACI), Tim Armstrong of AOL (AOL), Bobby Kotick of Activision Blizzard (ATVI), and Susan Lyne of Gilt Group.
I saw plenty that excited me (Flipboard for the iPad is cool, and I downloaded it right away), but I also heard lots that made my head spin. MOREPatricia Sellers - Jul 26, 2010 3:16 PM ET
Elizabeth Edwards, former Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) CEO Carly Fiorina and other cancer survivors convened for a discussion called "Stand Up to Cancer" at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in mid-September. Hollywood producer Laura Ziskin was also on the panel. She's a co-founder of Stand Up To Cancer, an entertainment-industry-led initiative that funds cancer research, requires scientists to work together, and is helping to accelerate progress toward curing the disease MOREPatricia Sellers - Oct 1, 2009 11:14 AM ET
Who's more powerful--Oprah Winfrey or Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Carol Bartz? Disney (DIS) media boss Anne Sweeney or MTV Networks chief (VIAB) Judy McGrath? Who from Google (GOOG) made the 2009 Fortune Most Powerful Women list?
The new rankings are out. PepsiCo (PEP) CEO Indra Nooyi is No. 1 for the fourth year in a row.
And yes, there is a science to deciding these rankings. Here I talk with CNNMoney MOREPatricia Sellers - Sep 10, 2009 1:15 PM ET
"At the end of a day the performance of a company like Kraft has everything to do with the quality of the people that we have in the key roles and so I spend most of my time worrying about whether that's the case, making sure...we have the right people in the right places, that they have the resources that they need to get the job done."
-- Kraft (KFT) CEO MOREJessica Shambora, Writer-Reporter - May 5, 2009 6:57 PM ET
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