The Attention War

I recently finished The War for Late Night; a detailed account of the Jay Leno and Conan O’Brian late-night saga that consumed NBC (and anyone interested in late night) for the better part of a year. While the story has many fascinating parts, one of the points that I found interesting was the importance of the Tonight Show time slot.

Broadcast at 11:30PM for decades, the Tonight Show was a steady part in a troubled NBC line-up. Despite being one of the four powerful networks, NBC is essentially run by their affiliate and regional networks.  These local broadcasters have a lot of sway and can decide which programming to air. They also all have 11PM news broadcasts that then feed viewers into the Tonight Show at 11:30.

Why is this important?

Because when NBC gave Conan the Tonight Show, they also gave Jay Leno a new show at 10PM on NBC. The result of that decision was catastrophic for the affiliates. Leno bombed in the 10-11 slot and, as a result, ratings for their local news broadcasts went off a cliff. Bad ratings result in less ad dollars being fed into affiliate budgets. Less money, results in angry partners and a massive headache for NBC. Most people know the result – Leno goes back to 11:30, NBC tries to get Conan to 12:05 and chaos ensues.

This chaos was all because of the lead in shows and the time slots. While Conan played well at a later hour to a niche audience, when he was brought forward things were different. Ratings dropped and he struggled between NBC execs and who said ‘make your show appeal to a broader target’ vs. those who wanted him to ‘continue to focus on his base of Conan fans’.

Today, many would argue, everything has changed. Time becomes less important with PVR’s, the Internet and ‘view-whenever-you-want’ power results in users having the ability to watch what they want, when they want. It’s the strength of content that draws a following, not just when it is broadcast.  

This isn’t to say that TV viewing is declining because it isn’t – it’s increasing. So is our time spent in front of screens of all kinds – from mobile to PC, digital display to the traditional TV.

Enter the new YouTube. Fresh from a new site redesign, the platform also announced that they were investing $100 million for content creators to develop original programming for the site. Google asked a variety of professional creators to pitch their channel ideas for a chance to get some funding to make it happen. Top brands like Comedy Central, Demand Media and Lady GaGa have entered the mix and are creating new shows just for YouTube.

In a superb analysis for the New Yorker, John Seabrook writes about the team behind YouTube's transition and their desire to make programming more and more niche - to focus on passionate groups of users who want very specific types of content vs. mass programming that may have mass appeal, but comes at a high failure cost if it doesn't. Led by Robert Kyncl, team YouTube is focused on creating original content to drive up viewer numbers through the platform and - ultimately - drive advertising dollars from the traditional networks to the platform. 

In his 2011 Entertainment Keynote at CES, Kyncl outlines his detailed strategy for YouTube over the next few years. By 2020, he believes that all channels on TV will be viewed over the internet (stat from CES 2011). Think about that. What was once a closed system, run by four networks, is rapidly becoming a platform that anyone will be able to broadcast to and reach an audience. Couple that stat with the reality that almost all TV's will be internet enabled in the near future and you can see that viewing over the digital space will quickly become the norm. So much so that Kycel believes that by 2015, 90% of all internet traffic will be for online video

YouTube is positioned well to take over this space, however there is work to be done. Currently, the average time spent on the site per day is roughly 15 minutes per user. Contrast that with US TV viewing which is in the 4-5 hour average per day and you can see that there is work to be done.

This brings me back to the importance of time. 

Despite the ability to watch what I want, when I want, there are still certain realities that I live with - I can't watch 2 hours of TV at work from my computer, I only go to YouTube to watch short clips (currently) and the shows that I really want to watch are normally ones that have been created by the likes of HBO, NBC and other major networks. Why? Because they are quality productions, are well written and have top talent.

Beyond that, the live nature of TV is still it's most compelling proposition. Shared, cultural events like X-Factor in the UK or the Super Bowl in the USA are always top rated broadcasts that most people feel they need to watch so that they can have something relevant to contribute at the water cooler the next day. YouTube is starting to get into this space with live streams and I suspect that they will make a play for more event-based content in the near future to start creating habits among niche viewers. 

In the coming months, there are going to be new channels, YouTube shows and events. I'm excited to see which of these creators builds their own following and bypasses the traditional ways of becoming a show business success. I just hope I have enough time to watch them...after all, it is NFL playoff season.