Friday, 4 July 2008

Music lessons from HBO: the USA's content powerhouse

Having done a stint at a record company recently, a term i've grown to appreciate and use a lot, is Content Development. I mean this to be the essential thing the music business needs right now - new product. I mean better packaged CDs as standard not just 'special editions'. I mean high quality documentary video for digital channels, not just backstage DVD extra filler. And ultimately just better music projects. This i think is the real challenge posed by digital distribution, p2p & free and CD sales atrophy - a challenge to artists making music everywhere (whether or not in the 'label system') and the producers who get their product to market. I'll write much more about this in future posts.

My shining beacon in all this is not a music company at all but a TV company - America's HBO. It makes risky, edgy drama (and documentary, sport and comedy) that no other network or producer could make (some do now, but only because they have followed HBO's lead) and turns a strong proportion of them into massive, global hits. HBO depends on its hits, like all media companies do and always will. But by placing so much emphasis on content development (there it is, that key phrase) - it gets the hits other networks just can't - The Soprano's, Sex in the City, Six Feet Under (no other networks could dream up hits with subject matter so violent, overtly sexual or just down right morbid). When it doesn't get the blockbusters, what HBO achieves instead is something else - culturally relevant, critically acclaimed, auteur-attracting productions that speak volumes about HBOs committment to what it does (Deadwood, The Wire, Carnivale). Often the latter turn into slow-burn medium DVD hits anyway.

Suggestion to all media company leaders and execs - get yourself a copy of the excellent, recently published 'The Essential HBO Reader', edited by Gary Edgerton and Jeffrey Jones (Kentucky publishing).

The introduction and conclusion 'HBO's Ongoing Legacy' make insightful and inspiring reading. Here is a very short synopsis with some takeways for music companies:
  • HBO's generations of managers have always understood that the average American viewer doesn't care whether they saw their shows in theatres, broadcast, by cable or on demand - they use all these mediums but essentially just want great entertainment at an affordable price (music co's - don't get too hung up on distribution, focus on the content)

  • It pursued an often atypical strategy for television - of investing more money in programme development (more than doubling the industry benchmark) and the marketing of those programmes and the HBO brand (invest in A&R, be selective, back fewer artists but back them big)

  • HBO followed a patronage model with its creators. Seinfeld's creator Larry David (page 13 of the book); "the network's tendency to permit creative freedom made it a magnet for experienced producers, directors and writers looking for outlets for projects to which they were deeply committed" (put the artists vision at the centre of things, promote the 'auteurs' of the project - the artist, producers - and their personal stories and journey in getting these amazing programmes made)

  • HBO spread its creative and executive force across four key programme categories - comedy, drama, sports & documentary - in each instance becoming the premier home for creative talent (pick your genres and become unrivalled experts in sourcing talent, marketing and understanding genre audiences, using the label portfolio as the vehicle for this)

  • HBO's dramatic series was always first to the genre - provoking an after effect (if an artist comes along that is genuinely new or genre defining, work the project carefully & prioritise it in your portfolio)

  • HBO is more than a network, it is a global brand (this is harder for record companies with historically low brand equity, but brand building isn't just with consumers - for music it is with artists, managers, licensing and distribution partners. Label branding is a way forward for building future brand equity with consumers - see future posts on this)

In achieving the above concoction HBO has changed viewing expectations of a large swathe of the TV (and DVD) watching audience. The company has used technology to re-invent itself. It has partnered carefully and sometimes agressively in terms of its negotiation and protection of its content. It has diversified (backward integration from a network to a producer). And it has - most importantly of all, built a global brand. Central in all of this, is its focus on Content Development. It has become a content powerhouse, attracting the best creators to do the best work of their careers. Watch any of The Wire, Deadwood etc. and see it come together in all its fabulous glory.

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