The fall TV season kicks off in earnest this week, and looking at it from the vantage of Netflix bingeing and Instagram Stories and moving GIFs and Twitter feuds, the fanfare around the latest sitcom to hit the airwaves feels shopworn, like staging a neighborhood singalong down the street from a Chance the Rapper show.
Media no longer carries “moments” like it once did. Every thing is always on all the time, so why would media’s corporate titans — CBS and Disney and Fox and Univision — keep up the artifice of a TV season and of traditional shows themselves?
More importantly, you all still watch TV — lots of it. There are nearly 120 million TV homes in the U.S., and while younger people watch less TV than they used to, they still watch a lot of it. That matters to advertisers, which spends the plurality, and in some cases the majority of their dollars on TV, even as they spend on Facebook and Google and Instagram and Snapchat.
That dollar divide — often it’s $51 ad dollars that goes to TV for every $49 spent online — has elicited plaintive pronouncements from mighty tech’s executive ranks. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, has been heard on quarterly earnings calls with the refrain: “We have a Super-Bowl-sized audience every night.”
That’s true. In fact, Facebook’s “primetime” audience is likely even bigger. But let’s focus on that idea for a second. Those quotes aren’t a sarcastic qualifier; they’re meant to mark “primetime” as what it is, another TV gimmick. Yes, it made sense to show your best stuff during the 8 pm to 11 pm hours when the family was all home and had their dinner, but does anyone watch like that anymore?
Our phones are our Everydevice. We can watch whatever whenever (and do), which shows just how quaint the idea of primetime is.
So why does Sandberg care to point out how large Facebook’s evening audience is? Advertisers. They still buy in TV terms, which is to ask, how many people are ‘watching’ from 8 pm to 11 pm? (Never mind it’s not uncommon for folks to scroll through their Instagram / Facebook / Twitter / Snapchat feeds as they watch TV, or they “talk” to people, or eat dinner, or go to the bathroom.)
Facebook generated over $26 billion in ad dollars last year and is currently growing that business at a rate of 49 percent this year. But it wants more (why not?). That’s why it plans to spend $1 billion* to develop original shows that in many cases look a lot like television.
The other thing to note: While Facebook has plenty of advertisers, it doesn’t always excel at the big brand advertisers, the cosmetics and automobile makers, the luxury and aspirational products that command premium dollars from media outlets like CBS and ABC. These advertisers can still be found on Facebook, of course, but their ad spend on the site tends to come from smaller budgets and is sometimes considered an experimental bet.
The play for professionally produced TV content also explains why Amazon beat out Google and Twitter by agreeing to pay the NFL $50 million for the right to stream 10 Thursday night games. They’re not even exclusive, so you’ll still be able to watch those same games on CBS and NBC**.
Amazon doesn’t need advertising the way Google or Twitter do, but advertising happens to be one of Amazon’s fastest-growing businesses, and a key to retaining customers is offering stuff people like to watch. Plus, CEO Jeff Bezos appears to really like going to awards shows.
YouTube, for its part, plans to spend at least $200 million making 40 original shows. That’s astounding. Not the amount — it’s pennies for Google — but as the original platform for online video, YouTube’s main thesis has long been that user-generated videos will one day supplant TV.
Not quite. (And maybe never.) Yes, there are plenty of YouTube stars, but they still pale in scale when compared with their reality TV brethren. Even if a YouTuber has a bigger audience, they’re ultimately less valuable to advertisers than the crowd that gathers to witness the exploits of the Kardashian clan on basic cable.
It was a great relenting on the part of YouTube. No amount of money thrown at everyday people clowning in front of workaday cameras would ever produce something as compelling as Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” or Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” That was never the point, but people (advertisers) want to be associated with the things people are talking about, not the tribal entertainments for the devoted few.
Professional content, of course, costs more to produce, as parent company Alphabet has acknowledged. But YouTube has also become one of Google’s biggest revenue drivers. “If I look at YouTube on mobile on emerging markets on larger screens,” CEO Sundar Pichai said during the company’s last earnings update, “they all look like newer opportunities and so I think there is a lot more growth ahead.”
There’s one more player to consider: Apple. The premier producer of what many consider the world’s best (most coveted) personal screens hasn’t ever articulated a cogent media strategy. At least not since the late Steve Jobs convinced (bulldozed?) the music industry into selling individual tracks instead of whole albums. Music execs at the time were contending with rampant piracy, so 99 cents was better than zero.
Of course, the industry has been disrupted yet again, and streaming subscriptions have surpassed downloads, a business Apple was late to and as such is still trailing leader Spotify.
But what about TV? Apple, like Facebook, plans to spend $1 billion producing original shows. It’s not to sell more ads. It’s to sell more devices, or at the very least to keep people from switching devices. Despite Spotify’s lead in streaming, there are still thousands of customers who have music downloaded via iTunes, locking people into Apple’s ecosystem.
Should Apple produce even one cult hit, that would further cement its hold over the tens of millions it already owns.
And then there’s Netflix, the first digital company to spend any kind of serious money on original content. To put the ambitions of the previous tech companies into perspective, Netflix will spend many times more on original shows: $6 billion.
It’s so much, in fact, that an embarrassment of content riches is reflected in Netflix’s queue. Often entire new shows appear as if out of nowhere, without warning or prompt, no new season fanfare as with CBS and its fellow broadcasters.
Of course, that’s not how Netflix sees the world. It knows you’re going to log in anyway. Why make a big deal out of it?
* Recode parent company Vox Media has a business agreement with Facebook to produce original shows.
** NBC parent NBCUniversal is a minority investor in Vox Media.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.