‘Hard to start from scratch’: Publishers look to extend popular franchises to video

When it comes to digital video, publishers are relying on their existing franchises, not unlike the way TV networks and movie studios reboot popular shows and movies like “Roseanne” and “Batman.”

Take The New York Times’ recent NewFronts presentation, where it featured a Netflix series based on its popular medical column, “Diagnosis,” while imagining other shows built around “Modern Love” and its crossword puzzle. Women’s publisher Meredith announced a programming slate that leaned on People and its lifestyle magazines. Condé Nast, meanwhile, announced streaming channels tied to its popular Wired, Bon Appétit and GQ monthlies.

These publishers are competing for a finite number of viewers at a time when people have more choices of things to watch than ever. That makes it an easy decision to lean on existing titles that already have a built-in audience.

“I do think it’s getting harder and harder to compete in the digital landscape because it has a young audience that’s accustomed to seeing their own version of things,” said Dawn Ostroff, president of Condé Nast Entertainment. “It’s very hard to start from scratch.”

When it comes to digital video, Condé Nast Entertainment has taken an approach known to Ostroff from her CW and Lifetime days. For Bon Appétit, for example, it’s come up with a mix of programs that have mass appeal, like “Kids Try,” where kids taste foods from over the decades, and ones for the committed Bon Appétit fan, like “Gourmet Makes,” where junk food gets a high-end makeover. Ultimately, the idea behind all of them is to reinforce the Bon App brand, though.

“We want to get the eyeballs, but building up the channels and the connection between the channel and subscriber is incredibly powerful,” Ostroff said.

David Grant, president of PopSugar Studios, said another reason publishers are leaning on their tried and true brands is that in digital, metrics for success are becoming more standardized, which means that programmers are under more pressure to deliver results for their companies. It’s why PopSugar is focusing on its fitness video, adapting “Class FitSugar” for different audiences, for example, and looking for ways to serialize its video to encourage habitual viewing. If he were to have a rule of thumb, Grant said, he would have some 80 percent of PopSugar’s video build off of existing franchises, with the rest for experimenting.

“When you have an existing brand, you understand that audience and you can create within those strategies. It’s much more likely to be successful with so much competition than putting your finger in the air and saying, ‘Let’s try something entirely new,’” he said.

“This is the pivot to brands,” said Bernard Gershon, president of GershonMedia, which consults to media companies on video. “If you already have brands that are an identity with audiences, why not build on those brands? That makes more sense than going to the Acne Animation Company and creating something brand new.”

For a video publisher, being able to show that they have a built-in audience makes it more compelling for ad buyers to consolidate their spending with the publisher. “In today’s climate, anything that publishers can do to illustrate that they know who their audience is and how they consume content is a plus,” said Frank Puma, digital investment lead for New York at Mindshare North America. “The main concern for buyers is the value of these programs or channels — not just the scale of the opportunities, but the ability to deliver the right audiences.”

To the extent video makers rely on their existing franchises because the business is maturing, it’s a good thing, buyers said. Assuming, of course, that the programming is good and offers something that’s not already being done. “The key is to have originality in the content as opposed to just placing a brand on top,” said Doug Rozen, chief digital and innovation officer at OMD. When the networks and movie studios have trotted out old franchises, it’s not always seen as a positive thing for the state of creativity.

“The healthy thing about it is, digital video has never had agreed-upon success metrics in the past, so you can’t tell if something was successful,” Grant said. “Now, success is more knowable, and you’ve got to get real. Probably the unhealthy thing is, there’s some stifling of innovation.”

There’s also always the risk that the publisher will screw up a good thing. The key is in having a brand that has enough appeal to speak to different audiences, as in the case of Bon Appétit, Ostroff said. “You have to have enough elasticity in the brand to bring in large audiences and enough to bring in content that’s specific to its core,” she said.

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