Micro-cable: A smarter, better, and more efficient strategy for developing content

 (Ed. note: I won’t write many posts this long, but please bear with it if you want to better understand the way we think at King Toledo Entertainment.) What is Micro-cable?

At its core, micro-cable is a new strategy for developing, testing, and launching new cable non-fiction series. The idea is for a cable network and a production company to co-develop, produce and distribute a digital version of a new TV show concept with an online content partner - all prior to launching the show on-air or making a big financial commitment. That content partner should reach a niche, but influential and valuable sub-segment of the cable network’s overall audience. To fund this, we will repurpose a small portion of the cable network’s development dollars (normally spent on presentation reels and pilots) and use them make a digital-friendly variation of the show. That content is then distributed exclusively with our online partner, and their audience gets to watch, react to, and become fans of the show prior to it transitioning to TV. That focused audience then becomes an influential core fan base for the show should the network decide to bring it to air.

If done successfully, micro-cable will:

1) lower the risks and costs of TV development

2) build fans for shows before they even go to air

3) bring the viewer into the TV development process in a meaningful way that they will no doubt appreciate and reward with their support/viewership

Even simpler: this is TV’s equivalent to minor league baseball.

Understanding why we need Micro-cable.

Let’s say you’re a TV producer with an idea for a new reality series. Your idea is about a hard-nosed NYC bounty hunter you know named Louie - and it’s perfect for, say, Discovery Channel.  As a producer, you might edit together a little sizzle tape featuring a couple minutes of Louie in action and write a paper treatment describing the idea in detail. Assuming you had access, you would pitch the show to executives at Discovery Channel. If they liked the idea, they might ask you to produce a ‘presentation reel’ as next step. This is is basically a short (think 15-30 minutes), non-airable version of a TV pilot, and they might give you any where from $15-75K to make it. This is how cable networks often test show ideas without having to invest in full length, expensive pilots.

When you’ve finished the presentation reel, the executives will review it and make a decision to either a) go to series and invest millions into production and marketing for a show that might very well flop, or b) stick the presentation reel in a drawer somewhere to collect dust. This is how the cable TV business often works - especially with networks that develop and launch new non-scripted programming year round. No one in the business will argue that it’s inefficient and risky. It’s also a model chock full of the other major issues.  Most remarkably, it doesn’t include the TV business’s most important shareholder -  the viewer - in the equation. It relies on an small group of liked-minded, often-risk adverse executives to make all the programming decisions. This is a fickle business and one big, expensive flop could help push an executive out the door. Further, development is generally a loss leader for networks with no established way to recoup these expenditures. All-in-all, it's a recipe in need of some serious tweaking.

Micro-cable puts development dollars to better use and gives the viewers a seat at the table

Micro-cable is designed to change and dramatically improve upon the cable TV development process. It involves three primary parties: a cable network, a production company that understands both digital and TV development, and a highly-focused digital content distributor with a niche audience.

Here’s how it works:

  • Target. Start by breaking down a cable network’s current, or desired, audience into a focused micro-subsections. For Discovery's audience, it might be broken up into groups including: adventure enthusiasts, animal lovers, do-it-yourselfers, etc.
  • Partner. Find an online content partner that caters directly to one or more of the most important and identifiable audience segments. Continuing our example, the ideal adventure enthusiasts segment might be found at www.adventure-journal.com, a leading independent site in the adventure-seeking community.
  • Develop. Take a show idea that is being considered for Discovery, and that works specifically with the content partner’s niche audience and allow the production company, site partner, and network to all help guide the development.
  • Produce and Distribute. Produce a digital version of the series concept (note: this is very different than making a ‘web series.’ The exact look and feel of this digital execution will be based on the TV concept) and distribute it exclusively on the content partner’s site. While not a hard and fast rule, this limited, exclusive distribution gives the highly targeted viewers you want to reach an emotional, personal connection to the content. This is the opposite approach of most digital content distribution strategies, which rely on mass reach to find viewers. Focus the distribution and the audience will feel special. Exclusivity is a valued commodity on the web, particularly with audiences of early adopters and innovators. They don't want to be second to the party.
  • Learn and Launch. Learn from, react to, and embrace this small but focused audience as they watch and engage with the show. Are they gaga for it? Great, we now better understand if this show will work with the broader Discovery audience. Luke-warm? That’s ok too. At least we learned what didn't work and how we might do better with the next show. The best part of this? If the show is good, the audience will be emotionally invested in the show, as they got to see it first and play a major role in moving it forward. They will be your biggest fans and evangelists - and are likely already very influential tastemakers with the rest of the Discovery’s broader audience. You now have a sizable, invaluable springboard for on-air success.
  • It is also possible to further subsidize - or completely recoup - the initial development expenditures related to this model.  Ad dollars generated by pre-roll on these niche sites will make up most of the limited production costs. And of course, even if the show doesn't have signs of a TV future it might have potential to continue in the digital space. Win, win.

There is a lot more to this model, and even application beyond non-fiction cable programming. There are challenges too. It is hard to develop content that works well both on TV and the web. It’s also important to see how this is different than the strategies some networks are taking when they find existing web series and bring them to TV. Furthermore, identifying the right niches and content partners isn’t quite as easy as opening a phone book.  But that’s where the talented team at King Toledo Entertainment comes in. We already working with networks on this strategy, understand the potential problems and know how to work through them. Rather than spill all of our secrets here, I invite you to reach out to us if you want to talk more about micro-cable.