Thursday, January 31, 2008

"Reaching" The King

Las Vegas is an odd place.

One week, Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama are campaigning for President of the United States in casinos shaped like castles and pyramids. Ten days later, the people who create or buy television shows from New Delhi to Denver, are tripping over their own demographics as they share a convention center with youthful, snowboarders and skiers, whose fashionable woolen ski-hats outnumbered plastic laminated name badges and NATPE’s bright orange messenger bags.

Odder still, was the juxtipostion of NBC’s Jeff Zucker telling thousands of television industry veterans and newcomers that sweeping change was coming, while in a neighboring room internet guru and former AOL head Bob Pittman, who declared that massive change was on the way in Boston eight years ago at a CTAM conference, came to Vegas—complete with another power point presentation-- to declare television to have a great and profitable future. Such an extreme makeover was rivaled only by the huge, airbrushed billboard of Bette Midler—now appearing at Cesaer’s Palace—making her look younger than when I first saw her perform in 1973.

And content, long ago crowned “king” by Viacom’s Sumner Redstone, was ousted in a quiet coup by “the consumer,” begging the question of for whom all of the content was created in the first place, and whether the networks are willing to push as hard for socially responsible programming on HIV/AIDS, as they are for shows like American Gladiator, Dancing with the Stars, or Biggest Loser. Are those programs what the consumers want, or what the networks want to sell? Does a steady diet of “reality programming” make it more difficult for consumers to digest the daily reality of more people under 30 years old being infected with HIV each day, because less time and resources are available to tell those real-life stories?

Underlying all of the speeches, luncheons, discussions, coffee hours, promos, video clips, and demos at the annual Las Vegas meeting of television programming executives, was the simple challenge of how best to “reach” people who watch TV, surf the web, click on YouTube, or download music into their I-phones--and, how to define “reach.” Tactically, everyone pitching content agreed that “reach” must be across platforms, across time zones, and across cultures. Wherever and whenever consumers were awake, and however “content” was being accessed, we have to be there, was the mantra. Everyone understood the insatiable appetite of the “king.”

But what distinguished NATPE from the tech-world of CES or of an engineer’s conference is the other, even more important meaning of “reach”—of how you get into the hearts and minds of people with a compelling story that touches their lives. Telling stories, making movies for whatever platform is, at the core, a creative process driven by the basic human need of one person to connect on some level—emotional, intellectual, and spiritual—with another. It’s what drives Cable Positive when we create original documentary programs like “Women & HIV”, which Showtime Networks aired”, or our powerful, personal, 30-second telenovellas knows as PSAs, being seen on cable systems and networks in communities across the country.

Technology enables us to extend our reach; telling human stories that can touch people and make all of our lives better, requires us to extend ourselves and expand our vision beyond market share, and more toward using this rich and powerful medium to improve the lives of others.

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