Michael Grebb

It’s 5 days later, and people are still complaining about NBC’s live “Sound of Music Live!”—you know, the one that looked like a soap opera collided with a 1970s variety show, assuming robotic crane camera rigs had existed back then. Star Carrie Underwood even took on the haters on Twitter, declaring that they need to find Jesus and that she would pray for them. That’s very Maria the Nun of you, Carrie.

One person whose prayers were definitely answered last Thurs: NBC chief Bob Greenblatt, an ex-cable guy who appropriately has also produced Broadway plays. NBC’s Sound of Music Live’s whopping 18.6 million viewers makes it a near certainty that NBC will do it all again next year. And while the critics and the Internet masses will no doubt skewer the next one mercilessly, who cares?! NBC certainly won’t. Because this is a ratings game. And bad press or not, publicity is publicity. Advertisers will be lining up for the next one and paying big bucks.
The Sound of Music stunt reminds brands that live can drive big numbers. As we near the NFL playoffs and eventually the biggest live event of the year, The Super Bowl, it’s important to understand how powerful live programming has become. Quality doesn’t really matter as much in the live environment because by the time someone figures out that something sucks, it’s already over. They’ve already watched. The Nielsen ratings are already in. And the network has moved on to the next live event with the full knowledge that people will tune in once again, blindly hoping the next live awards show doesn’t include Miley French kissing a massive stuffed animal.
All of this begs the question: In a multiplatform and on-demand world, does live programming simply present a better business model? Advertisers know that people are much more likely to watch their ads (or at least “absorb” them) in a live environment than an on-demand one. To what degree that’s a function of the current limitations around digital ad insertion is neither here nor there. Advertisers operate in the current reality. And that reality dictates that live awards programs, sporting events, reality competitions and yes… even live holiday stunts featuring Nazis and the Von Trapps… present enormous value to brands that want to capture those fickle and short-attention-span hobbled eyeballs.
So is live going to take over? Is VOD and binge viewing doomed to die a slow death as companies realize they can’t monetize it as well as live? Hardly. What’s happening is a business-model split in which certain kinds of advertising messages work best in the live environment, and other types of branding finds its way into on-demand fare. The first practical application of dynamic ad insertion literally just arrived—and that will level the playing field considerably over the next year or two. That comes as several cable operators roll out cloud-based navigation that greatly improves the VOD experience. Advertisers will figure out what works best in each environment and plan accordingly.
In the end, live and non-live content work cooperatively together for the common good. Live shows and appointment viewing drives 30-second spots and even local advertising to a large degree. But on-demand and binge viewing builds and strengthens audiences, eventually leading to more live tune-in and higher advertising rates. This synergistic combo means more TV viewing across the board, which is good for everyone in the media business. Even if it means we’ll have to sit through “Grease Live!” next December, starring Lindsay Lohan as Sandy. Pray for us, Carrie. Pray for us.
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX. You can follow him on Twitter at @michaelgrebb).

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