by J. Max Robins
Any senior media executive who wants to know the truth about the so-called cord-cutting phenomenon should've been at Strauss Zelnick's home the other night, where a gathering of New York's digerati provided a handy focus group for how people are connecting with entertainment these days.
A longtime Media Council member, Zelnick frequently hosts evening gatherings for the city's digital-media players. On April 25, he generously opened his home to the Paley Center team and some 75 guests to help us launch Generator, a new membership community for emerging leaders in media (learn more about Generator and see party photos). NBC Universal's Lauren Zalaznick and Thrillist.com's Ben Lerer co-hosted the evening--along with with Zelnick--and will serve on the Generator advisory board along with other guests at the gathering including Foursquare co-founder Naveen Selvadurai, Gawker Media's Nick Denton and Gaby Darbyshire, and former MTV and MySpace exec Jason Hirschhorn.
After dinner, Zalaznick led a discussion about the way viewers through the decades have connected emotionally to TV programming. When she asked how the web is different as a medium for those emotional connections, several in the room pointed to the interactive and communal nature of online consumption. Denton pointed to writer/programmer Paul Ford's recent assertion that the web is essentially a customer-service platform where the default question is "Why wasn't I consulted?"
An essential take-away from the discussion was that the more social media is integrated into our lives, the more vested we are in the programming, and the more we demand is delivered in terms of quality narrative. This is the age of Social TV and the audience wants those who make and distribute the content to acknowledge their voices.
How we watch that quality programming was key to the conversation. "How many of you are cutting the chord?" Zalaznick asked. A third of the hands shot up in the air, breaking along predictable generational lines. Zalaznick--whose new corporate parent, Comcast, has joined other cable operators in watching subscriber numbers erode as programming becomes increasingly available online and via mobile--seemed unfazed.
How could she be? That same day Netflix announced quarterly earnings that revealed the service had 23. 8 million subscribers domestically, which is equal to Comcast, and that it was sending out more programming via the web than those little red envelopes.
Zalaznick is savvy enough to know that ultimately any technology that provides more ways to distribute content is a potential opportunity to reach a wider, more engaged audience and give more value not only to consumers, but to advertisers. And as others in the room pointed out, digital access to on-demand programming has only fed the hunger for--and the emotional connection to--quality programming. It's a point I've made often, and I believe that digital connection has raised the stakes for incumbent networks like those in Zalaznick's NBCU portfolio, as well as upstarts like Netflix. Make good shows, make them easy for us to watch when and where we want, and we will.