Anne Sweeney is the most powerful woman in entertainment, according to The Hollywood Reporter. She is also MIPCOM 2011 Personality of the Year, and took the stage in the Grand Auditorium today to give her views on the TV industry, with particular attention paid to the way digital technologies are transforming it – for the better.
“From the beginning, the television business has always been forward-looking – to the next episode, the next season, the next advance in technology that will change everything and take us to a new level,” she said. “That’s why I was drawn to it in the first place, and why I continue to love it.”
Sweeney talked about the changes that have already been made as the industry adapts to digital, including Disney selling its content on iTunes in 2005, as well as streaming it with ads on the NBC.com website, and delivering it to mobile users in South Korea. And she said that the innovation has continued.
“We’ve leveraged technology to create new ways to give viewers what they want, while protecting our content from piracy and generating additional revenue,” said Sweeney. “As a result, the line between content and technology is blurring.”
Sweeney showed the audience a clip from ABC Studios’ new show Missing, which received its global premiere on Monday at MIPCOM, and has already been sold to more than 80 territories, before delivering a resoundingly pro-digital message.
“Digital technology didn’t disrupt our business. It transformed it. Digital didn’t weaken the power of television. It unleashed it. We’re giving people more quality and options than ever before, and they’re responding: tuning in, logging on, downloading, streaming, buying, renting – devouring our content any way they can get it.”
Sweeney claimed that this year, people will watch 140 billion more hours of television than they did last year – 4.5 trillion viewing hours – with a global television audience of 3.7 billion by the end of 2011. “Television, from broadcast to broadband, is now bigger than ever.”
What next, though? Sweeney said that while television is currently the most powerful medium in the world, its next step is becoming the most personal. “There is no one future for television. It will be defined differently for everyone,” she said. “It may be impossible to predict what television will look like five or ten years from now, because the odds are it will look different to everybody.”
Sweeney suggested that the majority of viewers will be happy to watch TV shows on their sets at home, but accepted that “others will want to watch television on every single device they own, and shape the experience to their individual expectations”. And she noted that this demand started with children and young adults who have grown up with these devices.
“This is the tech-savvy, global, multi-generational audience driving the future of our business,” she said. “And every viewer who follows them will expect to personalise their experience too.”
In March this year, Disney launched a Backstage Pass iPhone and iPad app for the Oscars, which were televised by ABC in the US and its partners around the world. The app drew on more than 30 cameras placed around the event. “Viewers using the app could switch between the cameras at will, to get the story they wanted to see,” said Sweeney. “A story unique to them, because it was created by them.”
The app won an Emmy award for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media. Meanwhile, Disney has also been trying to innovate in the social media world too, building Facebook and Twitter sharing into all its digital content sites. Disney is also launching a new section on ABC.com called ‘Discuss’ which pulls in conversations about its shows from these services.
“Our goal is to give fans one easy-to-use location to connect with others around the world and join the discussion anywhere it’s happening,” she said. “We’re focusing on social networks because that’s where our viewers are.” Sweeney cited stats including the fact that 52% of EMEA and Asia Pacific social network users say they have watched a video shared by a friends, while 68% on social networks in Latin America say the same thing.
Sweeney talked about the growth of brands including ABC Family, Disney Channel – a reach of more than 300 million homes in 169 countries – Disney XD and multi-platform brand Disney Junior for preschoolers. In the US, the latter runs across a block on the Disney Channel, a website, video-on-demand, mobile and electronic sell-through (EST).
“Everything we’ve done over the past five years – and everything that comes next – is focused on giving consumers around the world the kind of television they want,” said Sweeney. That includes ABC TV On Demand, a video-on-demand service launched in the UK, Portugal and Germany, offering full seasons of shows including Grey’s Anatomy and Criminal Minds immediately after their broadcast.
“Digital technology has unleashed our power to provide a great personal entertainment experience for every single viewer in the world,” said Sweeney. “Every new opportunity we create for viewers creates new revenue streams for our businesses, and for our partners around the world. The more personalised television gets, the less passive the experience will become. Television has always been something you watch. Now, increasingly, it’s also something you do.”
Sweeney finished her speech by suggesting that embracing digital has given the TV industry the opportunity to define its own destiny. “The future of television is unknown, because its potential is now unlimited.”
The session segued into a Q&A moderated by Anna Carugati, group editorial director at World Screen. She asked how Sweeney instils the desire to try new things and take calculated risks among her teams.
“The Walt Disney company is a very innovative, very exciting place to be,” she replied. “Our boss, Bob Iger, is a huge fan of new technology, and always encourages us to take risks.” But she stressed that the innovation has also come from the people working for Iger and Disney.
Sweeney harked back to the original iTunes announcement in October 2005. “We realised when we were doing the iTunes deal that we have a criteria for working wth people. We want to work with companies that will respect our IP, protecting us from piracy. And we want to work with companies that are strong brands… and who will market their platforms, and not just use our shows to build their businesses.”
Carugati asked about how watching TV is becoming more personal, and the role of linear channels – and how they can remain relevant and important.
“The linear channels need two things: they need strong brands, and those brands need to be very relevant to their consumers. And the second thing they need is great content,” she replied. “We should always be challenging you, or leave you wanting more or asking a question… Keeping your brand fresh and keeping your creative fresh. But… the more devices people have, and use to access content, the more television they watch. That watching is additive to our linear channels, not cannibalistic.”
Sweeney also talked about the ‘Millennial’ generation, who have grown up with technology. That’s who the ABC Family channel is aimed at, with social networking a core part of its offering. It has grown constantly for the last seven years. “I truly believe their success comes from paying attention to this audience,” she said.
Carugati asked about Modern Family and a comeback for comedy. “I do agree with the statement that it probably is the most important comedy since The Cosby Show,” she said. “They are both authentic. These are real families in our world… I think it is a defining show for ABC, and it’s also set a very very high bar for us about what comedy means today.”
The discussion turned to news, and how ABC News has been using Facebook. “Social media was a huge plus here. People didn’t only want to understand the news, they wanted to talk to their friends about it.” ABC News used Facebook Connect during the US election and the Michael Jackson memorial service, to help people watch while chatting to friends.
Carugati asked about Sweeney’s management style. “I do believe that we are all responsible for each other’s successes and failures,” she said about her team at Disney. She has touted the idea of executives being “stapled” to each other – thankfully not literally – “to be successful they needed to be in constant communication”.
Sweeney also talked of her pleasure at returning to MIPCOM – she was a regular attendee earlier in her career as a buyer. “It’s always been very important to me. It is our time to renew those relationships, to talk about the future. We’re always talking about the future at MIPCOM. We’re always talking about what’s next, what’s new.”