Former Viacom CEO and current Firefly3 principal Tom Freston is gearing up to deliver the keynote address at the 2014 PromaxBDA Conference in New York City on June 10. He spoke with Brief’s Max Follmer ahead of the Conference to discuss the challenges facing television marketers, his work with VICE Media, and whether we really are in a Golden Age of Television.
Brief: Looking at the television industry in 2014, what’s the thing that should be at the front of every marketer’s mind?
Tom Freston: Here we are in the so-called ‘golden age of television,’ and that’s sort of a mixed blessing if you are a programmer because the competition is all that more intense. You have too worry about the content. Is it good? Is it engaging? Is it telling a good story? But just as important is the marketing of it in the face of this new environment, with so many new premium content producers — not only the cable networks that are increasingly getting into scripted programming beyond the AMCs and the FXs of the world, but Hulu and Amazon and Microsoft/Xbox and Netflix. I guess it will always be more confusing and more difficult as time goes on to be successful in the television business.
What are some of examples of great television marketing that you’ve seen in the past year?
One has to note the great success of ‘The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.’ They seem to be — despite the fact that they’re on a legacy broadcast network — utilizing every modern trick of the book in terms of marketing a television property. They have recast it as a variety show with him at the center, playing off his personality; He’s a song and dance man and he makes himself so available. He’s a perfect guy to market a show around in the DVR world — where a lot of people are watching late night [programming] now not in late night — and in a world where digital shorts are things that create buzz that can do things. They’ve been almost unparalleled in their ability to keep a high visibility of pieces floating around the web virally. ‘The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon’ has been one of the greatest handovers in TV history.
As an aside, I don’t watch “The Tonight Show” but I’m still aware of what’s going on because I see the clips the next day.
The idea that people are going to be watching anything other than their own personal network when they want to watch it is going to be obsolescent. In a way you could say that since the beginning of television back in the ‘50s the trend has always been for more consumer control. And tech has always allowed that to happen. We’re so far down this continuum now the viewer almost has total convenience.
Should that be exciting or terrifying for people in the television industry?
I think that depends on your point of view. I think if you’re at ‘The Tonight Show’ you say ‘this is really exciting; we have a show that’s on at a point in time when a lot of people are sleeping and we can reach all those people who are sleeping online or via on-demand viewing.’ So, in a way, the reach and impact has dramatically broadened. You’re not just tied to your time slot.
I want to switch to the work you’ve been doing with VICE Media. How were you introduced to them and what attracted you to the company?
I first met [co-founder and CEO] Shane [Smith] back in 2005 when I was the CEO of Viacom, and I had noted and enjoyed their first really low-profile foray into video. video foray. It was a DVD — The Vice Guide to Travel. It had a great spirit and a subversive sense to it.
I was also attracted to Shane and his partners on a personal level. I liked the vision they had then: forget the platforms that are coming at us left and right. Nobody is making stuff for the web on a premium basis at internet prices. And I thought someone has to fill up the pipe, and their vision was to do that. [Under Freston, Viacom bought a stake in VICE, which VICE bought back when Freston left Viacom in 2007. He then joined VICE as an advisor]
I see them as real innovators, as the first wave of what I think will be a lot of online premium content producers. They have this whole international footprint that throws these ideas back up to them. They’ve become really good storytellers and editors. They’ve created this wonderful platform. It reminds me of my early days at MTV Networks.
Part of their brilliance is they determined that rather than being an aggregator, they wanted to be a producer and they wanted to control the production from top to bottom — not just make some video segments on this, that, or the other and go out to any number of the independent production companies. If you want to have a distinctive style and voice, better to control it yourself in the early stages of your business.
Are we really in the “golden age of television?”
There’s no question about that. We’re very much not in the golden age of feature films. Back in the ‘70s and in the ’80s all of the cool and interesting things were in the movies, and TV was sort of for kids. And now, more and more, it seems like the movies are for kids with all these action films and franchise pictures. The thoughtful, interesting stuff and the new barriers being broken are on television. If you want to talk about quality and sheer quantity, there’s no age that comes close to television now. And I know that’s a big challenge for the people laying down tens of millions of dollars to produce series because now you’ve got all kinds of people doing versions of the same things and it’s hard to have a hit, and we as viewers are reaping the benefits of all this. I can’t believe the amount of great content that’s out there; you don’t have time to watch it all.
What’s on Tom Freston’s DVR?
Of course, I watch ‘VICE.’ I watch ‘Girls.’ I watch ‘Bill Maher.’ I’m still a fan of ‘Frontline’ and ‘60 Minutes.’ I like Anthony Bourdain on CNN… ‘Mad Men’ i’m just winding down on that one… I’m a victim of not having enough time to watch everything. ‘Fargo’ is the new show I’ve been getting into.
Tom Freston is a principal of Firefly3, an investment and consultancy firm focusing on the media and entertainment industries. He is the former CEO of Viacom Inc., where he also served as COO. For 17 years, Freston was chairman and CEO of MTV Networks, MTV, Nickelodeon, VH1, Comedy Central and other networks. Prior to that, Freston ran a textile business in Afghanistan and India.
Currently, he is board chairman of the ONE Campaign, an advocacy organization to fight extreme poverty and serves on the boards of DreamWorks Animation, Moby Media in Afghanistan, VICE Media in New York and is also a Trustee of The Asia Society. He was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in 2010. In 2005 Freston was cited in the “Time” magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” issue. Freston writes a monthly travel column “On the Road” for “Vanity Fair.”