Netflix & Binge
How TV Became a Contender for Brand Partnership Budgets
There was a time when TV just wasn’t considered a consumer passion. Certainly not in the league of sport, music or films and certainly not from the perspective of a brand looking to invest in passion marketing to leverage fan love through association.
Advertising? Yes. Programme ‘sponsorship’? Kind of. But genuine sponsor cut-through and value remained elusive bar the odd exception in the form of long-running commercial shows such as the X Factor.
This is largely because the TV industry has habitually been the poor cousin of the film industry, maybe not always in terms of commercial success, but undeniably in terms of production values and talent.
Even as little as five years ago, A list film actors wouldn’t be seen dead in a TV series because it could be considered career-ending.
TV offered too limited an opportunity compared to the truly global nature of the big screen.
So, whilst audiences have forever been committed to specific shows and series, there was less of an incentive for brands to build an association with TV, nor, crucially, a compelling reason to do so.
That is until now.
The second season Stranger Things, which premiered in the UK in October, boasted a host of high profile brand partnerships creating hype akin to that of a Bond movie.
Topshop dressed its flagship Oxford Street store and created immersive experiences inspired by the characters and storyline; Reebok released a limited-edition shoe and PlayStation hosted binge-screening events, while a slew of other brands formed official partnerships that granted permission to create social content inspired by the show.
In a similar vein, the much anticipated second series of The Crown premiered in late November at Odeon Leicester Square with more fanfare and no-expense-spared glamour than any movie premiere at the same venue in the last 3 years.
So what happened? How did the TV industry threaten to overtake the movie industry in such a short period of time?
We rewind by a decade or more to the US where the sheer scale of audiences and plethora of channel choices has long cultivated a successful commercial TV industry built on quality programming.
For many years the likes of HBO and ABC produced drama at a different level to anything we were experiencing in the UK but a watershed moment came when Channel 4 paid for the UK rights to JJ Abrams’ sci-fi drama series Lost and UK audiences quickly became hooked on the quality of writing and cliff-hanger show structures.
Lost blazed a trail that other series such as The Wire and Breaking Bad followed and the box-set consumption culture was born.
This coincided with the expansion of broadband capabilities that meant downloading and streaming television shows became a viable rather than excruciatingly painful viewing experience.
Consequently, the TV landscape exploded with a variety of cable, top boxes and TV apps options. Netflix – previously a mail rental subscription service like Love Film (or Amazon Prime) – took a huge gamble to move its entire operation online, becoming a streaming-only content provider.
But its biggest bet was the decision to focus on producing original programming and to create its own, radically different commercial framework in which to do so.
Unlike its forbears in high-quality drama production, ABC and HBO, Netflix created a commercial model that doesn’t rely on advertising revenue, the cornerstone of American television economics for decades.
This enabled the format of its shows to feel genuinely different to anything that viewers had experienced before. Without the need to create cliff-hangers for every ad break, shows’ writers could luxuriate in building a narrative arc without interruption, inspiring a deeper level of concentration from the viewer.
The final catalyst was when Netflix made the decision to release an entire series in one go, making all episodes immediately available on-demand. The release of House of Cards represented a huge shift in what we could expect from our TV programming.
Not only did it boast exceptionally high production-standards (from the same production company, owned by Kevin Spacey, that made feature films such as The Social Network) but the incredible writing and a cast littered with A listers meant the opportunity to consume ten hours of gripping narrative in short succession proved irresistible to millions.
And like any addiction, the more you feed it, the worse it gets.
The more we watch the more they make. Netflix has increased its original programming from four shows in 2012 to 136 in 2016. The ‘Netflix effect’ is having a real impact on the quality of British drama productions, driving up some budgets to £3-4 million an episode and attracting established Hollywood stars such as Thandie Newton.
And the more they make, the more impassioned we become, trying to stay on top of the gripping storylines, desperate not to fall behind and out of the loop in the TV chat at work and on social media where, for example, 40% of all twitter traffic is now related to TV content.
Binge-watching behaviour is no different to that of any other fan behaviour, whether that be a music fan downloading or streaming their favourite artists’ new album the day of its release or Star Wars fans booking cinema tickets to watch the new episode at the IMAX months in advance.
We read, we talk, we obsess over teasers and trailers, we see it all over our social feeds and we clear our diaries to watch the first episodes (or indeed entire series) as soon as it comes out so we can talk about it with all of our friends.
This is true fandom, and this is when it gets interesting for brands.
We know people are more engaged by the things they love and for years brands have been leveraging that insight to engage their customers through their passions.
If this is done in an authentic way that adds value to fans’ experiences of television, brands can be part of that passion and they will be rewarded through consideration, loyalty and advocacy.
Now TV has a place at the table along with sport, music, film and increasingly gaming, as a genuine contender for a brand’s sponsorship investment.
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