Large corporations’ priorities are testing creative freedom as more shows than ever compete for attention in the “Peak TV” era and video becomes a critical C-level focus. Exhibit A is Apple, which according to a report yesterday from the NY Post, is vexing creators with an abundance of suggestions (or “notes” in industry parlance) on their shows. The notes, which apparently include some from CEO Tim Cook himself, tend to emphasize Apple’s desire to keep shows “family friendly.”
The goal makes perfect sense; nothing is more important to Apple than its brand image. The prospect of seeing an “Apple Original” icon in the opening credits, followed by an opening scene including profanity, violence or nudity, would be a jarring juxtaposition. Yet this is the “Peak TV” world we now live in; with so many shows competing for viewers’ time, those that are most original and creative, and yes, often include attention-grabbing early scenes, stand out (for a point of reference recall that in the first minutes of Netflix’s “House of Cards” pilot, Kevin Spacey’s character puts a wounded dog out of its misery with his own hands).
The stakes are even higher for Apple, not solely because it is coming to video extremely late, but also because iPhone sales have slowed considerably and the company is betting on “services” revenue, including those from its nascent video initiatives, to become an important new growth engine.
While Apple is a top example of the balancing act between unfettered creative freedom and corporate agendas, there are plenty of others. In the past few days we’ve seen AT&T begin a substantial reorganization at HBO, Turner and WarnerMedia, with key creative executives like HBO CEO Richard Plepler departing.
With its acquisitions of DirecTV and TimeWarner, AT&T has bet its future heavily on video. The company must deliver cost reductions while at the same time ramping up its role in the fast-changing video industry as it intends to do with WarnerMedia’s pending streaming service. HBO is a cornerstone in this strategy. As AT&T talked about needing to expand HBO’s content breadth, Plepler’s memorable response that “more is not better, only better is better.” In other words, corporate leaders must treat the unique creative process delicately and proceed cautiously.
Disney is yet another company where creative freedom will be tested under a new paradigm of corporate priorities. Disney is not only planning to launch Disney+ but is also consolidating its ownership in Hulu with the Fox deal. Which shows/movies will land on which services, and according to which standards? For now Disney has indicated that family-oriented programming will be on Disney+ while edgier fare will be on Hulu (e.g. “The Handmaid’s Tale). But it remains to be seen in practice how Disney will actually manage the details of creative projects depending on their distribution choice.
In the background for Apple, AT&T and Disney are the massive “Peak TV” investments in original content by Netflix, Amazon and others (all of which have their own distinct corporate priorities) and their hard work to develop the perception of “creative-friendly” environments. The rush of A-list talent to these services suggests that perception has become reality for many creatives. No doubt the large budgets these services have lavished on talent and productions haven’t hurt either.
The industry is entering a new phase where some of the most storied brands are owned by, and celebrated talent work for, large corporate entities that have multifaceted priorities and agendas. How this all ultimately shakes out for creative freedom is anyone’s best guess.