with Sean Atkins, senior vice president of digital media at Discovery Communications
Sean Atkins has been working at Discovery Communications for five years and focuses on three areas: native digital content, original digital video connected to popular TV series, and branded entertainment. He helps run Internet video network Revision3, which Discovery acquired in May 2012, as well as overseeing the production of original Web series tied to Discovery's most popular programs and coordinating with advertisers to create custom content. He spoke with Fierce editor Mariko Hewer about digital video trends, native content and the impatient nature of the digital viewership.
FierceCable: Is Discovery planning to create a TV everywhere app like HBO Go or WatchESPN?
Sean Atkins: I don't do most of the core distribution work, which is attached to the TV everywhere applications, but we are already in tests with, I believe, Comcast.
FierceCable: If Discovery does create such a product or app, is that something you think could be economically viable?
Sean Atkins: We actually make a lot of apps which are pretty successful for us. We always take a look at what the audience want, what is the business model that's possible, and what's the right alignment. The TV Everywhere alignment is all about partnering with our distribution partners and doing the right kind of experience and revenue models that work for long-form streamed linear content. Our view towards the business is that there's going to be a lot of different models and a lot of consumption patterns and we're going to align the right content to the right experience to the right business model, depending on the time and the place that it's happening.
FierceCable: How have you seen the online video industry taking shape over the past several years and what do you see as the most important developments?
Sean Atkins: I think that the online video business, like every video category that's come forward, is going through its natural evolution. In general, if you sort of look at the evolution, whether it's TV or movie, it is certainly quality evolution from a consumer side. On the business side, I think we're going through the same machinations; we're trying to figure out what are the right business models. Is it ad support? Is it subscription? Is it a little bit of both? What are the right distribution mechanisms? One of the most fascinating things for those who are participating in this business has been the proliferation of ways consumers like to get to their video, whether that's tablets, OTT, YouTube, iTunes. There's so many different consumption patterns; it's not as simple as some of the platforms that have come before.
FierceCable: What are ways in which you could see the evolution of the industry playing out this year as it continues to mature?
Sean Atkins: I think one of the exciting things right now is, to make up a word, the video-fication of everything. It ranges from consumers doing it, from prosumers doing it, to big media companies getting involved. I think this makes for an exciting space. If you look across the next year, I think you're going to see more media investment in the space. I believe Discovery started a lot of that investment with the big media guys when we bought into Revision 3 last May, and we've continued to invest heavily. As this business is maturing and audiences are aggregating, large media players being in that business are naturally drawn towards it. I also think that the continual emergence of what I would call "native talent" in the marketplace is going to accelerate. That ranges from people doing Kickstarter campaigns and building their audiences to people who were born in this new medium and have built direct relationships with their audiences. This leads to the acceleration of the third thing we keep an eye on, which is that this platform is very different than those who have come before, where the creators or distributors are direct with the audience. This is sort of a new experience for the industry.
FierceCable: What is Discovery doing to advance its online video strategy and differentiate itself from others that are in the space?
Sean Atkins: Discovery is in a unique position. The core mission and DNA of the company has always been about being the No. 1 non-fiction company and satisfying human curiosity. That hasn't changed for 30 years. We're in a lucky position in that not only is non-fiction one the exploding areas of this business, but also that the ability to speak authentically and use real hosts and own your content is what Discovery has been for the last 30 years. It's a very natural movement for us; it's just a part of what we do in our everyday business. So I think that sort of early-mover status and continuing to invest in the space is just what you're going to continue to see from us. We're going to invest heavily around our core properties, our core brands, our core talents, and really bring experiences to our consumers who want to be superfans and want to be immersed in that experience. We're going to bring new properties to our audiences; we're going to superserve them on the platforms that they're looking for that content on. And then we're going to partner with our advertisers and help them get engaged with our consumer access, with our brand access and our production capabilities.
FierceCable: Are there any industry examples that you look to when making decisions about your online video strategy?
Sean Atkins: Anybody who is doing something exciting with audiences, something exciting with advertisers or something exciting with their varying distribution platforms, we keep a very big eye on. That's the three-legged stool for success. We're really interested in what advertisers are starting to do; you're seeing more and more exciting video ad products coming out. We really keep looking at what the major advertising partners and the major trade entities are doing in that space. We also pay a lot of attention, as you would imagine, to YouTube and Apple and AOL and MSN and Xbox, the people who are sort of partial gatekeepers, at least in traditional digital video, to how you build audiences. We're looking at the ways they're learning to access social components. Those are all things we take a look at because we want to know how to get to those audiences and speak to them organically. People who are about building large communities and providing them content, we find fascinating.
FierceCable: What do you see as the major challenges in general and specifically with regard to Discovery?
Sean Atkins: The challenges are really two key things. One, the whole industry is trying to find the right economic model. What is the right way to bring high-quality content to the audiences that desire it in a way that creates a successful economic model? Some think it's all ad-supported, some think it's distribution partnerships, and being a company that has almost every business model within its DNA, we're luckily very open. We're going to try all of them. The other thing that is one of the pain points if you talk to the creators and distributors and producers is, we are in an infinite channel universe, and so all of a sudden, audiences, getting your message out on the marketplace is, you could argue, almost more mission-critical than making the content itself, and so that's a real big challenge for all of us in the space. At Discovery we have massive platforms and a massive digital footprint that we can already support our initiatives on, but as an industry as a whole, how do you make sure the audiences get the content they're looking for when there's sort of infinite access? It's a little overwhelming from the consumer side as well, I think. We're going to sort through that for quite a while, but it's a big challenge.
FierceCable: Can you give me some examples where Discovery has been successful, either on the content side or the economic side?
Sean Atkins: One of the great examples we like to talk about is that we do something called "aftershows" with the original studio team. This came out of the notion that if you're a fan of one of our linear shows, such as "Deadliest Catch," or "Gold Rush," or "Long Island Medium," you sort of don't want the experience to end just at the end of the one-hour program. How do you go deeper? We started this "aftershow" program, and it extends the experience and gives additional content. It's proven another model where our network partners can reassemble that experience and put it on air.
FierceCable: As you start out in the online video space, what do you think are the most important things to help you succeed?
Sean Atkins: I think you have to go into any new business that you're in that's not necessarily your direct core competency having the honesty of what we don't know. What Discovery's culture is very good about is this sort of innate honesty of what we know and what we don't know. I think the key thing at being successful in digital video is sometimes we need to take a breath and realize how early we are. We have a tendency to measure it by the stick of the media that's come before, but if we're honest about expanded cable, it took 30 years to get from repeats to "The Walking Dead." But everybody's running around in online video going, "Where's my [equivalent of] 'The Walking Dead'?" We're like two years old. We're going to get there probably faster, but I don't know if it's going to be in 18 months. The consumers are coming up to speed faster than most media adoption is, and the business models are catching up. We're naturally impatient to get digital media.