On Global Content And Magnum P.I.

November 14, 2014

I was in London recently and was trying to find something to watch on TV in my downtime. You have your BBCs and British television shows, of course. Many of them are excellent, and many of which I don’t quite understand. (As an example of the “lost in translation” factor — even when it comes to speaking the same language — there was a half-hour show called “Funeral Directors Telling Jokes”. Its existence, in and of itself, was not a joke and was exactly that. Just funeral directors telling their favorite jokes.)

However, beyond the “Downton Abbey,” “Luther,” and “Sherlock” that we all might know, another thing jumps out at you when scrolling through the TV guide: There are a lot of American shows. Not just “Law and Order,” in all its syndicated ubiquity, but, shockingly, “Magnum P.I.” Yes, Tom Selleck’s open Hawaiian shirts and legendary mustache were on. More than that, though, it was on all the time. Every time I flipped on the TV I could find an episode of “Magnum P.I.,” leaving me no other conclusion other than British people love “Magnum P.I.” Like, really really love Tom Selleck.

They’d have to, right? For a TV show that first aired nearly 30 years ago and looks every day its age, there has to be a reason it’s still being shown. There have been not only so many other American shows made, but so many other, better, newer, police shows. How in god’s name does “Magnum P.I.” still have value as content value anywhere in the world, let alone U.K. primetime?

This is partially an example of Chris Anderson’s classic “long tail distribution” model of content: The value of content decreases exponentially, but still exists, the further it moves away from its creation date. Or, content is the most valuable when it first comes out — see “The Avengers”’ opening-weekend box-office haul of $207.4 million, for instance. But, even though it’s less valuable five, 10, or 25 years after it’s created, there is a lot of value captured through time (MGM’s 4,000-plus-title film library generated $488 million in revenue in 2013).

This however, doesn’t capture the actual reasons for why “Magnum P.I.,” over any other piece of content, might be airing in primetime. Just because a piece of library content is cheap to license and air doesn’t mean it should license and air. Especially right now, when anyone can access any content they want, virtually anywhere and anytime, every piece of content is competing with literally every other piece of content ever made. This is a gross simplification, of course, as there are still barriers to entry (price, distribution platform, technology, bandwidth, etc.) that may prevent someone from watching a particular thing, but we live in a world where content has turned into a vast sea. This means that the latest movie out in theaters is competing with a new TV show in primetime, “House of Cards” on Netflix, “Transparent” on Amazon, TV shows in syndication, web series, branded content, commercials, music videos, YouTube — and the list grows each day. This gets even further democratized when global barriers are falling by the minute. Content is being made available day-and-date around the world. Not just films, but TV shows and certainly all digital content.

What does this mean? Well, to take “Magnum P.I.” as an example, I doubt that the show’s creators made the show knowing that in 30 years it would still be playing in round-the-clock syndication in the U.K. Obviously they didn’t have the benefit of a crystal ball, but now we know that content is no longer siloed into specific types. Movies don’t just compete with every other movie out right now, but rather with every other movie, from everywhere in the world that has ever been created. Oh, not to mention all other content.

Simply put, this means that content only has value as much as it’s either a) good or b) relevant. Bad or irrelevant content will die a painfully fast death, because any consumer can find something that is better and more relevant to them. Whiplash-5547.cr2This means that content has to be made with the global audience in mind. This is not to say one can tailor a single piece of content to all people, all over the world. That would be an act of futility. When I was in Amsterdam, for instance, I went and saw “Whiplash,” a fantastic American independent film that won the Grand Jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It was competing against other American films as well as Dutch, Brazilian, Russian and British movies. So while Damien Chazelle, the director of “Whiplash,” didn’t tailor the creation of his movie for this sort of competitive market place, he sure as hell knew that if he didn’t create the best film he could, there was no way it’d stand a chance in a movie theater in Amsterdam.

When we look at branded content specifically, we tend to think of a particular niche we are trying to reach: millennials in the Pacific Northwest, say. In today’s global content landscape though, that simply isn’t good enough. The fact that “Magnum P.I.” is still being beamed into U.K. households is a happy accident for the show’s creators. Today, though, competition for a small slice of a person’s daily content consumption is so fierce that if you don’t think competitively and globally, your content is unlikely to have a very long tail at all.