What Is Your TV Show’s Superpower?

By Jim Sarantinos • May 9, 2022

(Repost) Produced By Conference at Warner Bros. Studios to discuss the state of our industry. A comprehensive panel discussed with some senior industry executives on the future of producing film and TV shows. The panel comprised of Agnes Chu (Disney+), Craig Erwich (Hulu), Vernon Sanders (Amazon Studios), Michel Wright (EPIX) and moderated by Chris Thomes (ABC Studios).

Cutting Through The Clutter

A study by Deloitte claimed, “47%  of American viewers are growing frustrated by the number of subscription services required to watch what they want.” How do consumers cut through the clutter and decide what to watch and which streaming service to subscribe to?

Disney+ is a premium branded service offering both an extensive library and original content from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and National Geographic. We provide “epic story worlds and storytelling to our viewers,” asserted Chu.

“Hulu is looking for original programming that gets the conversation going,” added Erwich. “We’re trying to remove the frustration of cutting through the clutter by providing a deeply personal experience.”

“Amazon has a special relationship with our customers,” according to Sanders. “We are an enhancement to our trading platform. We don’t want to be known as a service that has so much content that you can’t get through it. We are thoughtful and precise about the kinds of content we’re making. Amazon started out as a bookseller, so storytelling, authorship, voice vision are things that are important to us. We’re looking for shows that make you feel you’ve been transported somewhere.”

“For us [EPIX], it’s about addressable markets [television and lovers of films studios rarely make] through ‘familiar surprise.’ That is, film or TV which has a recognizable element, but has been executed in a way that shows a voice at work that elevates it and makes it feel different,” said Wright.

How Niche Is Too Niche?

“Disney+’s storytelling operates on two audience layers and appeals to both children and adults,” said Chu. “We are also developing unscripted shows that appeal to more targeted audiences because that is required on a streaming service.”

“For Hulu, it’s more about our portfolio than our audience. We have things that appeal to smaller audiences and people’s moods. We look at the balance of what we have.”

Amazon doesn’t subscribe to the concept of niche programming. “We look at ways to make our shows more inclusive,” said Sanders.  “Sometimes the term niche is used to say ‘this kind of audience isn’t big enough to warrant producing content for them’. We don’t subscribe to that philosophy. We believe that we can support those smaller stories if, in those stories, there is something incredibly accessible. ‘Niche’ TV shows like Transparency and Fleabag have amazed us in terms of the passion of the audience. We try not to get locked into the traditional thinking of small versus big.”

“For EPIX, one of our primary goals is building awareness. There are some shows that are ‘too niche’. It’s a matter of the function of the show. Sometimes a TV show isn’t about attracting the biggest audience, it’s more about making a lot of noise. There are shows that have been critical hits but have a small audience. They raise awareness and shine the right kind of light on it,” declared Michael Wright.

New Voices

Disney+ encourages new entrants to their brand. This is often facilitated through partnerships with established brand creators.

Craig Erwich expounds, “it’s our job to discover new voices. The audience demands it. The key for Hulu is to create an environment to find them.”

Vernon Sanders loves the differences between network and streaming TV. Broadcast networks have high-demand time and budget constraints which often make it difficult to develop new writers and content creators. “The luxury of time has been one of the biggest surprises of working at Amazon,” said Sanders. “We can follow up with new screenwriters, take our time developing scripts and find the right partner. Our process might take over a year before filming something. We’re also making deals with producers who can work with these screenwriters. It’s all very intentional.”

Michael Wright agrees “Time is your friend in the streaming space. The fun of this job is when you discover a new writer or a new voice. The best work is always coming from a passionate and singular point of view. You put that person to work and see that voice come to life on the screen. We all need to do a better job to nurture and teach those voices. We need to find them and find homes for those voices.”

Big Data

There is no doubt that streamers can be swamped with massive amounts of data. While this has its place, it doesn’t always drive the creative process. Audiences are fickle and data is retrospective. The same audience who may not be in the mood for one show at the time of data collection may watch it during the next data collection period. Craig Erwich said “we use data to see how audiences use the platform and why audiences are not satisfied yet. We use data to elevate our radar for what’s out there, but we don’t use it to influence our creative choices.”

Our shows are delivered by machines, but made by humans – Hulu

Amazon uses data in a different way. “For instance, when we’re adapting a book, we look at data to determine what things audiences are most passionate about,” stated Sanders. “It doesn’t determine what we’re doing. That always comes from that gut place, but the insights of data can be helpful. Some creators lean into such data, but some don’t want to be influenced. It’s all in service to the creative process.”

“Once an Amazon TV show is on air, we give our producers some viewing data so they get some sense of how their show is doing in terms of our expectations.” Sanders warns against an over reliance of metrics and figures which can hinder the creative process.

“Hulu collects data on the user experience. On the home page of any platform, you see a certain amount of content. You have to scroll. It’s helpful to know what’s bumping against users and what’s not. On the development side, we’re not there yet in terms of translating data points into creative choices,” said Craig.

Amazon prides itself on being as knowledgeable about the artist as possible and working out how they do what they do. “We hire people for their voice. You don’t want to muscle them into something they don’t want to do. We give them notes to enhance their vision rather than re-engineer it,” declared Sanders.

The beauty of the Amazon business model is that “we are not scaled. We’re in the curation business. We don’t want content that pushes an Amazon shopping experience onto our viewers.”

Value Of Brand Experiences

Amazon’s foundations were built on storytelling. It follows that Amazon “is a place writers can bring their passion projects to and have a wonderful experience regardless of whether it’s produced or not.”

Hulu remains agnostic. However, it does place special value on original series. “They represent what Hulu stands for and what Hulu aspires to stand for,” said Erwich. “We have been able to define our brand through our original TV shows such as The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Disney+ will always be led by “umbrella brands,” said Chu. “The Disney brand remains very elastic. It represents a variety of perspectives, storytelling formats, and genres. It is flexible and fluid. We want to be able to tell all kinds of stories under that brand.”

Each streaming service does not exist in a silo. “We’re working closely with the documentary producers of ‘The Summer Club’ which is making content for Disney+. Part of the conversation was that they may be a better fit for Hulu.”

Evolution Of The Business

“The most positive change has been the empowerment of voices,” said Michael Wright. “How do you handle discovery with so many new voices and different points of view? The has shifted to the content creators. if you have a story to tell and a voice to tell it, there’s never been a better time for that.”

For Vernon Sanders, seeing people of color in decision-making positions has been the biggest change he’s seen. “It makes a difference when writers pitch a project to someone who looks like them. The other thing is the passion of people making television and blurring the line separating film and TV writers.”

“I love the fact that we’re in a world now that we can immediately gratify a viewer. They have so much choice and access,” said Chu.

Streaming television has been more flexible than it’s ever been before, more creative, new stories that have never been told. It’s a powerhouse for those writers who have a storytelling vision.

Chris Thomes added that diversity isn’t simply a matter of gender or ethnicity. The new crop of screenwriters see the world in a particular way. “The manner in which stories are told has also changed. You need an eye and ear for the changing nature of storytelling itself. Are you telling a story in a way that makes people talk to each other?” 

Disney+ is developing a TV show about a Cuban-American girl who dreams of being president one day. “It’s a delightful story of what it’s like being a girl with dreams,” said Chu. “We’re increasingly showcasing stories of the world around us. We’re looking for stories of optimism and bringing people together.”

“It’s Hulu’s culture that demands us to take chances. I still can’t believe that thoroughly entertaining shows like Transparency are on air,” said Erwich. “They remind everyone at Hulu to take risks and to think out of the box.”

Amazon “tells us to think differently rather than assume that an audience won’t respond to something,” continued Sanders. “Global stories really enhance our culture. Our goal is to partner with content creators and cross geographic boundaries. Writers should bring their projects to us with a sense of excitement at the possibility of a yes. We can’t greenlight everything.”

EPIX is more humble in their approach. “Always think from a place of humility and community. You don’t have all the answers. You don’t know everything,” added Wright.

Pitching Your Vision

Screenwriters will always have to fine-tune their pitching skills, whether it’s an elevator pitch or an extended blueprint of a TV series. It’s important to have a vision of a show beyond the TV pilot.  Make your pitch memorable.

“We’re hearing the best of the best ideas. Writers should consider what is the most compelling, unique offering you can present to buyers? Is it a story not being told?” advised Vernon Sanders.

“We had a team sing the pilot episode of a musical series during a pitch. it showed the passion and artistry of the pitch that can bring to life your vision,” recalled Chu. “I want to see the passion and see the possibilities.”

EPIX’s Michael Wright concluded with more simple pitching advice. “What is your show’s superpower? What are people going to start talking about?“

Jim Sarantinos