NEW YORK — Conan O’Brien, as he often aims to do, was saying what others wouldn’t.
“I like their slogan,” the TBS host said at the WarnerMedia upfront Wednesday, offering a quip about his bosses’ attempt to go digital. “It’s ‘Make WarnerMedia your seventh streaming service.’”
The company hasn’t actually chosen a slogan yet for its forthcoming platform. But the line got a big laugh anyway — and for good reason. Hovering above the upfront, at which executives and stars hype upcoming programs to ad buyers, were two questions. How will WarnerMedia’s very traditional Madison Avenue dog-and-pony show fit with its large plans for a subscription streaming service?
And, as O’Brien noted, will digitally overloaded consumers even want to pay for one in the first place?
They will be asked to do just that beginning later this year as WarnerMedia, under new parent AT&T and CEO John Stankey, prepares to launch its still-unnamed streaming service. (“StankeyVision,” O’Brien offered.)
WarnerMedia occupies a unique position when it comes to streaming. It is not Disney, with waterfalls of big consumer brands that people will rush to pay seven dollars a month to watch. It is not Netflix, with its rafts of upscale content and (for now) deep library of hits that make people think nothing of turning over $13 monthly.
It is the company of TNT and CNN, Adult Swim and TBS — of a lot of solid shows that may or may not be enough to draw people to open their wallets every four weeks.
And as was on display Wednesday, a lot of shows that still rely on traditional advertising dollars.
To solve this first question — let’s call it the middle-ground problem — WarnerMedia wants to combine the power of a cable platform with the buzz of a streaming service. Kevin Reilly, its streaming czar, outlined what he believes are the benefits to having both..
"There’s a lot of great television out there,” he said Wednesday at the event, held at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. “But there’s also a binge-and-burn mentality that will [kill] the impact of even the best content. We’re looking to be the antidote to that.”
In layman’s terms: Netflix shows get lost. Ours won’t.
The reason they won’t, he said, is because a streaming show might play on a WarnerMedia cable network a few months later, promoting both platforms in a “virtuous circle of engagement.”
Or another hybrid: Advertising will be sold on the streaming platform. (That would come only in the “second release” of the service next year, Stankey told the assembled Wednesday.)
Such advertising could also take new forms, like underwriting, or single ads at the beginning of shows that reduce a user’s monthly fee when watched, or other ideas that TV executives have lately been bandying about to attract advertisers.
On Wednesday, at least, WarnerMedia sought to woo Madison Avenue the old-fashioned way: with splashy programming. The company announced a “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” spinoff; renewals for Tracy Morgan’s “The Last O.G.” and the animated “Rick and Morty;” and a two-season order of “Snowpiercer,” an adaptation of the post-apocalyptic cult movie that now stars Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly.
In a sign that WarnerMedia is trying to throw out the old silos, the company will put that very dramatic show on TBS, which spent much of the past decade being remade as a comedy brand.
But these shows and others like them will also live on the streaming service. And that’s where the second question comes in.
O’Brien is right to wonder if a seventh (more likely, third) option will interest audiences. Streaming services have succeeded either with a few can’t-miss shows or a very deep bench. And WarnerMedia may flirt with both but not quite achieve either.
(Incidentally, a strong alternative to Disney and Netflix is probably a good thing for consumers — that kind of competition tends to keep the creative market hot and retail prices low.)
Yet Warner does hold some weapons in its pocket. It can pull (eventually) its library shows from Netflix and put them on its own service. The company couldn’t bite the bullet and lose all that licensing revenue on “Friends” a few months ago. But it might well be more willing once its platform is up and running.
There also are some potentially creative bundles with corporate sibling HBO, which already has its own well-established digital product in HBO Now.
Don’t sleep on CNN either: WarnerMedia’s service can offer the proposition of live news coverage that many of its competitors can’t.
And given Disney+'s family-friendly lane, and Netflix’s lack of a distinct programming niche, WarnerMedia may find itself with a little more open space.
“We know video consumption is changing, technology is changing and our business models are changing,” Stankey said Wednesday. “But the need to connect with passionate consumers is not changing.”
Certainly not. The question is where they’ll direct those passions.