Eilenberg has created some of the most groundbreaking shows on television. What’s happening now as a result of new entrants, new platforms and shifting consumer tastes?
The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.
Andrew Whitehouse: David.
David Eilenberg: Hi, Andy.
Eilenberg: Should we watch the video?
Whitehouse: Oh, I guess we are going to watch the video first. Great.
[VIDEO PLAYING 0:00:03.7–0:02:02.8]
Eilenberg: So Andy, thank you for making time amongst the frivolity of earlier for the serious topic of reality television. I’m very happy to be here.
Whitehouse: So hi, everyone. We’re here to talk about TV, some of David’s shows there. First of all, perhaps for those people in the room who aren’t from the UK, maybe say a word about what ITV is, the place you work, and your role there.
Eilenberg: Sure. So ITV is a big media company based in the UK. In the UK, it’s also a major network, so the equivalent to, you know, NBC or CBS here. It also owns production companies, studios, and distribution units around the world, including in the US, where I believe we produce more hours of unscripted content now across our many labels than any other company. And that’s for, as you saw, a variety of platforms from Netflix to Fox to HDTV.
Whitehouse: And what do you do for ITV?
Eilenberg: I’m the chief creative officer of ITV America, so I work with all of our labels across sort of creating, selling, and producing our shows.
Whitehouse: Okay, so let’s start—this session’s all about the future of television, and that’s both what we might see but also how we’re going to see it. But I think we should start by looking back over your career. So you’ve been in television for 20 years. How would you characterize your journey and the changes that happened along the way?
Eilenberg: So I have been in TV and in nonfiction TV for that long, so starting in the late 90s, and certainly there’s been quite a lot of changes along the way. The pace of change I think, as with so many industries right now, is accelerating rapidly. And that’s being driven on a number of fronts, I would say most notably on-demand viewing as a primary mode of viewing. So on-demand was something I think people started doing when they would make a VHS tape of a show and then watch it when they wanted to. But it’s now, and for this next generation of consumers, really the expected viewing pattern in many ways. And then of course the global distribution of content, which I think is becoming also more expected every day. And so it’s been interesting to be involved in something like the new “Queer Eye” for Netflix, where when the show launched, it was launched not just here in the United States but instantaneously around the world. And that’s going to really impact quite a lot of the ways in which people create and program.
Whitehouse: So it’s hard for the fab five to go on holiday?
Eilenberg: It’s almost impossible. It’s interesting, you know, because over the course of my career, I have seen many people who were not previously famous become famous. But this is the first instance I can point to where I’ve watched a group of people become instantaneously globally famous. And that’s really a function of Netflix and what they’re capable of doing and, you know, increasingly what their streaming competitors are going to be capable of doing as well.
Whitehouse: So this means that none of us are watching television together anymore.
Eilenberg: It doesn’t necessarily mean that, no. I mean, I think part of the interesting balance right now is that there should be a place in the ecosystem for on-demand viewing as well as live TV viewing, and everybody is trying to figure that out. I think when you look at the live viewership of something like “Game of Thrones,” do you have to watch “Game of Thrones” live? No, of course not, there’s 600 ways to get “Game of Thrones,” but people want to watch it live because they want a mass experience. And I think there’s been some sort of sense that that mass live viewing has a lot to do with unpredictability of outcome. So there’s been, I think, privileging of sports as something that’s going to prop up live viewing, and indeed it will, but you know, you look at “Game of Thrones” as an example of something that doesn’t have that and yet people all want to experience it at the same time.
Whitehouse: But for the rest of us who love a show that’s only shown in Armenia once a week, that’s an option too?
Eilenberg: Yeah, I think what’s been really interesting about these last couple of years especially is certainly there are more content options for everybody than ever before. And that creates huge opportunities for creators, but also a lot of complications in terms of the business model. So there is quite a lot of niche content for passionate but small audiences and companies have spent a lot of time talking about how to reach those audiences. But I think, you know, in a month where we’ve seen “The Avengers” and “Game of Thrones” sort of have these incredible mass audiences assemble for them, you can’t deny that people also want mass experiences. And I think one of the byproducts of the democratization of content is you also have to accept when everybody chooses to watch the same thing.
Whitehouse: So for advertisers, for brands, how should we be thinking about the future of television?
Eilenberg: Well, advertisers have some very interesting choices ahead of them as they contemplate all of these new platforms and how best to utilize them. Certainly on linear TV, the traditional 30-second spot has proven more resilient I think than people could have anticipated. And so I don’t see that going away. But equally, advertisers are going to have to find ways to speak to audiences who are used to on-demand viewing, who are coming to streaming platforms for particular types of content and I think find ways to invest themselves in narrative in different ways than they’ve done in the past.
Whitehouse: So you’re one of the godfathers of reality television and you worked on some of the shows that we saw, but also some other shows people have seen that predates that. Do you have a favorite show?
Eilenberg: Do I have a favorite show? I mean, I can’t publicly choose a favorite show amongst the many that I’ve worked on or viewed. I think—I’ll point out a few just really quickly in terms of the range of things. It’s been really special to be part of this new “Queer Eye,” not just because it’s been one of the first unscripted franchises on Netflix, but because of what it’s meant to people. And again, not just here in the US, but people around the world, including places where, you know, being publicly LGBTQ is, you know, it’s more challenging than it is even here, and so the fact that our message has been able to reach populations around the globe has been really, really special to me.
I loved being part of “Shark Tank,” which I got a chance to do. That may be a show that folks in the room are familiar with. I think it did great things in terms of just the value of creation and entrepreneurship. And then there was a show I was involved with on the network side at TNT called “Cold Justice,” which now continues on Oxygen. And that was a really audacious show because it posited that one could do good in a law enforcement setting by getting directly involved in cases that hadn’t been solved. And that sounded crazy at the time, but the show has managed to do it.
So those are a few. There’s many, many others that I’ve—
Whitehouse: You can’t pick a favorite child?
Eilenberg: Well, yeah. Exactly, so.
Whitehouse: So looking ahead a little bit, how should we think about how the format might evolve? So maybe scripted first, but then television more broadly.
Eilenberg: Yeah. I mean, I think with the caveat that scripted TV is not my particular area of expertise—
Whitehouse: Sorry, unscripted. Unscripted.
Eilenberg: No, but I think there are some things that equally apply. So I think to me, it’s really the ability of content to travel globally and instantaneously that’s changing things so quickly. This sounds like I’m being cute. I’m really not. To me, this era of content began with “Gangnam Style” in 2012, where if you tried to explain to somebody 30 years ago that the most viewed piece of content, you know, for the stretch of at least a few years was a music video in Korean that we watched on our computers, that doesn’t sound like a thing that makes sense on any level. And yet that’s I think to me a harbinger of what’s already happening and what’s to come. And I find it incredibly exciting, actually, that one’s favorite show can be not just, you know, a British show but an Italian show or a Korean—I mean, people can really find their way to content that speaks to them and I think that’s going to be an incredible sort of rich development for viewers and producers around the world. And then some of that is formatting still as well. I mean the big hit of the last few months in our genre was “The Masked Singer” on Fox, which is adapted from a Korean format but clearly adapted for an American audience and you see that as a model in our sphere too.
Whitehouse: Is there—when we were talking earlier, you talked about winning as being one of the characteristics that seems to have stuck in the world of reality. Is that here to stay, do you think?
Eilenberg: Yeah. I mean, I think a lot of the sort of big reality formats that launched the genre in the US, and that’s “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” and even “The Bachelor,” are about winning and losing in some way. And I think, you know, I think winning and losing have become part of our cultural discourse in a number of spheres more than they once did, at least observationally, and that’s everything from politics to the box office. I don’t know that we can point to reality TV and say, “You made it all about winning and losing,” or if the desire to watch entertainment that has those components is itself a byproduct of where we are culturally.
You know, certainly on a personal level, I like the ability to tell other sorts of stories too. I’ve enjoyed the games that I’ve worked on but, you know, in an episode of “Queer Eye” there’s no loser and that’s lovely. So hopefully we can find our ways to telling all sorts of different stories through nonfiction.
Whitehouse: And can we expect more interactivity between the audience and the product?
Eilenberg: I think you can certainly expect more interactivity. So if you look at “Love Island,” which is our sort of big hit in the UK and is coming to the States soon, that is a youth audience in the UK. There’s interactivity built into the experience in terms of people using an app to determine in some part what happens on the show, and there’s been quite a lot of uptake.
So whether interactivity occurs on secondary screens impacting the primary screen or whether, as you see Netflix now experimenting with, there can be interactivity built into the primary screen experience is still I think very much an open question.
I also think, you know, you look at platforms like Twitch, you look at the pervasiveness of video games, which I think outstrip the, you know, traditional TV industry in terms of what it does financially at this point, and you see that there’s lots of hunger for interactivity of various sorts. I’ve always felt, though, that there is still a viewer who just wants a viewing experience. And I think if you go to that person and say, “No, no, you must interact,” you run the risk of potentially not giving somebody the experience that they actually want. So there’s a lot of careful calibration that has to go into that. I guess that’s a really long way of saying yes, I think there’s going to be interactivity, but I’m wary of making it a goal unto itself.
Whitehouse: I wanted to ask you about ESports actually, because that seems to me an important emerging force that at least I certainly don’t feel like I understand. How should we think about ESports?
Eilenberg: I mean, I’ll confess that it’s not my primary area of expertise either. I just know that no matter who you talk to, whether it’s on the network side or the sponsor side or the live event side, people understand the power of ESports as an emerging sport. I would also just sort of point out that nobody has quite organized it yet, which is the other huge opportunity, right? There’s no UFC of ESports, at least to my knowledge, at this point. So I think there’s also a huge scramble to dominate that space if somebody can figure out how to do it.
Whitehouse: So I have at least one more question, but does anybody want to ask David anything about the future of television? Yes, sir.
Whitmore: Thank you. My name’s Sam Whitmore from Media Survey. I’m wondering, as a television expert, have you ever put VR glasses around your head and imagined the impact, real or imagined, of VR on the arc of television?
Eilenberg: Yeah, absolutely. We have PlayStation VR in my house and I have kids who love the VR experience. I think one of the things that’s been tricky about the mass application of VR, just in my observation, is that it does diminish your ability to interact with the rest of the world around you. And as much as I would love to think that everybody is glued to a television show as a singular experience, the truth is the television sits in our homes while lots of other stuff is going on. And so one of the things that VR has to solve, and I don’t know the answer to this—if I did I’d, you know, I’d be a much wealthier man, but how do you extend—how do you create a VR experience that still also allows you to be in the world that you inhabit? And the answer may be in some part through AR, but I think a lot of that is to be determined.
Whitehouse: Any more? Yes, the woman there in the middle.
Audience 1: Hi there. So as a mother of two kids in New York, right, who cut the cable five years ago, I kind of find it interesting we still even use the word ‘television’ because I think of my two kids, they’ve never even—I don’t think they even say the words ‘watching television.’ ‘Viewing content,’ maybe, right? And when they do watch television, even if it’s unscripted, I notice they have more of an appetite for things which they would call truly authentic, like a 14-year-old watching a 14-year-old review a show rather—you know, or watching, you know, animation done by somebody their age. So how are you kind of interpreting this kind of changing appetite, right, that’s going on in the population of kids?
Eilenberg: Yeah. I think it’s a great question, and I have a ten-year-old and a seven-year-old, too, and so of course you try to understand what their viewing patterns are and sort of what they recognize and what they want out of stuff, not just as a professional but also as a parent.
I think to some extent, the pervasiveness of social media does make us want to look at things that look like ourselves. Because to me, social media in some respects is a mirror and we all spend a lot of time looking at either ourselves or people we know. On the other hand, that may be exhausting, and so I think that there is an escape, not just for kids, but for all of us into worlds that don’t resemble us. I mean, I think one of the interesting implications of algorithms serving us stuff that we already like is how do we discover stuff that we didn’t know we were going to like. And so I think thoughtful programmers and thoughtful technologists have to keep that in mind, both just as human beings who want a rich world of content and from a business perspective. That was a little roundabout, but I hope I answered it sort of.
Whitehouse: So last question.
Whitehouse: Is this the golden age of television?
Eilenberg: This is absolutely the golden age of television, even if per the previous question, television doesn’t quite exist as a thing. Or at least the thing it once did. But no, I think there’s just such extraordinary content being produced across multiple genres. It’s a terrific time to be a creator, and then the question is all about how do you find the audience. Because I think the means of production and the means of distribution have become democratized in really fruitful ways and then it’s a lot about how do you sustain yourself as a creator and a producer and then how do you get to people who are going to enjoy your content.
Whitehouse: Thanks, David.
Eilenberg: All right, thanks, Andy. Thanks, everybody.
Kirkpatrick: Thanks, David. Don’t you love somebody who’s so positive about his own industry? That’s great, I mean—and I think I’m into it. So Mark Brand, who’s coming up next, is a social entrepreneur, an activist, and a chef who has—who really went through a really tough time in his own life with drugs and homelessness and a lot of other stuff. In Vancouver, he’s created a whole ecosystem of companies. He’s now based in Queens, so he’s going to tell us how he sort of synthesizes his interest in food and his interest in helping vulnerable populations. And then, after he talks for a few minutes, my colleague from Techonomy, Steve Gray, is going to join him on stage and spend a little time talking to him. So Mark, join us please. Oh, oh, the video first, you’re going to stand back there? Okay.