There can never be “too much TV” out there, but it has gotten harder to get through to potential audiences about individual shows, television publicist John Wentworth ’81 told a group of Emerson College students, faculty, and staff on Monday, October 24.
Wentworth, executive vice president of communications for CBS Distribution, and a member of the Emerson Board of Overseers, was giving this year’s Irma Mann Stearns ’67 H'92 Distinguished Alumni Lecture in the Bordy Theater on how he breaks through the “clutter” in today’s super-saturated TV environment.
Moderator and classmate Margie Sullivan ’81, executive producer of Redtree Productions, started out by asking Wentworth if FX Networks President John Landgraf was right when he said we’re in the “late stages of a [TV] bubble.”
“There’s such a preponderance of stuff to watch and things to do that we have created for you,” Wentworth said. “How do you get through with your message?”
According to statistics from FX, the number of scripted TV shows on all broadcast, premium, and basic cable channels rose from 211 in 2009 to 371 in 2014. The number of shows on basic cable rose by 148 percent in that time.
There’s probably an audience for every show that’s made, but the process for letting people know about new programs has changed drastically in the decades he’s been in the business, Wentworth said.
In the 1990s, when Cheers spinoff Frasier debuted, the studio had a big star coming off a hit show, and only four networks that really mattered, he said. You’d book star Kelsey Grammer on all the morning and late-night shows, and feed the press. The media landscape was much less cluttered so most of America would have been exposed to Frasier to some degree, he said.
“Now, if I’m debuting a…show, and [let’s say] it’s called Girls on HBO, I’ve got a star no one’s heard of named Lena Dunham,” Wentworth said. “It’s on HBO, which is one of umpteen networks you can find, and the people that show is targeted to are generally a younger, female audience, which is pulled in a million different directions.”
Sullivan asked about the role of social media in this new(er) frontier.
For a while, networks viewed social media as something fun you can do on the side. No more, Wentworth said.
“Word of mouth is key to almost any launch of any product. Social media is just a huge word-of-mouth megaphone,” he said.
Some things remain constant, however. Then, as now, publicists try to find whatever element or angle will make a show stand apart from the crowd (recognizable star, a unique musical or visual element, producers’ previous shows) and start from there. Then, as the show “matures,” the pitch becomes the content of the show and, if successful, its ratings.
An audience member asked Wentworth what he sees in the cards for networks that rely primarily on syndicated shows when even streaming services produce their own series now.
Wentworth said that it’s “generally known” that basic cable networks are struggling in the current climate. And while he doesn’t believe they’ll all go under, it may hinder their ability to purchase the rights to the hit shows, such as How I Met Your Mother or Modern Family, that have been their bread and butter.
But streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, which are able to recommend programs to subscribers based on previous views, are a boon to the networks and studios that actually create content, he said.
“I hear 11- or 12-year-olds are watching this interesting new show on Netflix called Friends,” Wentworth joked. “It’s an interesting phenomenon. It’s a wonderful thing for a studio…there is presumably a market [for shows] for years and years and years to come.”
Wentworth likened the groundswell of new shows over the past decade to going from a supermarket checkout line, with its half-dozen general interest magazines, to a news stand.
“When you got to a news stand, you see a mile-long row of magazines of all these niches, that we now have [in television],” he said.
Wentworth also had a message for the Emerson students in the audience who are looking to break into television.
“That Emerson calling card is unreal,” Wentworth said. “It’s an amazing laboratory to get your passion ignited, to get your brains working, to pursue a network of alums when you get out of Emerson, the ELA program.
“Everybody in this room is doing the right thing,” he said.
Wentworth, who has overseen corporate-level and consumer media relations for a number of network distributors, was presented with the Irma Mann Stearns ’67 H '92 Distinguished Alumni Award by Mann Stearns’ daughter-in-law, Gwen Mann. Mann said her mother-in-law chose to fund programs like the Distinguished Lecture Series, so students could continue to learn from Emerson’s alumni. Mann Stearns, a leading figure in the Greater Boston public relations scene, and a Trustee Emerita of Emerson College, could not attend Monday night due to health issues.