If “Content is King”, who is everyone else?

As soon as you start learning about the business of entertainment, you learn this aphorism.

“Content is King”.

I yell this from the rooftops too. I learned it so early that I can’t even credit one specific class or book or article with it. Searching my articles, I found that I wrote it on 5 different occasions in just the last year. It feels so true for me, that I won’t ever bother to quantify it or prove it analytically. Principally, I don’t think it’s something you can “prove”, but more importantly, it doesn’t matter. 

However, it makes a great question: if content is king, what the heck is everything else? 

That’s what I’m going to try to do today. To explain which different business functions are who on the entertainment chess board. Chess is a game of war, and these are the streaming wars, right?

King – Content

The obvious first choice. Or is it?

If the chess analogy is true, the King on his own can’t win you the game. In fact, he does hardly anything in a typical chess match. He runs from his problems, just hoping to avoid getting trapped in a corner.

Yet, content is fundamentally an offensive tool. It’s on the attack, conquering viewership in box office, ratings points or whatever streamers feel like telling us. That sounds a lot like the Queen, the unstoppable killing machine moving any direction she damn well feels like on the board. As I thought about it, in terms of power/influence, the Queen is best analogue to content’s ability to shape the competitive landscape.

Let’s use the King for something else then. The endgame for a chess match is check mate. If the King dies, you lose the game. You’re out of business. What’s the one thing if you don’t have, you go out of business? Cash. Money. Financing. So…

King – Content Finance

Finance shouldn’t run any company—that’s the player moving the pieces in this super-extended analogy—but they are the rulers, usually, at the end of the day. And lots of great companies have succeeded simply through clever financing. Even if the finance folks don’t run the business, they’re usually second or third in charge. So the King is finance.

Queen – Content

Content is what enables everything else. If you don’t have great content, no matter how well you leverage the other pieces, you’ll be at a disadvantage, just like losing your queen in an unequal trade. And if you ever doubt if content is powerful, well, look at Disney’s movie slate. So the Queen is content.

Bishop – Distribution

After you learn that “content is king”, you learn that it is locked in a war with distribution. The battle gets phrased as the question, “What’s more important, content or distribution?”

In a classroom, both sides can be right trying to answer that question. Even if you end up deciding content is more important, you can’t deny that distribution can make or break your strategy. Right from the start. That’s why I made distribution “the Bishop”, the piece who is the most valuable at the start of a chess match.

Distribution isn’t the most powerful piece remaining—that’s the Rooks—but it sits next to the Queen of content and King of finance in the middle of the board. If you get down to just a one Bishop at the end of the game, you’ll have a damn hard time trying to checkmate your opponent. The way you can have great distribution, and bad content, and hence no viewership.

I also like it because Bishop’s are incredibly useful, in a misdirection sort of way. The Bishop never comes at you straight on, but from the side. Distribution is the same way. Most consumers don’t think about the deals a major studio signs to distribute their content, but happen to stumble upon it on their streamer of choice. Netflix convincing the studios to give it library content or the Pac 12 failing to get DirecTV distribution are examples of how distribution can make or break business models. Consumers may be aware of these squabbles, but often times they are oblivious to these conflicts.

I also like the historical symbolism of the chess board. For much of human history, power was a battle between rulers and religion, monarchs and bishops, like content versus distribution.

Knight – UX [Technology]

Before we go too much further, I should admit I’m not very good at chess. If you’re a former military officer, this is like admitting you don’t like running or short haircuts. But there, I said it.

I’m not a good programmer either, but I know good user experience (UX) when I see it. In fact, everyone does, if a current survey by PwC is true (and yeah, just one survey). But despite that survey and the blaring headline, UX isn’t more powerful than the money or the content or the distribution of said content. 

But once you have a platform—especially in the internet age—understanding how consumers engage with your technology is key. If that experience sucks—fine, is “suboptimal”—than customers don’t want to come back. Sometimes even the best content can overcome this, but only so much. 

Knights are thus the UX or technology of the chess match. They can really screw up your strategy by taking the queen off the board. But they can only hop two spaces forward and one to the side, so they aren’t the most flexible weapon. And they are slow to escape from a battle, like how UX is hard to update once you’ve screwed it up.

Rook – Marketing

You can’t watch a show you’ve never heard of. That seems simple enough. Usually, the best way to overcome this is brute force spending of marketing dollars. Marketing is a blunt tool. It fires straight at consumers, despite the dreams of targeted addressable marketing, it is still usually one trailer for everyone. 

Which is as blunt as a rook marching straight ahead or to the side. Moreover, Rooks get most of the action at the end of the game, the same way that marketing only starts once the content is finished and ready to roll out of the gate. 

And yet, the power! A great marketing campaign will ensure a TV show or movie gets launched. (Check out the buzz around The Mandalorian–in my opinion a well-made trailer–to see how good trailers can make a show or film.) And that trailer will make or break the content it is supporting. Good marketing can build buzz and bad marketing can end it. Losing your rooks recklessly can end your game too. Marketing is the Rooks.

Pawns – Research, Business Affairs, Business Development/Sales

It takes a village to be a studio, but I only had five major pieces to work with. (I guess I could have split the board in half, but eh.) 

Everyone else is a Pawn. Which sounds bad in our nomenclature—being someone’s Pawn means being manipulated—but yeah most of the other groups are manipulated for content’s ends.

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