Rafe Oller on why TV execs shouldn’t underestimate millennials

The GM at Z Living goes On The Record with StreamDaily about how execs can find the advantage in a new era of content consumption.
February 2, 2016

Welcome to On The Record, StreamDaily‘s newest series featuring senior media executives from around the world and their thoughts on a fast-changing industry, and the decisions that can make, or break, a brand.

We’re kicking things off with a frank talk with Rafe Oller, general manager at Z Living, a predominantly linear network based in L.A. with a focus on lifestyle, health and entertainment programming. Oller recently appeared onstage at the National Association of Television Programming Executives (NATPE) annual conference and market, where he caught the attention of many executives in the audience (including StreamDaily editor Darah Hansen) with several sharp remarks about the millennial generation.

We caught up with him a little later and asked him to expand on those ideas, and asked how programming executives can better take advantage of changing consumption habits in both the linear and digital space. Here’s what he told us:

Millennials are just like you (sort of)

For programming executives, especially those in the linear space, the decisions millennials make when it comes to the media they choose to consume may seem strange, and even downright ridiculous, with their love of six-second videos and their tendencies toward second-screening.

But Oller believes that anyone who looks at that behavior and says “I don’t get it” needs to pay more attention to what is actually going on.

“If you find yourself in a position of decision-making in entertainment, and you look at something that’s a trend that’s emerging and think, ‘That’s stupid,’ slap yourself, because you’re going to be out of a job soon,” said Oller, who’s been in the industry for nearly two decades, working with companies such as Warner Bros., Fox and NuvoTV.

Indeed, thinking of this age demo as some sort of strange, unpredictable group is unproductive.

“They’re just people looking for a sense of community and belonging. Yes, their experience of how things work in the world is different than others, but, at the end, they are just another audience that you can speak to,” he said.

While millennials are a generation of cord-cutters and cord-nevers (studies have found that the group is most likely to subscribe to an OTT or SVOD service, as well as ditching cable, or never adopting it in the first place), Oller said linear producers would do well to stop treating them like a lost generation.

“A lot of people in the industry say we’ve lost them (millennials),” Oller said. “They’re not lost. The thing is, if you can’t find an audience, it’s not that the audience doesn’t exist. You have to find where they are, and understand why people like what they like.”

“If you look at a trend that’s emerging and think, ‘That’s stupid,’ slap yourself, because you’re going to be out of a job soon.” — Rafe Oller

To that end, he believes that millennials’ multi-platform, second-screening habits mean producers actually have even more opportunities than ever to reach out to young viewers.

“Social media is a very intimate voice,” he said, adding that sometimes if content doesn’t work on one platform, it should be re-packaged for another platform.

He added that, while linear programming can’t give audiences the same personal connection of a platform like YouTube with its first-person vlogs and believable personalities, it’s a good opportunity for brands to extend their presence to multiple platforms.

“You can always, through linear, draw the path to a different experience,” he said, adding that TV shows can build their YouTube presence with behind the scenes and extra content that is more personal and vlog-like in nature.

Platforms aren’t dictated by demographics, but by mindset

While many video and social media platforms seem to divided clearly along age demographics (Vine and Snapchat are most popular among teenagers, while Facebook is strongest with Gen X), Oller said viewing habits are dictated more by the viewer’s state of mind.

“You come home from work, you might be looking for more of a channel surfing, lean-back experience,” he said. “You’re at work, you might be looking for more of an article, or something without sound so you won’t alert (others) to what you’re watching. You might not necessarily watch a vlog that has a lot of talking.”

And, he said, even if digital and social platforms seem flash-in-the-pan compared to the longevity enjoyed by linear to date, that’s no reason to not go all out and invest in content for those platforms.

“My sons will spend eight hours watching Twitch,” he said. “But who knows? Five years from now or maybe even a year from now they might never watch Twitch again. There’s no telling what’s hot today that in five years might be the next MySpace. But at this moment, it’s a time capsule of what is important.”

Millennials are savvy when it comes to brands

There are a multitude of studies out there showing that authenticity is a critical element in a young viewer’s ability to connect with content. For that reason, finding the right path to effective brand integration, especially in the lifestyle space, is increasingly tricky to navigate, said Oller.

“They (young viewers) can smell a mile away if something is being forced on them, or if the integration is not organic, or if it’s some clever way to trick you into liking something,” he said.

Instead, Oller recommends that brands looking to reach millennials move away from situations where an individual recommends a product based on personal experience. Rather, they should consider a shift toward programming that shows how larger collectives of people are impacted by a product.

“Because the world is inherently social now, one million strangers have more clout in (millennials’) opinion than their best friend,” he said. “If you want to buy a TV and your best friend says, ‘Well, I have this TV and it’s crap,’ but you look online and it has a five-star rating from a thousand people, you’re going to believe those thousand strangers.”

It all ties into a need by millennials to seek community and a sense of belonging.

“What you want to create is a collective, validated experience. One that says, ‘A million people like what you like, so you can’t be wrong.’,” he said.

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