At CES, giants old and new battle over TV's future

CES draws the tech obsessed to gawk at fancy televisions, but media movers and shakers are focused on the programming that ends up on those displays.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
6 min read

Don't worry. If you miss the first "future of TV" panel at CES next week, you can catch the second one a day later.

For all the attention paid to off-the-wall gadgets at CES every year, the convention often feels like a giant stage to show off televisions . From eye-popping screen sizes to mind-bending display technologies, TVs are one of the most-watched categories at the convention. But the interest in TVs has extended beyond the screen itself to what you're watching on it, too.

Media companies, big brands and marketers fuel a show-behind-the-show at CES, one that has little to do with the next hot doodad. The mobs of media folks at CES may never visit the show floor, squirreled away in hotel suite meetings instead, but their presence often bubbles up in a slew of panels, keynotes and talks trying to pin down the future of television programming and distribution.

This year's discussions will come at a time when the lines between tech and media are increasingly blurring.

Tech giants are pouring resources into becoming media heavyweights. That goes for stalwarts like Netflix with its $6 billion content budget, as well as tech behemoths with relatively new TV ambitions: Facebook is stuffing its Watch tab with its own productions, YouTube launched live TV and Apple has billion-dollar budget to produce original video.

A hallway full of people at CES

CES officially opens Tuesday in Las Vegas, Nevada. 


Meanwhile, traditional media players are bulking up to defend their turf, a defensive maneuver against growing competition from those digital rivals. In a media bombshell last month, Disney agreed to buy most of 21st Century Fox, the latest in a wave of consolidation in media. AT&T is set to battle the Justice Department for the right to buy Time Warner -- a move that follows the nearly $50 billion the telecom giant spent buying DirecTV. And Discovery and Scripps are aiming to roll their reality TV empires into one.  

CES 2017 brought the unveiling of Hulu's live-television streaming subscription, and 2016 was marked by Netflix's keynote reveal that it launched worldwide except in China. What does CES 2018 have in store? Here's a peek at the media presence in Vegas this year.

The old guard

Disney and Fox are among the two most active traditional media companies at CES this year. Even if it didn't have a gigantic merger in the wings, Disney has a frenzied year ahead for its own digital TV ambitions. It plans to launch an ESPN-branded sports streaming service in 2018 and another streaming service for the company's own movies and shows the following year.


Disney, home of the "Star Wars" and Marvel franchise, agreed to buy most of 21st Century Fox last month.  


Expect Disney executives to field questions about the streaming services at their separate appearances. Ben Sherwood, the president of Disney ABC Television Group, and Andrew Sugerman, an executive vice president in Disney's arm that makes merchandise and interactive media, will appear at a summit Wednesday at the Aria hotel organized by the Hollywood trade publication Variety. Also at the Aria that day in CES' C-Space series, Sugerman and his colleague Kyle Laughlin, a senior vice president of games and interactive experiences, will discuss how Disney tells stories on social media, in short-form video and through augmented reality.

Meanwhile, Fox Innovation Lab will hold an event Wednesday at the Mandarin Oriental hotel. The lab is an internal incubator that has pushed forward tech like high-dynamic-range TV displays and cinematic virtual-reality experiences like its "The Martian" VR. The company isn't broadcasting the details of the event in advance, but it's likely to focus on both VR and display technologies.

Among other traditional media companies trotting out executives: Starz, Turner and Scripps will field executives at CES's first of two "Future of TV" panels Tuesday at the Convention Center. AMC will trot out Norman Reedus of "The Walking Dead" alongside the series showrunner and a channel president at the Variety summit on Wednesday, while later that day the CEOs of Discovery and A+E will be on stage at the Monte Carlo's Park Theater for the C-Space keynote keynote.  

The upstarts

That other "Future of TV" discussion? It lets YouTube do some of the talking.

As Google's YouTube and Facebook continue to go head-to-head in a battle to be the internet's central video hub, both companies will be active at CES this year, as will Hulu , the online home for traditional TV programmers Disney, Fox, NBCUniversal-parent Comcast and Time Warner.


YouTube's Robert Kyncl, seen here presenting at CES 2012, will take part in a keynote this year that will also include a branding exec from Pepsi, one of the companies that pulled advertising off YouTube last year. 

James Martin/CNET

YouTube has long reigned over online video. With more than 1 billion monthly visitors, one-third of internet-connected people on the planet tune into YouTube. But Facebook eclipses it with 2 billion monthly users, and in the last year and a half, the social giant has been aggressively campaigning to put video first in your News Feed. It wants to eat some of YouTube's lunch as advertising dollars flow online from TV.

This CES, Facebook is sending product executive Fidji Simo, who oversees the social giant's video push. Facebook's video strategy has hopscotched from initiative to initiative, starting with algorithmic tweaks that surface more clips in your feed to a big thrust behind live streaming.

Its latest focus is on a "Watch" tab that Facebook is filling with live licensed sports and longer, TV-like shows.

Simo, who will speak Tuesday at the Aria hotel, is slated to discuss this evolution of video on Facebook and share the latest on Watch.

While facing down Facebook, YouTube's last year was marked by a rocky relationship with the advertisers its relies on for revenue and the community of video creators that fill YouTube with video. An outcry about commercials running next to offensive videos sparked an advertiser boycott. Then YouTube's response -- to more aggressively pull ads off sensitive clips -- ended up outraging uploaders who lost money-making power, an event they dubbed "Adpocalypse."

YouTube's chief business officer, Robert Kyncl, will take the stage during the C-Space keynote on Wednesday at the Park Theater -- a presentation that will also feature a branding executive from Pepsi, one of the companies that pulled advertising off YouTube last year. Chief Product Officer Neal Mohan is also slated to be among the panelists at the second "Future of TV" panel, which is earlier that day at Variety's summit.


Hulu, which became the first streaming service to win a best drama Emmy last year, will field its CEO at a keynote at CES. 


Finally, streaming service Hulu will field its new CEO, Randy Freer, at a keynote about "reminaging television" on Wednesday, along with the head of Turner, the Time Warner programmer that runs CNN, TBS and other networks.

His appearance comes at a foggy time for Hulu. The service is riding high in some respects -- its dystopian series "The Handmaid's Tale" was the first show from a streaming service to win a best drama Emmy, and it began streaming live TV channels last year.  But its direction could take some unexpected swerves in the year to come. Comcast, which has been a silent partner in Hulu for the last seven years, starts to have a say in Hulu's strategy late this year. Soon after that, Disney's deal to buy Fox would give it majority ownership over the streaming service.

Oath, the media-focused arm of Verizon that mashes together its Yahoo and AOL takeovers, is also sending a miniature army of executives to CES. Oath will have a representative on at least five official panels at CES, including a discussion with CEO Tim Armstrong at the Variety summit Wednesday. 

One of the biggest names in online TV, however, is sitting this CES out. Netflix isn't planning any events or putting any executives in the public eye. And without Netflix weighing in, we may need to wait until next year to get a full grasp on the future of TV.

Maybe CES can schedule three of those panels next time. 

First published, Jan. 4, 5 a.m. PT Update, 12:39 p.m.:: Reflects changes in Disney executives' scheduled appearances. 

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