Millennials don’t want your MTV but they do want your cruise ship

Can the cruise industry rescue broadcast entertainment from irrelevance?

By Robb Wagner

I’ve been working in the cruise line industry and network broadcast industry in parallel for about six years now. Here I’m sharing my inside perspective of two industries, one in decline and one on the rise.

Slide from the 2017 Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) State Of The Industry Report

When I was first invited by Carnival Cruise Line to fly to Italy and look at one of their brand-new ships in the shipyard, I didn’t know what to expect. I had never been on a cruise ship before let alone a Carnival cruise ship. I didn’t know much about the brand but I had heard of the ‘booze cruise’. And besides, cruise lines still had the reputation for stale chorus-line entertainment. But when I stepped onboard Carnival Magic I was blown away. She was stunning. Sure, I’ve been part of some of the biggest TV events, concert tours and live experiences on record, including the Academy Awards, Live Earth and the Super Bowl Half Time Show. But I had never seen anything like a brand new cruise ship. It became instantly clear that Carnival was not working for today but for the future.

Developing, designing and producing the first-ever Floor Screen – “77th Academy Awards”, 2005

Ready to make memories – Carnival Vista arrives at her first port to the raucous cheers of loyal Carnival Cruise Line customers. Trieste, Italy, May 2016

I had been headhunted by Carnival with the assistance of a business consulting company they work with, which I found fascinating in itself. I learned that Carnival, with the help of the business consulting group was projecting the future of their business including who their future customer would be. Our job was to figure out how to entertain and engage them. My job was to help Carnival create the future. Right away I knew this was for me.

After all, I built my entertainment development company, Stimulated-Inc. by helping broadcast brands like Viacom (MTV Video Music Awards), movie brands like Disney (Hannah Montana 3D) and Sony (Michael Jackson’s This Is It) take giant leaps and transform the way they entertain and engage their customers.

Producing Biggie Smalls in screens with P. Diddy live-onstage – “MTV Video Music Awards”, 2005

Filming Disney’s “Miley Cyrus & Hannah Montana: Best of Both Worlds 3D Concert Film”, 2007

Producing Michael Jackson’s ‘This Is It’ 3D concert, 2009

But hold the phone. This cruise line is saying they are willing to be bolder and more daring than all of those? And they have a five year plan? I had never heard of such a thing in all my years of working in broadcast, film and music. This was the natural next evolution of Stimulated-Inc.. Helping a brand take giant leaps by developing new ways to entertain and engage their customers. This was exciting.

Developing, designing and producing next-gen live entertainment – Carnival’s award winning “Epic Rock” theatre production , Carnival Sunshine, 2014

By contrast, soon after I visited a senior-level network TV executive at her office in Manhattan. Sitting on her couch we shared anecdotes and caught-up on lost time. She said, “Robb, you can’t imagine how frustrating it is to work for a big TV network that still does things the same old way.” “What do you mean?”, I asked. “Well, TV executives think they know what audiences want, they order pilots, they focus-group the pilots in a room of 12 people, then they green light TV shows for millions of dollars only to fail.”

She called that frustrating, I call it crazy. From everything I’ve learned working the cruise industry and the tech-entertainment startup I co-founded in 2013, the first problem here is thinking you know what the audience wants, when you don’t even know the audience.

And this gets into a deeper brand identity crisis I believe broadcast needs to deal with. The cruise industry is made up of distinct brands. There’s Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess and so on. Each brand has its emotional connection to the audience. Carnival is the Fun Ship, Royal Caribbean is the WOW, etc. Customers have an emotional relationship with these aspects of the brand, which is where cruise line brand loyalty comes from.

Crafting emotional connections between brand and customer – Carnival Breeze, 2012

But none of that emotional brand identity exists in network broadcast. The big TV networks are generally seen as the same. They have all have variety programs, drama programs, daytime programs, sports and news. But it’s the programs, not the networks have the brand identity. In general the networks don’t have a brand. Only the shows on the network have the strong brand identity and emotional connection to the audience.

The last TV network to have a big brand identity people could connect with was FOX. But this is going way back to when FOX was the new kid on the block. There were three major TV networks at the time and then there was FOX: the bold one, the rebel. FOX could afford to be the bad boy. It could afford to take chances. It could afford to write new rules. FOX is largely responsible for opening the door to much of the reality genre programming we see today, with the biggest example being American Idol. American Idol was synonymous with FOX when it first came on the air. Idol was bold, new and innovative. People talked about it at the water cooler. It came on the scene like Facebook, out of nowhere.

Cut to 2017 and there is no new kid on the block, no rebel, nobody rewriting the rules or taking chances like FOX did in those days. There are just four networks. Even the big one, American Idol is now making the parallel leap across networks, which isn’t that big of a leap. Because the audience identifies with American Idol as the brand, not the network.

Cable TV channels such as Nat-Geo have created more brand identity than the big broadcast networks. Speaking at Variety’s Massive Summit, “Genius” Producer Ron Howard commented on this brand affinity. “It’s the story linked to the (Nat-Geo) platform, which sends another kind of message, whereas in the past it’s always been the story that drives everything, and that’s not necessarily the case now.” Meaning, Howard is allowing the platform (Nat-Geo) to inform this project, challenging him and the the story in important ways. This is exactly what we do for brands like Carnival and this is what is missing from the big networks.

Talking with major network TV executives today, I’m able to get them excited about some of the things that we’re doing on cruise ships. We’re doing Virtual Cast Extension, Virtual Set Extension and we’re using videogame technology to create the next generation of immersive entertainment at sea. One network TV executive I recently spoke with said “Robb, why aren’t we we doing any of these things on our shows?” I laughed and said, “Because I just told you about them.”

Producing and directing Virtual Cast Extension™  – Carnival’s top-rated “Flick: The Power of Motion Pictures”, Los Angeles, 2016

Making memories and stimulating emotions – Carnival’s top-rated entertainment: “Flick: The Power of Motion Pictures”, Carnival Vista, 2016

Creating the future at Carnival’s brand-new 44,500-foot creative development facility – Carnival Horizon creative development meeting, Carnival Studios, 2017

But it’s the cruise line industry that’s on the rise with Millennials and Gen-X, while the broadcasting industry is seeing double-digit declines in viewership. The reason seems simple. One industry has been carefully and thoughtfully finding new ways to create the future for their brands, while the other keeps-on doing things the same old way.

Stimulated-Inc.’s new pilot program for brands is called Brand Entertainment Accelerator. Feel free to reach out for information. +1-818-853-9000.