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A Conversation With NBC Digital Head Rob Hayes

Rob Hayes has been head of digital (technically, he’s executive vice president) for five years at NBC, one of the oldest and biggest brands in the business of television. In that time, he’s presided over a remarkable shift in mindset among the leadership of his network, now part of Comcast’s sprawling media empire.

During the mammoth VidCon conference last week, I sat down with Hayes to talk digital and traditional broadcasting, and the complicated process of knitting the two together. He’s faced an uphill battle, no doubt, but now, he maintains, his colleagues on NBC’s traditional broadcast side understand they can’t get by without a digital component. That wasn’t the case when he joined. Back then, networks either pooh-poohed digital media or ignored them completely.

These days, that’s not happening. Comcast has made big investments in digital, first through its Xfinity set-top box and a carriage deal with Netflix, and more recently, through NBCUniversal, by investing hundreds of millions of dollars in digital video powerhouses Buzzfeed and Vox Media.

Hayes  told me that his colleagues no longer question the importance of digital media components, even for their traditional on-air programming.

That includes shows on emerging platforms such as Snapchat, where NBC did early deals, and Musical.ly, with whom they’re creating a still-unannounced music competition show. But those digital extensions also include a Saturday Night Live mobile app that connects fans to relevant decades-old content, and a three-hour live-streamed online companion to last winter’s live Hairspray broadcast.

“All these other things are important to keep a show top of mind,” Hayes said. “Look at Jimmy Fallon with those snackable short-form videos or SNL, a 43-year-old brand this fall that’s never been more part of the zeitgeist.”

Hayes’s position is something of the inverse of many of the executives I spoke with before and during VidCon, an increasingly important convener of the digital-media business, brands, creators and fans. Where he works to bring new digital-media extensions to traditional TV programming, so many of his competitors are trying to create standalone content on social-media and other distribution platforms, effectively competing with traditional media rather than extending it.

But NBC isn’t going anywhere soon. In all, NBC digital teams create 4,000 pieces of content a month, much of it generated from specialists embedded in each production, Hayes said.

And the company is pushing, like many others, for “platform ubiquity,” the new catchphrase I heard from several executives in the past two weeks. That means, if there’s a new platform, you have to claim some territory there, regardless of the short-term financial returns.

Platform ubiquity, that’s where the customers are,” Hayes said. “It’s a huge opportunity for any media brand to grow and evolve their business.”

The latest initiative: Jimmy Fallon monologues repurposed and restructured for playback on Amazon’s and Google’s digital home assistants. The assistants, especially Amazon’s Alexa-powered devices, have taken off in the past six months or so (though Amazon isn’t releasing sales data), and provide voice-activated services of many kinds, driven by artificial-intelligence chops and voice-recognition software.

Telling Alexa to play music from the Amazon Prime music service is the single most popular skill on that set of devices. Providing audio content for the platform seems like a no-brainer for NBC, and sure enough, they’re going to be there.

“We don’t know how we’ll monetize it yet, but we will be there,” Hayes said.

That’s one of the complications of platform ubiquity, of course. Even big brands such as NBC have to venture onto new platforms even when it’s not clear how they’ll make money. The Sooner mentality, of staking a claim on open land before anyone else, rules supreme these days.

“What’s happened the past five years, it seems like there’s an explosion of activity that wasn’t there before,” Hayes said. “Every couple of months, something comes up and we have to be there.”

The bet long term is that NBC is well positioned to profit from such early-adopter claims. Its brands, such as Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show and The Voice, will command big audiences online as well as on traditional TV if they can provide stimulating, platform-appropriate experiences for the fans they’ve already created.

It’s a smart play, I think, though I have to wonder when NBC will venture more assertively into more original digital content. NBCUniversal’s major venture in subscription video on demand, the comedy site Seeso, tumbled into limbo just before VidCon, with CEO Evan Shapiro departing amid questions about possible layoffs and an end to the site’s original programming ventures.

That venture seemed a bit odd to me, a new brand instead of the established ones NBC has in droves, with a name that had nothing to do with its comedy basis. The SVOD business in particular is a brutal one right now, and building a new brand from nothing is particularly challenging.

I’ll look forward to seeing what Hayes and the rest of NBC (and NBCUniversal Digital Services) does with the brands they’ve already built, and whether they’ll venture into a more extensive online presence beyond the extensions they’ve already created.