Recently, Founder & CEO of the FUTURE NOW Media Foundation, Peggy Kim, hosted a Leadership Talk featuring David Eilenberg, Head of Content for Roku Media. Eilenberg, a well-known creative executive who previously held top positions at ITV, Turner, and Mark Burnett’s company, is responsible for the overall vision, creative strategy, and go-to-market execution for The Roku Channel, a free ad-supported streaming service.
Roku was founded in 2002 as a tech company selling hardware and software licenses to other companies. A few short years later, in 2008, it launched its first streaming player. And, today, Roku is the #1 TV streaming platform in the United States.
While Eilenberg’s new role is evolving in real-time, his current objective is to unify the vast library of scripted, unscripted, original, and licensed content under the broader Roku ecosystem.
Eilenberg explains, "Users come to the Roku platform to stream Netflix and HBO Max, and we work with all of their marketing teams to drive people to their content. The whole goal of the company is to create the best content experiences for viewers, and the thesis behind this is that eventually, all TV will be streaming.”
And that also includes Roku's own free, ad-supported streaming channel, The Roku Channel, offering free Roku Originals, live TV, and favorite TV and movies.
The process of development for Roku is similar to the traditional network model, with separate teams dedicated to scripted and unscripted originals.
“As much as we’re trying to devise systems that are producer-friendly, more efficient, and can be forward-thinking in terms of how we approach the content landscape, the structure is familiar to a television network elsewhere,” says Eilenberg.
Roku actively seeks out pitches from producers, production companies, and agencies while also tasking the content acquisition team with finding content to bring into the Roku libraries. Known IPs with fandom and brand equity, for example, are one of the most commissionable types of content.
The question of what makes content appropriate for Roku is complex and ever-changing because of the growing size of its addressable audience. “With 70 million people on the platform, it’s not a single genre audience like certain cable channels,” he stated. “I think it’s great that we get to program food competition shows to people who love unscripted food programming, but then also take a shot on something like ‘Weird: The Al Yankovic Story,' which is a feature film that has been Roku’s biggest breakthrough piece of content to date.”
At the same time, striking the balance of serving such a broad audience with a wide range of tastes in genres can be challenging. “On the one hand, you don’t want to be so dispersed that users get distracted, but on the other hand, you don’t want to neglect the subgenres that are outside the mainstream.”
Once the content is made, the next challenge is discoverability and capturing the attention of the viewer. Eilenberg explains that one of the most important tenets of development is conceptual clarity, and that extends to Roku's most powerful tool...the clickable grid on the home screen.
“What I think about all the time is, if all I have at my disposal is the title of the show, a single image, and the tagline, what are these three components? Because that’s my one chance on the home screen to get people in.”
It is clear that Eilenberg loves what he does. He has always had an affinity for the arts, performance, and storytelling. He grew up in a theater family and knew early on that he wanted to be a writer. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in history and American literature and obtained an MFA in screenwriting at USC, and got his first big break as a writer on an MTV animated show called “Head Trip."
Throughout his career, writing has been his superpower...whether writing a stand-out pitch, selling projects to buyers, or creating a memorable script.
He advises young leaders to stay in touch with who they are at their core: “Who you are right now is really important, and the strengths that you have right now will continue to be strengths that you refine as you go forward, whatever role you may end up finding yourself in.”
After several years working for various companies as a producer, writer, and director, Eilenberg became the Head of Development for producer Mark Burnett, whose shows he had produced in the past. He then found his calling as a creative executive, developing, producing, and selling award-winning hits like “The Voice” and “Shark Tank." Then, Eilenberg transitioned to the buyer side at Turner, the seller side at ITV America, and then back to the buyer side for Roku.
Speaking on his multi-faceted experience of being a seller at major production companies to a buyer on the corporate side, Eilenberg says, “Spending time selling has made me a better buyer… It creates empathy to have done both things because I’ve had the chance to be on the other side of the table.”
When asked which he enjoys more, Eilenberg replies, “Both," and explains that the great joy of being a seller comes from having an idea that breaks through, while the great joy of being a buyer comes from getting to empower creative voices.
Eilenberg shares that there are emotional hardships to both roles as well: “The hard thing about being a seller is that no matter how good you are, you have to spend a lot of time hearing the word ‘no’. The hard thing about being a buyer is that no matter how good the stuff that's coming in is, you have to say ‘no’”.
According to Eilenberg, there are three traits that make a successful buyer. The first is honesty. Producers can benefit from honest feedback by applying the critiques to future projects. The second is velocity. “A quick no is the second best answer to a yes.” Finally, to be a successful buyer, you have to honor the audience that you have. “There are great shows that are great shows but may not be great shows for that specific platform.”
Discussing the current content landscape and the future state of streaming, Eilenberg predicts that there will be a growth in audiences wanting free ad-supported streaming television (FAST). FAST channels like The Roku Channel are perhaps the fastest growing environment in digital media.
“It’s very interesting to see the growth of FAST channels…. We’re talking all the time about why people want a linear viewing experience because I think the industry, at a certain point, once on-demand technology existed, assumed that linear would die off, and the opposite is happening.” Eilenberg speculates that choice overload and news consumption inform part of why people want a linear viewing experience.
As a final thought, Eilenberg shares that relationship-building is the most critical skill that young leaders need to succeed, especially in a fast-changing industry. “I think that the most important advice that I can give is to hold onto each other when you find people with whom you collaborate and communicate well. Those people can dictate the course of your career and your life… I have now had creative relationships of 20 years standing. Those are the people I started out working for and who then worked for me. People who I’ve pitched, who’ve then pitched me.”
He adds, “The quality of your relationships is incredibly important, and they require maintenance… If you can start working on that early, you're all going to be better for it.”