- ViacomCBS futurist Ted Schilowitz explores new tech and its applications for audiences and companies.
- There’s a “generational” difference in how concepts like NFTs and the metaverse are accepted, he said.
- ViacomCBS has ventured into interactive with Nickelodeon NFL simulcasts featuring SpongeBob Squarepants.
Ted Schilowitz has kissed a lot of frogs.
As ViacomCBS’ futurist — a title in the vein of Silicon Valley visionaries who do similar prophesizing — Schilowitz calls himself a “professional frog kisser,” trying on new tech and seeing what has applications for industrialists and consumers down the road.
“You’re responsible for looking at things and having, effectively, the most open mind of the whole company,” he told Insider. “Everything might have some degree of value, or a tremendous amount of value. And the only way you’re going to know that is to get out there and test the waters: explore, talk to the people using the technology, see if it feels like there’s a there there.”
One frog Schilowitz prospected some years ago was a virtual reality startup in Irvine, California. He started milling around its offices, “enamored” of its tech, and later on, noticed Mark Zuckerberg doing the same. Facebook’s founder would eventually acquire the company known as Oculus in a 2014 acquisition valued at $2 billion.
ViacomCBS, which houses myriad cable channels and SpongeBob, may not spring to mind as a company on the bleeding edge of technological advancement. But Viacom was the “original innovator on how to evolve television,” Schilowtiz suggested, creating 24-hour cablers such as MTV and Nickelodeon and offering viewers more choices than ever before.
“MTV is absolutely an original metaverse,” he said. “Always on, always accessible, and finding a very targeted audience that could grow organically.”
His company’s steps into interactive entertainment have thus far taken the shape of a square, or rather, SpongeBob SquarePants, with Nickelodeon simulcasting a January 2021 Bears-Saints game featuring an augmented-reality layer that located touchdowns in the “slime zone.” The concept was so popular that the kids’ cabler repeated the stunt with the 49ers-Cowboys matchup.
There’s also the company’s foray into the NFT space, announced last fall — a multiyear partnership with Recur to create tokens based on IP from ViacomCBS’ spectrum of brands, from BET to Comedy Central to Paramount Pictures.
ViacomCBS is not the only Hollywood player exploring the metaverse and NFTs. Fox is distributing “Masked Singer” and WWE NFTs, while producer Dick Wolf has partnered with Curio to create an NFT-powered detective storytelling group.
Despite the emergence of streaming and the broad acceptance of iTunes and other digital platforms, the idea of forking over cash (or crypto) for cyber collectibles is still a bit of a tough sell — which Schilowitz considers a “generational” obstacle.
“If you look at kids that are teenage or preteen years, their digital lives are such a big and well-defined part of their daily existence, that they do not create a definitional break between their digital personalities, their digital representation, and the real representation,” he said.
“In my late 50s, I have to put real, considered, concerted energy every day in trying to think and act and function like a 16-year-old person,” said Schilowitz. “That’s kind of what a futurist has to do — you have to pretend you are within youth culture, you have to understand it. So a lot of the people I work around are many generations younger than me, because I am able to glean from them.”
Most entertainment executives, of course, are Gen Xers and Boomers well into their 50s and 60s. But ViacomCBS’ C-suite backs his mission, said Schilowitz (who reports to chief technology officer Phil Wiser), comprehending that they “cannot just sit back and let it wash over us like other revolutions.”
Concepts such as NFTs and the metaverse, still in their early days, evince both skepticism and yearning. But mass adoption of an abstraction — like “owning” a copy of a movie on a streaming service — is nothing new.
“Humans like shared constructs,” said Schilowitz. “We, as a human race, are really good at building a reality and saying, ‘This is worth something.’ And we’ve done it for many, many generations, going all the way back to the earliest stages of fine art or religious artifacts or anything like that.”
He acknowledges that this all can sound a little pie-in-the-sky.
“My job, firmly, lives in the realm of nonsense,” said Schilowitz, “until the day that it’s not nonsense.”