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Bridging Media – Some thougts

I attended a very interesting one day conference in Vancouver today called Bridging Media. The intent of the conference was to

open the channels of communication between the broadcast and digital media communities. We aim to increase an understanding of our respective industries and strengthen our approach to building multi-platform projects.

Over the last few yers I’ve been working with pure digital media and video distribution on the web and I’m aslo the technical producer for The Pratt & Taylor Show on Rogers Sportsnet Pacific, so with one foot on each side of the divide this conference was pretty much a must-attend for me.

NOTE: For all you expression people who read this blog and right now scratch your heads because this seems to be totally off topic: It’s not. This has to do with the future of online video and content distribution – something you will be working with no matter what kind of projects you are involved it. It’s a bit of a meta-topic but it’s still quite relevant.

I won’t go through the conference here – Miss604 has done an excellent job live-blogging the entire event. Instead I’ll share with you my thoughts and perspectives on the problems presented and the whole concept of media convergence as a whole.

A bridge built from one side only will probably fall

The title of the conference was Bridging Media, and the intent was a good one. Unfortunately there were few if any broadcasters present, so the bridge was only being built from one side. The conference was attended by all the usual suspects in the digital and social media scene and also a large group of independent movie producers and they shared what I would classify as a standard from-the-digital-world view of the situation: Broadcasters rely on funding, digital media relies on other streams of revenue. The broadcasters don’t want to share our content because they are a bit antiquated and they are afraid of losing control of their own dominance and their own content. The digital realm is the future and we should just ignore the broadcasters and move on. In other words, if you build it (a digital media outlet), they (the viewers) will come, and they’ll bring money. (This of course is my very broad and biased interpretation and I’m sure many will be angered at it. So be it.)

To prove this thinking, examples like Sanctuary, Quarterlife and Ask A Ninja were brought up. And this brings me to my first issue: None of these examples are actually applicable in the conversation: Both Sanctuary and Quarterlife were created by well established producers with a strong fan base and more importantly solid funding.. If a complete unknown with the exact same idea had presented any of these concepts to investors, they would most likely be turned down or get insufficient funding. Furthermore, the chance of them reaching a wider audience would be next to zero. Why? Because the web is saturated with similar content and it’s almost impossible to break through the noise to get people’s attention. As for shows like Ask A Ninja that actually get picked up, they are flukes and one-offs. Building a business based on the thought that your show will be picked up by a major network is financial suicide. And the one commonality of all the similar shows that have been picked up is that they were started as jokes with no intention of making it big. So this whole way of thinking is fundamentally flawed. Such successes simply can’t be reproduced by entry-level content producers, at least not without a fair bit of luck (as in winning the lottery kind of luck).

NOTE: Since posting this article, Sanctuary has been picked up by the Sci-Fi Channel for broadcast release. Quarterlife was picked up by the E! Channel in early February. Both these shows were launched on the web with the intention of migrating to broadcast proving that building a fan base online can help you move to the living room screen. Unfortunately you have to be famous and have millions of dollars backing you tho…

The other idea that was touted, that you can make money off your content if enough people come to your site, is also highly questionable. Simply generating visits is not enough to generate money these days. Having a video series on YouTube that has over 2 million views combined will give you exactly $0 in revenue. To turn your content into money, you have to either use advertising or sell services. And that’s where the divide really shows itself in all it’s width and splendour.

Broadcasters are content producers

Putting on my broadcast hat, I can understand why there were no broadcasters at the conference. And I also understand why even if they were there, they would have no answers: Broadcasters are content producers that expect to get paid for the content the produce. A phrase that kept coming up throughout the conference was the question “What business are you in?” The thinking presented was that if you share your content online and want to get money from it, you should use it as a way to get other business that will generate money. As an example, Papercraft was brought up. They produce funny and informative videos on their website explaining complicated technical terms in an understandable way. These videos make no money but companies ask them to make custom videos and these make money. So it’s a completely different way of approaching the whole concept of revenue gathering.

Broadcasters and other content creators on the other hand, are not interested in using their content to advertise services. Their content is the service they provide. They are in the business of making content. If they were in the content of selling services, they would be an advertising agency. And that’s why there is a divide. The two sides are talking two entirely different languages and thinking about things in completely oposite ways.

The question is if there is any way of making them come together at all. Right now, the digital media community is building a bridge over to the broadcast side, but the broadcasters are digging a tunnel to the digital media side. And while a bridge built from one side is likely to fall down, a tunnell will bore it’s way to the end and start functioning whether the other side wants it or not. TV and film producers are quickly learning that the internet is an excellent marketing tool and are working on ways of leveraging this technology to theri advantage. On the other side, the digital media community feels it has content that should be presented on an equal level with the broadcasters and they are trying to push this content into the classic broadcasting channels. The problem is that once you move into the realm of public broadcasting, a whole mess of legal and financial problems arise: Who owns the content? Who made the content? Who has the rights to distribution? How do we pay the producers? Who is responsible if it turns out the content is illegal in some way? These are issues that are largely ignored by the digital media community because it is based on a somewhat anarchistic approach to content ownership (i.e. once it’s on the web it’s free). Broadcasters on the other hand have to make sure proper ownership is in place and that all the rights are where they should be. Otherwise they lose their licence. Unfortunately many people in the digital media community don’t understand (or choose to ignore) why this is so. But as a content creator I can tell you that when you find material you created on someone else’s web site, and you realize that not only do they earn money from it but they pass it off as their own, you feel creatively raped. So until the digital media community bring a more open attitude to the concept of rights and ownership, the broadcast side will be very reluctant to work with them.

At the same time there needs to be a softening of the firm and archaic guidelines that govern the broadcast side. For the most part, the systems in place both for television and films were created way before the web was even given a name. They are cumbersome, full of red tape and based on an attitude that only “proper” broadcasters can make broadcast content. That’s just not the case any more and the broadcasters just have to accept the fact that they are no longer the only roosters in the hen house. But that doesn’t mean that hot chicks farting is worth broadcasting, no matter how popular their videos are on YouTube. That brings me to my final point:

1,000,000 views don’t make you Stephen Spielberg

The fact that your video is popular on YouTube doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth broadcasting. In fact, many of the most popular videos on YouTube are such trash that they should never be broadcast. And others are blatant misinformation that has no place in the media realm. If you exclude funamenalist states like Iran, China and even the US, most countries have very strict guide lines for media outlets when it comes to balanced coverage. The internet has no such rules and as a result anyone can publish anything and present it as true. It’s a running joke that people who quote the internet need to check their sources, but it’s pretty evident that it’s not something we should laugh at. People, organizations and even governments with an agenda can use the internet indiscriminately to misinform and even blatantly lie to their audience with no reprisals. And because of clever marketing strategies and viral distribution, much of this content becomes so prolific people start believing it. Some of the best examples can be found on YouTube if you search for “global warming”. A public broadcaster would never be allowed to air much of this content because it is based on half truths and whole lies. And it’s often very difficult to tell if content produced is factual, rubbish or even part of some evil ploy. So if a broadcaster is going to get involved, these things need to be checked and re-checked and re-checked again to ensure balance and factuality. What stunns me is that many people on the digital media side don’t see such misinformation as a problem or even think exclusion of such content is equivalent to cencorship. I agree that all sides of any story have a right to be told, but when large corporations or organizations use substantial funds to deliberately misinform the public through lies and manufactured evidence we have a serious problem on our hands.

This is one of the reasons why when a digital media content producer approaches a broadcaster about distribution of her content, the broadcaster is rather reluctant to even talk to her. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just explaining it.

So should we just tear down the bridge then?

I guess I sound pretty pessimistic about the whole thing. I’m not. I just want to get all the facts out and make people understand that the fundamental problem here lies in the lack of a common language. The analogy of a bridge is actually a very good one, but it should be thought of more like a bridge over the Gibraltar strait than a bridge over the Nanaimo river. It might seem like the digital media community and the broadcasters are standing on the same land mass and speak the same language, but in reality they are entirely different countries with different languages, customs and rules. What’s need more than anything is an interpreter or a common language we can all work from. As long as the two sides think they are on the same plane, nothing will change. They need to understand that they don’t see things the same way and that to communicate they need to find a common vantage point somewhere in the middle.

All that said, I applaud the effort and look forward to Bridging Media 2.0.

Finally, for all the Expression people who by this time must surely have stopped reading: This is relevant to you because at some point in the near future, one of your clients is going to ask you how they can put a video online and get it featured on a TV show. Now you know why it’s not as simple as putting it on YouTube (and that you’re not the only one confused about why it’s so hard).