21 October 2009

let them build the biggest sandcastles.

As one of the many that feel they are staring into the brink of what could be Hollywood calamity, the "Media Maverick" posted a warning to all the cogs in the industry machine, playing soothsayer to the studios' Caeser and positioning the internet as its conspiratorial assassin. This foretelling of doom, however, is a bit overwrought. Although kudos go to the Media Maverick for including the "apocalyptic rantings of Silicon Valley propeller heads" line so that it seems like any naysaying belongs to the ignorant buffoon who refused to heed the warning of the vague Ides of March deadline.

Yes, parallel industries are collapsing under their own weights. Newspapers and music vendors have seen dramatic drop-offs over the past few years as they transition into less bloated, more-with-the-times versions of their former selves. Hollywood seems positioned for the same fate as the internet Changes Every Aspect of Our Very Lives. However, to say this is something that should instill horror and a downward-spiral of depression is a little premature.

The supposition that the entire viewing audience is ready to jump into watching all their television exclusively online, via pirated material even, is preposterous. With Hulu still a relative unknown (despite heavy marketing pushes) and the ever-present "digital divide," heck, even DVR penetration is only at 33 percent, it would take a leap of faith to believe the entire audience is ready to watch their stories on the computer, let alone hook it up to their television. That's not to say the transition won't happen. It'll just happen a lot slower than many of the soothsayers would have their readers believe.

What these editorials should be saying to Hollywood is that NOW is the time to act.

The transition to a user-set schedule empowered by the internet will generally impact the television market hardest. Through hard times movie theatres abide since they are an event. No one has a movie theatre quite like the local multiplex in house and Transformers isn't the same on a smaller screen with tinnier speakers.

Media Maverick's article cites a young woman who catches up on Mad Men through a non-studio-sanctioned site. The idea is that these sites contain the collected volumes of a wider selection of entertainment by holding libraries of properties from various sources, eschewing windowing agreements (like when Hulu only provides the last five episodes of a show so they don't conflict with DVD sales). And while this might be true for "Alexandra," there's still time to establish a place on the internet for the far more prevalent number of people still on the internet-TV sidelines. There are a few things Hollywood should look at.

Fully embrace television properties on the internet: First things first -- studios have to admit this TV on the web thing is a good idea. Not only does it allow for more people to see it on their own schedule, it lets new viewers catch up on a series on their schedule without terrible expenditure. Think of the drop-off curve for series like Lost or 24 and how much more shallow that curve would be had this been available to everyone earlier in the life of the series. A viewer wouldn't have to debate buying DVDs or even renting for a show they don't know they'll even enjoy. Instead they can happily enjoy a show with commercials without any risk on their part. And the possibilities in mining viewer demographic information alone should be enough for the industry to shove people onto the internet. The web has been able to get better data on users/audience since its inception, from approximate geographic location (via IP address and ISP location) to browsing trends (via cookies) to windowing (via browser/client announcements). Layer a user profile into the mix and, suddenly, the possibility of targeted marketing is a reality and a viewer can watch commercials that actually matter to the viewer. The trouble with the audience using DVRs to fast-forward through ads evaporates when the viewer can be singled-out for products and services that matter to him/her individually. Networks will wonder how they ever got by with stone-age blanket marketing. Keep DVDs around for people who want a hard copy when they aren't around reliable internet but make shows available to the people so they can watch those commercials again and again. And again.

Stop looking at illegal sites as terrorists and see them as competition: If there is anything studios know about is how to deal with competition. The industry has spent far too much time trying to shut down the illegal sites and not enough time examining why they are popular. Many of these sites are run by individuals or small groups. Though the narrative is appealing, these small pockets undermining the conglomerate, with its army of workers and reams of cash, should be a long shot, especially if the conglomerate can identify why people go to these sites instead of using traditional methods of watching (TV) or legitimate sites (Hulu, Joost). People go because they can find more episodes of the shows they want to watch; expand the library. People go to avoid commercials; offer limited commercial interruption or commercials they actually would like to see (see above). And then the conglomerate can provide things the illegal sites can't. There's always an encoding turnaround (since the illegal sites have to record the show then turn that recording into an internet file) so offer an episode simultaneously to the broadcast and cut out the middle man. Offer higher quality video, exclusive content (outtakes, behind-the-scenes, etc), recommendations for other shows, maps and guides for the more complicated storylines on television. The opportunity to improve on what these little guys are doing is sitting in the open. Networks just need to capitalize.

Let the people build sandcastles: If there is anything that can be learned from Twitter's astronomic rise in the past three years it is that closing doors and building barriers does not make for a successful web venture. So much of Twitter is created and influenced by the user and the people at Twitter proper let it happen organically, opening doors to inspire more development, codifying the stuff that works, embracing the natural progression of the service. What about a Hulu API? Why not build a giant sandbox for developers to play in, using the different television properties, the already-present tools people can use to embed and share clips, and include more ways for people to develop on top of the site. Let them build giant sandcastles using your sand. Let Hulu and Joost propagate across the internet in ways that are unimaginable to comparatively technological plebeians. Open up the windows so mobile users and other devices can spread these television properties (and the commercials that go with them) around like so many appleseeds. Look at what Netflix is doing and know that the networks can do that, too, only without the subscription barrier.

In the end, it's not the future described in the Media Maverick article that can be contested but rather its dystopic vibe. Don't get lulled into thinking change is not coming but don't get fooled into believing all is lost. This is an opportunity.


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