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Excerpt: Television Disrupted

The Transition From Network TV to Networked TV

- May 1, 2006

Chapter 6

Content, Storytellers, Gatekeepers and Related Skills

When people say "Content is king," they don’t mean your content — unless you happen to be holding the rights to distribute games from major sports franchises, episodes of hit prime time television series or reruns of big off-network sitcoms. Saying content is king is like saying hits are important. It is an absurd, overused, oversimplified way of communicating the idea that good business models revolve around the "business of hits."

However, since the financial barriers to entry of the networked television business are significantly lower then those of the network television business, the economics of the "business of hits" is being redefined. And, the inherent two-way nature of the technology that enables networked television has some added benefits for storytellers.

Somewhere back in time, we learned how to listen to a speech. And, whenever the concept of an imagined performance first occurred to someone, the concept of an audience sitting quietly and paying attention was not far behind.

Whatever it was that caused the first people to gather around a speaker, or compelled a crowd to experience an event as a group, still lives in us to this day. Because it does, an in-person report about a fire in a distant part of a prehistoric savanna and a televised report about an identical fire occurring today would be astonishingly similar. Although separated by thousands of years, the stories would share many attributes. They would both have beginnings, middles and endings. They would both follow a story arc that included a rising action, climax and falling action. They would both contain the essential story elements of who, what, when, where, why and how. And, finally, they would both be set using some combination of the only three story lines in existence: man against himself, man against man, and man against nature.

However, there would be one profound difference in the narrative. In our prehistoric in person report, the audience would be able to ask questions and interact with the reporter. In our modern, televised report, the technological limits of television would prevent any such interaction. Our modern reporter would have to craft his or her narrative to anticipate the audience’s questions or assemble a small group of people who could mimic the interaction to the emotional satisfaction of the distant television audience.

Today, people have a fairly well-developed sense of how they are supposed to behave during various types of communication experiences. These are commonly called the conventions of a particular medium. The conventions of reading, theater, movies or television all require an audience’s willingness to accept the limitations of the medium for the sake of their own enjoyment.

The seminal point here is that all of these conventions are learned behaviors. We need to be trained to understand when the images we see are real and when they are works of fiction. Anyone who has ever comforted a frightened child with the phrase, "It’s only a movie," knows how powerful, but realistic, two-dimensional moving pictures can be. How many of us have been awakened by a nightmare evoked by a fictional character or event? We know they are not real because we have been taught that they are not real -- but they have the power to affect us deeply.

Conversely, we are taught when an image is real. When the President addresses the nation or when the news covers a disaster, the images may look like works of fiction, but we know they are real — we know because we have been taught.

Today, if even a handful of major television news channels decided to play a hoax on the people of the United States by reporting a fake terrorist attack or some other doomsday scenario (as Orson Wells did on October 30, 1938, with his radio play “War of the Worlds”), there would be an instant breakdown of basic social services and complete chaos would ensue. These television news sources are trusted for their respective brands of “real” reality, and nobody is trained to believe otherwise.

Most of us know the difference between "fake" reality and "real" reality – although it has been the subject of some controversy. There have been lawsuits brought against the people who make and distribute television, claiming that specific programs caused their clients to lose touch with reality and commit crimes or risk their lives. Just about since the day it was empanelled, the FCC has been receiving complaints from lobbyists and ordinary citizens about how television improperly reflects our society.

It is this learned behavior and the conventions of watching television that sets the stage for the eminent transition from network to networked television. What confuses most people is the lumping of all kinds of content into one bucket. Shows that were created for the network television model are different from shows that are just starting to be created for networked television. Yes, it is all "content," but the value of any given work is directly related to its ability to adapt to the new paradigm.

The Value of Content
Is a dial tone content? Probably not. But a television test pattern is content and, as you well know, sometimes it is more interesting than the "paid" programming (such as infomercials and shopping shows) that passes for content on the myriad channels that can’t afford "real" programming. Real programming is also a grey area. What is real programming? Reality programming is real, so is emergent news, so is a very well-produced shopping channel. In fact, even a poorly produced infomercial is considered content these days. So let’s just accept the idea that anything that fills up media space is content. Part of the disruptive nature of digital technology is the impact it is having on the relationship between content and value. As we transition from network to networked television, the store of economic value in any particular piece of content may shift based upon how and when it is viewed and how well it can be protected. Let’s take a look at some genres and make some educated guesses about how they might be valued in a networked television future.

Emergent news has a very short shelf life. It is only interesting until the story is reported. Then, it’s all about follow up. You may need to reference yesterday’s news for archival purposes, a follow-up story or to repurpose it for a documentary or year-end wrap-up. But, as a practical matter, nobody cares about yesterday’s news.

Because emergent news is usually served up fresh, it has a very high value to people who care about the subject. Sadly, it has a very low value to people who don’t care about the subject and, more importantly, it has almost no residual value. On our scale of content value, news is close to the top.

Live sporting events could also be considered emergent — the content has significantly less value after the game is played and the score is known. However, the shelf life is a bit longer because of ancillary opportunities like highlight films, compilations and other forms of exploitation. On the content/value scale, sports also sits very near the top. On balance, news and sports share many of the same attributes, and viewers will consume news and sports media in very similar ways. There are news addicts that are as addicted to news as sports fans are to sports. And, there is a great deal of money to be made packaging these two categories in form factors that people want.

Disposable Television
Interestingly enough, disposable TV is not necessarily the most emergent or timely; it’s just the fastest to go stale. Examples include infomercials that no longer pull their weight, talk shows that look dated or feature topics that are no longer in vogue, and service shows whose subjects have been rendered irrelevant because of new technology or methods. These shows typically have a relatively short shelf life, but they can be extremely profitable for the businesses that create and use them.

Near the bottom of the scale sits movies, sitcoms and television dramatic hours. The value propositions for these three types of entertainment could not be more different. But, in this context, they are similar because they embody a form of packaged, nonemergent entertainment. The shelf lives for this group can be very, very long. Both old and new, classic movies are coveted. From "Fountainhead" to "Psycho" to "Jaws" to "Star Wars" to "Flashdance," there is big money in hit movies. After their theatrical release, they are distributed via PPV, DVD, airlines, premium channels, network television, and syndicated television or cable — each new distribution window is a new profit center for the hit.

Network television shows can also enjoy a long and profitable "off-net" life. You will find episodes of "Star Trek," "Seinfeld," "Gilligan’s Island," and "Spin City" or monster franchises like "CSI" or "Law & Order," to name a few, in DVD box sets and broadcast syndication worldwide. Here, the problem is digital distribution. As the public Internet becomes more available and file sharing services become commoditized, there is little hope of maintaining the value proposition or sales structure of these back catalogs.

Concepts Are Worthless — Packaging Is Priceless!
Production and distribution are now fairly well democratized. But there is still a great deal of value in the old infrastructure. To test this theory, try to sell the "concept" of a music show to MTV, or a news show to CNN, or a kids’ show to NICK. They won’t be interested in your concept. They might be interested in your talent (if you have any) but they have "best practices" distribution networks and all of the production capability they could possibly need. Your concept is meaningless to them unless you have some exclusive rights that they can’t get without you. These rights may be an on-camera personality or production technique that is unique to you or a script that blows them away or, more usually, a package of all of the above that looks like a winner.

Even with all of that going for you, you have about a one percent chance of success. Many people make the mistake of thinking that since production and distribution are democratized, anyone can make a show, put it up on the Web and get people to see it. This is mythology. There is a reason the number one advertiser on television is television.The promotion departments of every network, station, operator and show work full time, 24/7 to get your attention.

As discussed in Chapter 3, there are several ways to promote your show using the Web, blogs, RSS and CRM in conjunction with traditional advertising and marketing. It is becoming almost imperative that contemporary media organizations use a combination of every possible media channel to promote their content. This is true, of course, for advertisers as well.

Who Are the Gatekeepers?
Since the advent of technology, there have always been significant monetary barriers to entry for almost every creative outlet. You needed a printing press to make books, a recording studio to make music, a film studio to make films, etc. You also needed craftspeople (back then they were politically incorrectly referred to as craftsmen, but at that time, all machines, boats and hurricanes were female — crazy times, they were!). The organizations and businesses that could effectively field an infrastructure and efficient distribution channels became the gatekeepers of their respective domains. To stay in business, gatekeepers needed to have a better than average ratio of hits to flops. So, they evolved rules (and bureaucracy) to filter out things that would not sell to the masses. That was then.

Not to worry, you say: Brands and branding do the same job. No, they don’t. Brands may represent what is supposed to be good, but brands are not gatekeepers. What’s the difference? Well, gatekeepers prevent lots of bad ideas from being realized. Brands simply apply labels to stuff that fits into a brand strategy that does nothing to limit the amount of worthless creative that clogs up our world.

You may think that there is no such thing as worthless creative, and you’d be right! After all, if someone has taken the time to create something, shouldn’t we give it the respect it deserves? Actually, it’s up to you. You are the world’s foremost expert on the subject of what you will like or respect. And in this particular case, it is 100 percent about you!

Without gatekeepers, you will have to filter all of this stuff yourself. You will have to trust your own taste, and you will have to be your own program director. Of course, you could crawl into the cocoon of a trusted brand — but then where would you get new stuff that’s truly leading edge? Are we sociologically ready to keep our own creative gates? And, more importantly, what are the social implications of a world without gatekeepers telling you how to think and what you should feel? Not only is this sociologically unprecedented, it is wonderful fun to think about.

Computed Gatekeepers
What makes it fun is that some new technologies are slowly starting to replace human gatekeepers. In Chapter 3, we introduced the concept that, in a networked universe, metadata may actually be more valuable than data. This idea is central to the business model and consumer value proposition of every rich media digital asset management system. Amazon’s collaborative filtering system is a great example of an automated gatekeeper. Phrases like, "Customers who bought this book also bought ..." sell lots of books. Even a simple "Top 10" list is a very effective sales tool in the right environment. Automating a recommendation can yield excellent results but there are deeper and more interesting approaches emerging.

On top of the list is social tagging, where people not only create metadata for their personal use, they share it with others and — while doing so — create communities around the subject or point of interest. There are a few versions of this collaborative tagging technique in use. The idea of "tag clusters" or "tag clouds" is the process of allowing users to create their own taxonomies that feed a central community taxonomy to create a "folksonomy," which, as simply as it can be described, is a collaborative description of a given object.

Shelly Palmer, author of Television Disrupted, is Managing Director, Advanced Media Ventures Group, LLC and is one of the experts leading the industry’s rapid evolution. From developing advanced television services to implementing new Internet technologies, Palmer’s pioneering efforts have made him the successful creator, producer, composer and television Renaissance man he is today.

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