The Battlestar Galactica Webisodes …
The television series Battlestar Galactica, re-imagined for the twenty-first century, has consistently been at the cutting edge of television and cross-media.
Executive producer Ronald D. Moore and the Battlestar team utilise not just blogs and production-side videoblogs, but also episodic commentary podcasts. They’ve made deleted scenes available online as well as having put up two full episodes free for viewing. BSG was one of the first shows available via iTunes.
It should be no surprise that the latest Battlestar-related venture is pushing the boundaries of television as we conventionally know it (and, no, I don't mean the inevitable spin-off series Caprica). The Sci-Fi channel is currently releasing two webisodes per week until the US launch of season three of BSG on October 6th.
As Moore mentions in his blog, "We're very excited about the Webisodes and I think they're unlike anything anyone has done in this arena to date, so I hope you'll all take a moment to check them out." Moore makes a point to list the full credits as well, since there was something of a pay controversy as to how the cast and crew should be paid for the webisodes.
SF fans might point out that the latest Doctor Who series was accompanied by the Tardisodes.These 30-second teasers may have contained original footage related to upcoming episodes, but they were exclusively targeted to mobile phone users. While the BBC didn't charge for this mobile content, the telecos certainly did! There were Real video versions released online, but these were of extremely poor quality and clearly illustrated that the media was created and intended primarily for small-screen portable media devices.
The BSG webisodes set a higher target, with the ten segments culminating in almost a full thirty minutes of original media or the best part of an original episode of one of the best written and produced shows currently being made. An article in the The New York Times, "Sci Fi Creates 'Webisodes' to Lure Viewers to TV", mentions there will be ten webisodes all up, attempting to replicate the production values and gritty realism of the show itself.
However, the Times article also notes that these webisodes are testing new boundaries for online trans-media storytelling: "It was challenging on several levels," said Erik Storey, vice president of programming at Sci Fi. "Each of the Webisode chapters had to be close-ended, with a beginning, a middle and an end, and each of those chapters is going to be three minutes, four minutes. And there had to be a little cliffhanger ending for each one."
While NBC Universal is using the webisodes (and the SciFi channel more broadly) to test the appeal and utility of original franchise material online, there are already plans to release material for other shows. Craig E. Engler, general manager of SciFi.com noted, "This is a way to get people talking about the show a month before it airs." The webisodes appear each Tuesday and Thursday on the Sci-Fi channel website. However, they only appear for people using computers inside the United States with a US ISP (or internet address)!
… and the Tyranny of Digital Distance
Clearly, NBC Universal has elected to try and generate fan interest in BSG's third season premiere, but have decided to limit the webisodes to that segment of the internet nominally American (and only US, not Canadian, as pointed out by D'Arcy Norman). To some extent, this might appear to make sense to the studio executives financing BSG, since the release dates for season three will be later in other countries.
They don’t seem to notice that the very large and thriving fan communities that built up around Battlestar (and similar shows) are global in nature. There may be arcane big media arrangements that mean the third season will debut later in the UK and later again (if ever!) in Australia, but the buzz about BSG, the communities which actively discuss and to some extent participate in the show (a sense heightened by Ron Moore's podcasts) and thus the interest, is spread further than the national boundaries of the US (or the ISPs located therein).
By barring large segments of the BSG fan communities from seeing the webisodes is tantamount to a slap in the face to the very loyal fans in other countries who not only watch the series, but buy the DVDs, comics, soundtracks, and other offshoots from the BSG franchise.
More to the point, denying the international fan communities (and others) access to the webisodes simply provokes the collective intelligence of knowledge communities in getting around such arbitrary (and difficult to maintain) restrictions in an age of digital distribution.
Hours after its release, the first webisode appeared on YouTube, but has since been removed, displaying this notice: "This video has been removed at the request of copyright owner NBC Universal because its content was used without permission." Less easy to police, each webisode is also rapidly appearing on filesharing networks and as bittorrent downloads.
Rather than providing that little extra sense of community and loyalty to the show, the decision to restrict the webisodes to the US has those international fans who might not have been using peer-to-peer networks now turning to them in order to get content which is supposedly free!
Last year I used the term "the tyranny of digital distance" when talking about the oddity of a number of geographically-based distribution decisions in the face of the potential for high-speed digital distribution. I cited Ron Moore's commentary podcasts as an example since I could get the podcasts within minutes of their release, but had to legally wait almost a year for the episodes that accompanied them to appear on Australian television.
The term "the tyranny of distance" was used by Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey to describe the geographic gap between Australia and the centres of the Western world (US, UK) and how this divide played a fundamental role in shaping the Australian psyche and character.
Nowadays, geography has been supplanted by an almost instantaneous information network, shrinking the time and conceptual distance between places. The tyranny of digital distance occurs insomuch as the potential and, indeed, expectation of synchronous global culture (at least for English-speaking countries) leads to a constant state of delay and annoyance when the promise isn't met.
The tyranny of distance was geographic with cultural effects. The tyranny of digital distance occurs when the geographic has been replaced by the digital. The age-old national boundaries to legal media distribution will very soon lead to more and more people circumventing those legal limits unless big media admits that dividing the pie up in terms of national licenses (or the ridiculous DVD region zones) no longer makes sense when information is moving at the speed of light!
The webisodes illustrate this point even more clearly. An arbitrary decision by NBC Universal studio executives has suddenly made Australian and other BSG fans feel ostracized from the officially recognised BSG fan community. Thankfully, fans themselves will always find a way if studios won't.
The Battlestar Galactica team has often shown insight when respectfully dealing with fans everywhere. It would do NBC Universal well to listen to Moore and the show's creative team and let the fans everywhere enjoy the webisodes. This would reinforce an international sense of shared media fandom rather than the tyranny of digital distance.Powered by Sidelines