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Battlestar Galactica Webisodes and The Tyranny of Digital Distance

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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.

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  • Battlestar Season 3 will now air the day after in Canada. So it REALY makes no sense that we’re being cut out from the web episodes.

  • Dominic Kelly

    You can watch the webisodes through aol’s browser

  • @orangeguru: I think it’s important to keep in mind that reading between the lines the creative forces behind BSG (ie Ron Moore et al) have little say when it comes to the decisions made by NBC Universal about supporting material etc. beyond the ‘show’ in the classic sense. I’m sure Ron Moore wants it to be an international webisode audience … and I don’t think giving up on BSG because of decisions made by people holding the purse strings would achieve anything at all! A strongly worded letter to an NBC Universal exec would probably achieve a lot more!

  • chromatical

    Technically, anyone outside the US who watches the episodes before they’re aired in their home country or the DVDs are released there is doing so illegally. I can’t blame them – if I lived elsewhere, I’d be downloading dozens of TV shows. The current international distribution model is outdated and ridiculous, yes, and I’m all for opening the markets through iTunes or other online media. But saying international fans are “owed” the webisodes is tricky when much of that fanbase is built upon BitTorrent; the fans buying those DVDs and tie-in merchandise are most likely doing so after having seen the episodes elsewhere.

    To put it another way… you mentioned the Tardisodes. I became a Doctor Who fan via downloading, long before SciFi bought the US broadcast rights. Yeah, I was getting the episodes illegally, and though I enjoyed all the bbc.co.uk promotional freebies, I accepted that I couldn’t see the Tardisodes on their site because I wasn’t part of their intended audience.

    While the BSG webisodes do contain new, original content, they’re primarily intended as an advertisement for the new season. I’d love for all my non-US friends to be able to see them via SciFi Pulse, but I can understand why the network is solely targeting their potential broadcast audience. Here’s hoping that they choose to get rid of the geographic restrictions once the season begins.

    (Despite how this sounds, I’m not anti-Torrent. I have hundreds of .avis on my computer and DVD-Rs. I’m just trying to look at this from the business angle.)

  • @chromatical: I take your point about a strictly legal view today. I guess, I’m trying to look at two things: (1) that as Moore and the BSG team have put so much effort into putting a global public face on the production of BSG via blogs, podcasts and videoblogs, it seems something of a slap in the face now to draw a line in the digital sand and say “the production values of this online content is higher therefore we’re restricting it”; and (2) I think BSG really should be used as a test-case for a different distribution, one which is in keeping with the massive online presence BSG has – either current via legal or other sources.

    In Australia, for example, season 2 started 9 months after BSG in the US and went straight to a 11pm timeslot. The season 2 DVD was available for sale here in the first week of S2 on TV (showing that the TV sales happened regardless of the availability of the content via other means). If BSG was available via direct-download (either via iTunes or some other source) in Australia within a few days of the US release, I’m pretty sure that the show’s owners would make MORE off BSG that way than in the little they can get from Channel 7 here for broadcast rights. On top of that, the DVDS – with their lovely extras – still seem to sell remarkably well despite people already owning digital copies in the US (a la iTunes).

    (Incidentally, I’m curious about the Tardisodes: they worked just fine here in Australia, but we got Doctor Who some six months later than the UK. Perhaps part of the ‘sales’ of Who to the US included the rights to exclusively re-distribute related online content??)

  • hierohero

    awesome point! being an australian we are constantly being blokced out of content and quality shows..many that will never be screened here or available for purchase on dvd.its a disgrace.

  • Toliman

    it will remain a retarding factor in distribution, advertising, sales and promotion if television companies cannot embrace and get along with setting up distribution chains to international markets via the internet.

    digital broadcasting enables a cheap way to get the audience and the advertising revenues together over different means and different channels. it all travels in compressed mpeg-2 streams for digital cable and FTA DVB, that can easily be cut and fed to international sales partners without having to rebrand every time it travels over an ocean eg. dancing with the stars, ‘country goes here’ idol, etc.

    the biggest hurdle is the stoic yet misguided idea that the content of broadcast material remains secure and immobile after it is sent out to millions of viewers, and that online viewers are satisfied with postage stamp sized medium resolution clips for a fee. the genie cant be put back in the bottle, and marketing the next few seasons of television is going to face a problem when advertisers find out people aren’t watching their ads, theyre watching it online for free and without their precious ads.

    if advertisers were serious, they would embrace the idea of international peer distribution and tack on their ads to international and local digital content providers & distributors, set up franchise locations to tack local ads onto international content and bypass the local tv and cable distributors that require too many content restrictions.

    the argument that remains is that streaming ‘live’ content over internet channels remains a significant problem due to ‘pesky’ and ‘innocently naive of business’ net neutrality and a terrible lack of standards to regulate and isolate portions of the internet to distribute digital TV in a secured medium.

    so while the large media companies dither and get around to selling postage stamp sized versions of their videos that take 5x longer to download than to watch, the audience that distributors like NBC, WB, SciFi, Showtime are trying to approach (for luring the advertisers & content distributors like time warner cable, fox, etc.) are ignoring the futile efforts on places lik iTunes Store and simply, distributing it themselves, pushing and promoting the content for free in a watchable, publically accessible high definition (480p to 576p) format they just cant get locally.

    if tv companies want to get ahead of the problem of ip theft, they can either go after it like the mpaa/riaa in an unsuccessful, bumbling fashion, or just go directly after the cause, that the people in new markets need the same old products and new products, and will go wherever and to whomever is selling it.

  • kazza

    I think everything that is being said about tv shows being behind in Austrilia is so right and I get very sick of how long it takes and the late time slots we have to put up with, but just one thing, Battlestar Galactica is on Ch 10 not Ch 7.

  • @kazza: Quite right, channel 10, not channel 7! (My bad in an earlier comment…)

  • rg

    hi, well i just wanted to say i live in portugal and here well.. no bsg not even season 1…
    so.. there is only one way..

    and i ask you this.. why cant i see bsg i’m no less then any other person.. just because i was born here, there must be some law of equal rights saying it’s wrong..

  • The secret is to subscribe to itunes with a US credit card. One thing that pissed me off though, is that ITS TAKING TOO LONG to get the new season 3 episodes on itunes!!!!!!!!!!! IT STILL ISN’T on itunes!!!!!!

  • @adrian: I don’t think the US Credit Card for US iTunes Store is a secret … it’s just something many of us outside the US can’t get!

  • MC

    I wonder if BSG season 3 is not going to be released on iTunes at all. Some kind of conflict between Sci Fi and Apple?

  • well, they released the free pre-season vid so why not the rest?

  • peaston

    Hmmm…I just moved to Asia. I guess I’ll have to create a VPN connection to my sister’s computer in the USA to watch this stuff. I only just learned the frustration that so many folks outside the US experience. Not only the NBC webisodes, but Amazon’s new video content. Luckily I can buy material from iTunes here.

    It is ridiculous that that I have to go through such lengths to get content legally…and I always thought the draw of Bittorrent was folks being to cheap too spend a few bucks.

  • Convict

    Australia just launched scifi channel on the only cable/sat network foxtel. I thought great we will get season 3 and I will be able to get involved in the buzz with the rest of my net friends but alas its just season 2. I’ll probably just bittorrent it then buy the dvd when it comes out like i did with season 2. But adsl is 10 years behind US too I have a 10g limit 🙂

    Im really angry but don’t want to pirate it cause the creators deserve the money, there must be another way for the masses to apply pressure for change. Lets all put $1 in my bank account and ill start a true global broadcasting company ok make that $100 each News Limited is pretty big.

    This is the best written TV show to come out of the US since MASH (ok Friends was pretty cool too) well done to all involved in making BSG and also making scifi a whole lot less nerdy.

  • Jake

    What logical or business reason would NBC have for taking down the youtube copies? They are effectively getting free publicity, and free bandwidth. As for copyright issues, no viewers paid for the webisodes in the USA, so why should they care?

    Sure, they get to choose who they show it to, but why would you bother?

    In simplest terms: why does NBC gain from restricting global interest in their programming?

  • Josh

    Most webisodes do not generate revenue. They are teasers. They are designed, like that sold at cost sale item in the supermarket, to get people in the door, show them the channel and where to watch it.

    Your ability to watch them is usually restricted to the website because it forces people to the website, and thus the sell of the channel.

    The country restrictions on distribution are often created by legal hurdles for a broadcast company to show content to other countries. For example, Canada has rules requiring certain levels of Canadian content.

    This means in a lot of cases, the only options are:
    A)restrict access to the content to US only
    B)spend more money to get distribution rights
    C)allow open broadcast of the content, reducing how well it brings people to the site.
    D)allow hosting and rebroadcast of the contents only AFTER the big sell in primary country is completed and the new season is started.

    There are good business reasons why options B and C are problematic, and from a financial standpoint, a liability.
    There is NO good reason to not do things by method D, have the more widely distributed content have a link (or list of links) to the appropriate site or sites, and if someone out of country comes to the main site, give them info on WHEN they plan to release the content to the rest of the world.

    In my opinion, the problem is not that it is restricted, but that since the network all but forgets about it after the pitch, that restriction is never removed.