"There's a train coming and you can either get on board or get run over."
So said Andrew Eddy of Movie Central at the Banff World Television Festival. He was introducing "The Evolution of Content: Programming in a Multi-Platform Universe," a panel session exploring how the Internet, cell phones, video iPods, and other technologies have begun to revolutionize what audiences expect from the television experience.
It was a recurring theme throughout the festival, and the consensus seemed to be that while no one knows where the train's going, they have to at least go along for the ride until the destination becomes clear. Otherwise, they risk losing the agility to finally hop on board when others have succeeded in finding the way.
And now that I've tortured the train metaphor almost as much as the panelists who had fun with it during the "Evolution of Content" session did, it's time to introduce another overused expression: Show me the money.
While 30-second commercials are still a large source of revenue for a broadcaster, advertisers are looking for other ways to reach consumers in the post-TiVo era, when we can easily bypass ad breaks. And broadcasters are looking for new ways to generate income as their viewers flee to the Internet and elsewhere.
The big question in all the talk about webisodes or mobisodes (that's "mob-" as in mobile, not as in Tony Soprano), online games, ringtones, and other non-broadcast content is not only how to fund their production, but how to find ways to generate – and then fairly divide – new revenues.
A Virtual Circle of Content
Many of the executives were predicting that short video for cell phones is the next big thing, a phenomenon that is already exploding in Europe and is gaining ground in North America. But no one seems to have a clear picture of the present, never mind the future. The prevailing philosophy seemed to be try a little of everything, see what sticks with the audience, and worry about how to make money out of it later.
ABC has seen success with streaming ad-supported episodes online, and Bernard Gershon, an executive with that broadcaster's digital media group, joked that "$1.99 adds up" when enough people download Desperate Housewives and Lost from iTunes. But placing existing content on additional platforms, and creating new content related to a series, is not intended to fund production costs or even to simply promote the show.
"It's a virtual circle. These pieces aren't just supporting the broadcast of the show. All pieces support the other pieces, whether it's the DVD, or buying Lost playing cards, playing the Lost game online, going to Lost websites, building your own Lost site, or buying an episode from iTunes."
But without a show people want to watch in the first place, secondary content is not going to save broadcast television. Or, as CBS president Lesley Moonves pithily put it at the New York upfront presentations to advertisers, "No hits, no clicks." Festival participants also widely quoted his saying, "A bad show doesn't get better on a two-inch screen." Still, the digital world is beginning to be seen as crucial to cultivating and captivating an audience.
An Unlevel Playing Field
Gershon admitted an integrated company like his, with those hit ABC shows produced by the company's own studio, Touchstone, is in the ideal position to take advantage of new platforms. Things become more complicated with a show like House, for example, which is produced by NBC Universal and broadcast by rival FOX. While the Touchstone-produced, NBC-broadcast Scrubs managed to come to a revenue-sharing deal between those two competitors, the issue of rights rears its head when the producer is not the same as the broadcaster.
It's even more complicated when you're crossing international borders. Episodes on iTunes or streamed on the ABC site, for example, are not available in Canada, where Lost and Desperate Housewives are broadcast on CTV.
Gary Carter of the new platforms arm of FremantleMedia, a UK-based production company, complicated the issue even further. "I find it difficult to understand how broadcasters intellectually justify their expansion into non-broadcast realms."
Dan Fill of the Australian Broadcast Corporation acknowledged that it can be difficult for the broadcaster to acquire rights from producers to place content on the Internet and mobile video, but he does think it's a task that falls naturally to the broadcaster. "We believe that our brand is much stronger than the independent producers', so we would be in a better position to exploit the content across multiple platforms."
"So is that an argument for trying to get the rights, or is that the justification for trying to take the rights?" moderator Roma Khanna of Canada's CHUM Television asked pointedly.
Fill good-naturedly acknowledged this unknown territory is "a good opportunity for lawyers," not just to hammer out rights and revenue-sharing deals for current content, but to repurpose television content that was created long before a new platform was anything other than a recently constructed area of a train station (I guess I wasn't finished pounding that metaphor into the ground after all).
And then it's back to the question of money. Why would producers sign over the online rights to their content if there's no guarantee of additional revenue? Why would TV stars agree to appear in a mobisode if they're not getting paid decently for it?
At another session, Touchstone executive Howard Davine (right) alluded to 24 as an example of mobisodes done badly, with none of the writers and performers of the series involved in their creation (he tactfully didn't name the show, but moderator Mark Dillon of Playback Magazine helpfully filled in the blank). In my interview with him, Paul Scheuring of Prison Break was dismissive of the mobisodes for his own show, and no wonder – they come across as glorified Toyota commercials, and none of the writers or cast are involved.
But Davine has high hopes for the upcoming Lost mobisodes, which will see Hurley finding a video camera in the wreckage and filming new, short-form content that viewers can watch on their computers or mobile video devices. ABC negotiated with unions so the writers, directors, and actors of the series can be involved.
Davine couldn't say if the mobisodes would be ad supported, pay per download or per view, or subscription based, but those are some potential ways of squeezing money out of these new platforms.
Again, a rich conglomerate like ABC is in an ideal position to negotiate rights and take a risk on recouping their production expenses. Independent producers have fewer resources to join in the multi-platform fun. But Fremantle's Carter, for one, doesn't think money needs to be a barrier, saying good online content doesn't have to be expensive, but also that money simply can't be a barrier.
"If you can't offer your audiences exciting propositions, if you can't find the money, if you can't scrape it off the wallpaper to do something interesting, we're going to go nowhere," he said. "Actually, where we'll go is the balance of power will shift to all those great content producers who have no money and are doing it from their basements."
Consumer Before Cash
As Carter suggested, the industry is facing competition from its own consumers and others who can create their own content and find an audience on YouTube, AOL, or other sites. Viewers haven't been sitting quietly on the sidelines while the industry sorts things out. Illegal downloads were an issue long before broadcasters teamed up with iTunes or streamed episodes on their websites. Fan sites have long allowed viewers to create supplementary materials for their favourite shows. But the television industry has, at least partly, learned the lessons of the recording industry, which delayed giving their consumers what they wanted until the consumers took it anyway.
"When we think of content creation, we don't just think about a television show anymore. We need to think of other platforms from day one. That's what the viewers want," said Fred Fuchs of the Canadian Broadcast Corporation at another festival session. His viewpoint, like many others', is that producers and broadcasters need to look at today as the investment phase of tomorrow's revenue.
It's gratifying if unsettling to hear that fan demand is what's driving the move to more and more additional content, rather than a clear money grab. Few would accuse the television industry of leaping on the new platform train too early. But they now seem determined to satisfy their fans' thirst for ancillary materials, without quite knowing what materials on what platforms will eventually gain widespread adoption, or how to recoup their investments. It remains to be seen if our blind conductors can eventually arrive at a destination their audience wants to see, but it makes for an interesting ride.