Amazon Video, Netflix and the New TV Normal

The death of the traditional TV model has been forecast for many years now. I’ve always believed that the model needs to evolve and the rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated. I think we are finally seeing the concrete manifestation of that evolution, and some of the early results are fascinating.

Since 2012, Netflix has been producing and releasing original series such as “Lilyhammer” and “House of Cards”, with the revival of “Arrested Development” in May 2013 marking their most high profile project to date. Now Amazon Instant Video is getting into the act, with an interesting twist. On April 19, Amazon released 14 pilots all at once, a mix of 8 comedies and 6 kids’ shows. With high profile names both in front of and behind the camera like John Goodman, Bebe Neuwirth and Jeffrey Tambor, to name just a few, Amazon is clearly trying to get your attention. But, have they? I’d be willing to bet this is the first you’re hearing of it.

The twist I mentioned comes from the viewers’ ability to answer a few survey questions about the pilots they just watched, giving the audience the chance to switch roles with the network suits and decide whether the show lives or dies. If you are an Amazon Prime member in the US or you get Lovefilm UK or Lovefilm Germany, all the shows are free, although there may be a way to get them for a fee if you are not a Prime member.

“The goal is to get customer feedback, to understand which ones customers are excited about and are promising,” said Amazon Studios head Roy Price. The studio was formed in November 2010, with a focus on crowd-sourced, high-quality TV and movie programming.

It is certainly debatable whether the audiences will be better judges of TV than suits, but this model does two things right away: 1) offers a value add to Prime members, as they will be the ones to receive this content for free and, 2) continues the “American Idol”/”The Voice” model of audience participation and control over content, but in a way that does not involve a contest.

I watched two of the shows (“Alpha House” and “Browsers”) and they were both fine. No better or worse than standard TV fare. “Browsers” was a comedy musical, so if musicals aren’t your thing, you might want to skip it, although Bebe Neuwirth’s song is hilarious and raunchy. I will probably wend my way through 3 or 4 more of the pilots that looked promising, as I am intrigued by Amazon’s model.

Two questions for you: 1- Had you heard about this effort from Amazon? 2- Do you  like the idea of audiences giving input to the studio about a pilot? Does that make you more or less likely to watch it? (OK, that was sort of 3 questions…)

Leave a comment…

Can online video survive?

The comparisons between traditional TV and online video never stop. Some common comparisons are:

 

Online will disrupt and eventually kill TV.

 

TV will never die because of viewer habits, the user experience and their entrenched business model.

 

Blah blah blah…on it goes. Who cares? Not the point of this post.

 

 It seems to me that a major handicap for the long term financial viability of online video is that shows cannot easily be syndicated.

 

What is syndication? In a nutshell, it is where the real money is in TV. As a general rule, when a half-hour show produces 100 episodes, roughly 5 seasons, it can then be sold into syndication and shown off-network.

 

For example, Seinfeld aired as a first run show on NBC. Now it airs off network on hundreds of local stations around the country. That’s an example of syndication. But Seinfeld was always popular and made a lot of people associated with it extremely rich. A better example of the money-making power of syndication success might be a show like Star Trek, which only aired for 3 seasons in the mid-1960s and was not all that popular at the time. Nearly 50 years later, however, we’re still following the same bold voyages of the starship Enterprise.

 

Star Trek might be the original example of the “long tail.”

 

All this occurred to me when I read about the demise of “Diggnation.” Online video is often about immediacy and is often unscripted. (I am generalizing to make a larger point.) Online video shows also seldom adhere to a strict 30-minute length. Yet at its peak in around 2006, Diggnation was arguably the most popular show online and as of this writing, they have produced over 300 episodes. (They will cease production in December 2011.)

 

So, what happens to all that inventory? Who is going to go back and watch an episode from 2007 speculating on the launch of this new device called an iPhone? From a business standpoint, these episodes have no more value than a CNN half hour about a snowstorm in Tennessee in 1987. Archival? Sure. Revenue generating? Nope.

 

When I think about the long term viability and the business model for online video, this strikes me as a major issue that needs to be sorted out. If the “real” money in television is in syndication, where will it come from in online video? I don’t have the answer, but I also don’t really hear the question being asked.

 

What do you think? Is this an insurmountable block for online video producers and other content creators?

Trust. Relevance. Search.

What is the connection between these three words? Search  improves in relevance when results come from trusted sources. I have long maintained that there ain’t much “new” about new media or social media. Gathering in groups and sharing stories and experiences are among our most primal human instincts. The Internet just enables those things to happen remotely. Now I can write on my facebook wall, instead of the wall in my cave.

What’s this got to do with search? Google is great for finding out facts, locations, baseball scores and settling bar bets. But what about where to eat? What movie to go see? Which book to read? Well, in those cases, the trend online is to rely on our network of friends. See what I mean? Everything old is new again. Once upon a time you picked up the phone. Now you can connect your facebook and Amazon accounts to see what your friends are reading or watching. There are even ways to watch TV together separately.

But there are two problems, as I see it, that get worse the larger your network gets.

1- Signal to noise ratio. One of the biggest problems with sites like Yelp.com, Trip Advisor and others is you don’t really know WHO is leaving these reviews, what ax they may have to grind and whether or not the reviews are authentic.

2- If you’re a serial “friender” on facebook and find yourself with 1000+ friends, at what point do their recommendations lose value? This kind of brings you back to problem number 1, which is not really knowing your “friends” and what their tastes are. Curation is key but, alas, it may be too late if your network has spiraled out of control. And un-friending people is so gauche. (Now HERE is a case where I wish offline life more closely resembled online. Imagine if you could un-friend someone with the click of a button. But, alas, that is fodder for another post.)

Nevertheless, the trend still holds: we still ask our friends and family what they think of stuff and social networking just makes that possible at all hours of the day and night from your computer or phone.

So, what’s the best movie you’ve seen lately?

Social networks as focus groups- The future of live TV

A couple of months back I wrote about how social networking was making inroads  connecting people while they watched TV.

Liveprogramming, such as awards shows, were benefitting disproportionately from this type of community building with some estimates showing the Golden Globes, Grammys and Oscars with 14%, 35% and 14% bumps in viewership, respectively. Can it ALL be attributed to social media chatter and participation? I doubt it. But these events consciously make social media a part of their promotional campaigns by leveraging the conversations that are already taking place on twitter and facebook. (Here is what the Grammys did in 2010.)

 

During the interminable World Cup and the almost-as-boring NBA Finals, twitter said that there were over 3000 tweets per second referencing these events. Normal twitter traffic is about 750 tweets per second, evidently.

So what? Well, here’s what: TV is losing viewers, but is in no danger of disappearing. Partially because instead of fighting against social networking as a threat to their hegemony, they have decided to co-opt it to their benefit. (“They” being the faceless, nameless “them” that decides what goes on the air.) With laptops and iPads and smart phones at full throttle as people sit on the couch watching whatever, the Mystery Science Theater 3000-ization of TV is complete. Every tag for every promo on every sports channel and reality show implore us to follow them on twitter and friend them on facebook. The real time feedback from viewers coupled with the demographic information we all gladly provide as payment for joining these networks is a data gold mine for programmers, advertisers, producers and folks wanting to target a specific sector of the populace.

We’re making it easier for them to make TV that better resonates with us that we can chatter about in an endless, self-referential loop. The focus group has reached its zenith.

TV is still King, and the Internet is an enabling Prince

I have written in this space (too many times to link to) about the absurd and reductive tendency on the part of the media and others to anoint “killers” every time a new piece of technology or social media platform comes out: iPhone killers, Kindle killers, TV killers, and on it goes.

 

Despite cratering ratings of many TV shows, TV still rules the roost and social media and the Internet actually enable and help to grow audiences, rather than be the oft-predicted TV killer. The 70,000 twitter posts per hour during last week’s Oscars telecast probably had something to do with its strong ratings showing.

Just as social media can help level the playing field allowing smaller brands, retail outlets, restaurants or mom & pop stores to have a fighting chance against household names, the same holds true for TV. David Carr’s March 15 piece in the NY Times quoted the GM of Oxygen Network who credited the popularity of “Bad Girls Club” to social media. The show “is knit so tightly into the social media system that on nights it is on, its characters and plot make up 5 of the top 10 topics on Twitter.” (We will leave out any discussion of the relative quality of programming for now.) For live programming, such as the Oscars, social media can be an even bigger boon. New services such as Hot Potato offer a foursquare-style ability to “check in” to a particular live TV program (think the NCAA basketball tournament or CNN) and let friends socialize and comment in real time.

All of these trends help stanch the ratings hemorrhaging that has been afflicting TV for some time now.

Methinks the web-fearing TV exec doth protest too much.

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Tivo did not kill TV. Anyone surprised?

I am a big sports fan, but the one thing I have never been able to watch are pre-game shows. They always struck me as such a monumental waste of time in crystal ball gazing and trenchant insights such as,  “If this happens, then this will happen…but, we still need to watch out for THAT, because it will change the course of THIS, meaning everything I just said might go the other way.” Really? Well, good thing we have a panel of “experts.”

The pre-game show is the high water mark in hedging. Why? Because what makes the future the future is that no one can predict it. (I know, I know. You needed me to tell you that.) Sure, you can make  educated guesses based on experience- the Detroit Lions will probably lose this Sunday. Miami will be hot in July. The coupon for the free quart of ice cream will expire before I remember to use it.

But in most other things, predictions are way off. Here’s another great example.

When the DVR, or Tivo, hit the market, there was all sorts of hand wringing among network executives and advertisers that it was going to kill television. If you give people the chance to skip past the commercials, the thinking went, of course they will.

Well, folks, a July blizzard just hit Miami. According to Nielsen, 46% of viewers 18-49 for all four major broadcast networks are watching the commercials during playback. And that number is up a bit from 2008. Why? Because watching TV is the epitome of a passive activity. The habit ingrained in all of us since youth of plopping down on the couch and letting it wash over us is, apparently, a tough one to break.

“It’s completely counter-intuitive,” observed Alan Wurtzel, the president of research for NBC. Now THERE’S a good observation.

All I can say is, research like this puts the kibosh on all the rosy predictions of interactive TV. Viewers choosing the direction of a show from among several different endings? Nah. Clicking on the screen to buy the shirt that Oprah has on? Mmmm…not so much. We all just sit down, watch, and leave it to the programmers to tell us what we want. The other way is just too much work.

The Lions just won the Super Bowl.

Is “good enough” good enough?

Long before I made the move into social media, most of my career has been spent in the entertainment business. I started in radio, moved to the music business (as both a performer and executive) and then onto TV (never as a performer, thank God).

I have always been fascinated by trends and how sometimes you can have two diametrically opposed trends developing simultaneously. I still produce, direct and write lots of video content (here’s a picture taken two days ago from a client shoot to prove it), and this has kept me thinking about one of these two-way trends a lot.

Quality. How important is it, as it pertains to audio or video content?

First let me identify the trends, as I see them. On the one hand, there is this breakneck race to the top in terms of HD televisions, HD video cameras, even HD radio. Everything needs to be as life like as possible, and we all want high quality HD monitors at home to watch the, arguably, low quality content on TV. (Hey, it’s my blog. I can editorialize all I want.) But, seriously, video production and delivery quality is going up up up while the prices of TVs and cameras keep coming down down down.

On the internet, however, high quality video delivery is still hampered by bandwidth issues, among other things. Flip cameras, iPhone 3GS and other low cost video cameras are gaining in popularity, and with good reason. You Tube, uStream, facebook and other outlets allow you to then share that content quickly. But that, in my view, is the disconnect. Online video and user generated content tends to be of very low quality. The video needs to be compressed in order to be uploaded, and good audio is almost always an afterthought, if it’s thought of at all. I have long maintained that the democratization of content creation and distribution is both the best thing and the worst thing about the internet. The great thing is, ANYONE can make a video. The bad thing is, ANYONE can make a video.

So, to restate it: We demand high quality audio and video at home, but we give online content a pass. I wonder how long will that trend last? And, more importantly, if your business chooses to use video, does the TECHNICAL quality of the content you put out there send a subconscious message to your audience? You might not realize it, but when people try and watch a video that has terrible sound, they make a LOT of judgments. You do, too. There is an old saying that “Video is easy. Sound is hard.” I understand that there are situations where a company might CHOOSE to go the UGC route, and there are tons of valid reasons for doing just that. But my question is a deeper one. Has expertise been devalued? Are all decisions coming down to dollars and cents? If so, is it penny wise and pound foolish? Something you post on the internet, as I say every day of my life, is there forever. There is no delete button on the internet. So is putting out content for content’s sake a sound decision?

Obviously, quality has always carried the day in all walks of life and in all endeavors. When both audio and video podcasting were new, there were zillions of podcasts being produced and thrown up onto iTunes or onto people’s blogs and websites. There is less of that now because people have realized that creating regularly scheduled, quality content is hard, and expensive work. Expensive in terms of the time investment and, yes, the dollar investment.

But here’s the question I have rolling around in my head that I don’t have an answer to: have we reached a point where “good enough” is good enough? Our attention spans are being vied for every minute we’re awake. So is “yeah,yeah, I get the gist of it” where we find ourselves today? And if the answer to either of those questions is “yes,” then where does that leave professional content creators?

My sense is that the quality of internet audio and video is improving because people are tired of wading through stuff shot with shaky cameras, bad sound, no edits, no titles, no opens or closes- no expertise. In other words, maybe the new way is trending and becoming more like the old way. For every uStream video, there is a Hulu video. I realize it is an unfair comparison to compare UGC with NBC, but I hope I make my point.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Has good enough become good enough? If so, do you think it will always be this way? Am I totally off base with this post? I’m really interested in your comments, so fire away in the comments section.

What’s the deal with podcasting in 2009?

I was in San Francisco last week for two conferences (this one and this one). At one of the evening get togethers, the conversation turned briefly (and I do mean briefly) to podcasting. It went a little like this:

“So, how come no one talks about podcasting anymore?”

“Because it’s not new anymore. Everyone’s doing it. It’s totally mainstream.”

I guess I agree and disagree. A couple of years ago when I launched the company, I anticipated that podcast production would be a big part of the business model. With my years of experience as a video producer and director, it seemed like the next logical step in the evolution of online media creation. I was, and continue to be, a HUGE consumer of podcasts, many of them courtesy of NPR. But I was wrong about the production part being a big segment of my business. Aside from my own, we only produced a couple of others.

But back to the topic of podcasting and NPR…Tom Webster from Edison Research had some interesting stats that he presented at IMS. 43% of Americans are aware of this thing called podcasting, up from 22% just three years ago. And about 27 million Americans listened to a podcast in the last month. Chances are, a lot of them were from NPR.

While stories about the contraction of mainstream media outlets abound, an underreported story is how much NPR has grown, thanks largely to their bear hug embrace of new media. They consistently have several programs in the iTunes top 10 and traffic on NPR.org grew 78% from 2007 to 2008. There has been some internal conflict from member stations that they are essentially cannibalizing themselves. NPR member stations have to pay the mother ship for programming, but if all that programming is available online on matter which affiliate you listen to, you might be less inclined to give during pledge drive time.

Or maybe not. According to a recent article in Fast Company, the NPR audience “is perhaps more ready than most for the radical concept of paying for the content they consume… When we had to announce layoffs and cuts in December, there were comments on some of our stories: ‘How can we help? Where’s the give button?’ There’s a sense that the organization is leaving money on the table. People would like to contribute more to this service that they adore and depend on.”

Compared to traditional media, podcast audience numbers are still small. Yet, as we say over and over, it’s not about the quantity of your audience, it’s about the quality. 50,000 highly motivated listeners (or viewers) is preferable to 1 million indifferent ones.

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Social Media and Online Video- 2009’s Power Couple

Nielsen
released a study last week during ad:tech in San Francisco that tracked
the interests of the average online user from 2003 to today. Quite a
difference!

Video
and social networking sites are the two fastest growing categories in
2009. The stats are a little skewed since online video was not as
prevalent in 2003 as it is today, so when you read things like "the
number of American users frequenting online video destinations has
climbed 339% since 2003," it's sort of like saying "airplane travel is
up 100% since a similar period in 1809. Uh, yeah, I guess so,
seeing as how the airplane had not yet been invented.

Nevertheless,
the findings are still valid and paint a picture of what's to come for
marketers, advertisers and PR people. Here's the line that stuck with
me: "In the age of Twitter, feedback barriers have all but disappeared,
creating a near friction-free environment for playing back brand
experience, campaign reactions or brand events. Recent public cases
involving
Motrin, Amazon and Domino's show that marketers must be quick and savvy to react to these unprecedented channels of instant feedback."

Read more and download the report here.

TV might not be dead…yet

What is being called the most extensive survey ever conducted about our media consumption habits was recently concluded by the Council for Research Excellence. Now, granted, the CRE receives funding from Nielsen, but the results might surprise you. Researchers directly observed participants over a total of 952 observed days.


Between TVs, smart phones, computer and even GPS screens, we are exposed to some kind of screen about 8.5 hours per day. Two of the findings that jumped out at me were that those aged 45-54 consume the most video media, and that computers have overtaken radio as the number two media activity, bumping radio to number 3 and print to number 4.

Another surprise was that the number of media minutes was virtually identical for every age group, with exception of those younger boomers (45-54) who spend an extra hour in front of a screen every day. Multi-tasking does not appear to be the sole province of the young and careless-folks in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s multi-task virtually the same amount.

You can read the report here. I guess we’re not as different as we all thought we were in terms of the way we consume media among the age groups. And, despite the inroads that internet TV is making, traditional TV remains the dominant player. But for how much longer?