The launch of TechCrunch TV in mid-June suggests that a new model for niche television is here to stay; we’ll call it the Cottage Network Model. Bringing together the possibilities of scheduled live broadcasting with the on-demand convenience and portability of syndication, cottage networks fuse television, radio, and social-networking technologies in interesting ways.
The paragon of this model is Leo Laporte’s TWiT network (named for its flagship program This Week in Tech), which takes a basic area (new media) and spins out variations including This Week in Law (tech news from a legal perspective), This Week in Fun (tech-related human interest stories) and MacBreak Weekly (Mac news). From his cottage in Petaluma, Laporte produces programming for around $800 an hour, compared to minimum $10,000 for cable news networks, enabling profits with just one or two sponsors (paying higher CPMs than most “real” television could ever charge).
As a future for network television, this model has obvious limits. TWiT, TechCrunch, Revision3 and similar operations won’t be doing scripted or reality television anytime soon: it’s mostly commentary, interviews, and news (e.g. CNET TV, which leverages the newsgathering resources of CNET News).
Nonetheless, some distinctive features of the cottage network model make it interesting, such as:
- The apotheosis of simulcasting: Most of TWiT’s or CNET’s shows work equally well in audio as video, allowing them to exploit a range of distribution methods, technologies, and audience preferences. This isn’t a 1950s network trying to overcome legacy hardware (i.e. radio); it’s a 2010 network practicing hardware agnosticism. (Thanks in part to Audible.com‘s advertising strategy, audio is also where a lot of the money currently is, just as radio financed the transition to television.)
- The fully-integrated audience: Because most shows are streamed live, audience discussion isn’t just a post hoc backchannel–the Chat Room is a fully developed character, showing up at important moments to supply information, move discussion forward, or provide comic relief. “The chat room will know,” say hosts when unsure of a fact, and sure enough, the Chat Room always does. Hosts read the audience’s wittiest jokes and smartest comments in real time, and use the Chat Room’s questions to monitor their clarity. Lost fans—heck, Talk of the Nation fans—can only dream of being so important to the moment of production.
- The high-tech videolow: Cottage networks boast of their distance from older media: techno-mammals running circles around TV dinosaurs. It’s an old trope, of course, which makes it even curiouser that it is invoked so often. You won’t listen long to the TWiT network before Laporte tweaks his slow and greedy former bosses at TechTV. Similarly, The Sound of Young America‘s Jesse Thorn, a talented interviewer who parlayed his college radio show into a cottage mini-network, frequently mocks (and thereby highlights) his lowly position in the mediascape. More is at stake here, obviously, than pride; in a reputation economy, chastising big media firms that “don’t get it” helps establish credibility and independence. Thus Skype becomes another character on these shows: the frequent technical difficulties are a charming return to the “Please Stand By” days of early television, but also underwrite claims to “videolow” through which technological elites position themselves as outsider-underdogs.
- The tech-personality ecosystem: Remember those ads for the WB—Dawson dancing with Felicity, Angel flirting with Prue? Cottage networks instantiate that fantasy by promiscuously mixing personalities across a spectrum of old and new media. For example, one of MacBreak Weekly’s most popular guests, Merlin Mann, is also a blogger, podcaster, and Twitter superstar; Xeni Jardin (of über-blog Boing Boing) is an occasional guest on the TWiT network as well as a mainstream radio and television personality; geek goddess Molly Wood, aside from her regular gigs on CNET’s Buzz Out Loud and (the just cancelled) Gadgettes, frequently shows up on TWiT; and so on. The result is a self-reinforcing star system supported by the multiplier effects of a self-reinforcing media system, one (adjusted for scale, natch) that even the TV-Hollywood nexus should envy.
I don’t know whether this model is currently just a geek phenomenon, but there is little doubt it will spread, demonstrating the power of leveraging social networks, tapping into personality ecosystems, exploiting different revenue streams, and knowing one’s audience well. It’s Yochai Benkler’s “networked information economy” finally come to television production.