digital distribution – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Pretty in Pink: BBC iPlayer and the Promotion of On-Demand Television Thu, 19 Nov 2015 12:00:27 +0000 Post by Paul Grainge, University of Nottingham

This post continues the ongoing “From Nottingham and Beyond” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media. This week’s contributor is Paul Grainge, Professor of Film and Television Studies in our department.

BBC iPlayer as a “pink portal” (2010)

BBC iPlayer as a “pink portal” (2010)

Ever since the BBC launched its on-demand service, BBC iPlayer, on Christmas Day in 2007, short-form trailers have appeared across the BBC’s broadcast channels to promote the availability of iPlayer as a new way of accessing and engaging with BBC content. The distinctive iPlayer logo, pretty in pink, routinely appears in TV end credits as a reminder of program availability through catch-up and as a call to action. The “play” symbol invites audiences not only to watch shows they may have missed but also to download content, interact with educational guides, share recommendations and personalize their viewing through sign-in (the last of these reflecting the BBC’s desire, expressed by Director-General Tony Hall in 2015, to “reinvent public service broadcasting through data”).

As well as using end credits, the promotion of BBC iPlayer in the UK market has also taken place in between programs, a range of teasers (10 seconds), trailers (30-40 seconds) and full-blown brand stories (up to a minute long) appearing as interstitials in the BBC’s linear schedule. These always make me watch. Not simply because I’m a sucker for a well-crafted promo, but also because they reveal something of the way that the BBC has produced, and continues to develop, vernaculars around on-demand television.

BBC iPlayer logo

BBC iPlayer logo

This has become tied to questions of how the BBC communicates its role in a fast-changing media environment. Unquestionably, the BBC has been successful in creating brand awareness for iPlayer. This was evidenced by a YouGov poll in 2013 that named “BBC iPlayer” the UK’s number-one brand in terms of consumer perception, ahead of Samsung (2nd), John Lewis (3rd), (6th), YouTube (7th) and Marks & Spencer (8th). And yet, despite the ubiquity of the brand, it remains the case that iPlayer accounts for just 2-3% of all BBC audience viewing. For those responsible for iPlayer strategy at the BBC, this signals a head-scratching gap between brand awareness and actual use among mainstream audiences. While rebutting claims in 2015 that iPlayer’s audience had dipped for the first time, the Head of BBC iPlayer, Dan Taylor-Watt, nevertheless remarked in a May blog post that “the challenge for us is to get everyone using iPlayer—whether that’s to make the journey to work better, the holiday in the middle of no-where [sic] in the rain more enjoyable or just easily catch-up on what you’ve missed from the comfort of your sofa.”

It is the nature of the “challenge” that Taylor-Watt describes that interests me—specifically, how promotion has been used to get audiences to think of iPlayer as part of their daily habit. Since 2011, marketing campaigns for iPlayer have been informed by a “three beyond” strategy: “beyond PC, beyond catch-up, beyond the early-adopter.” This has been expressed in different ways, but is marked by a move away from techno-representations of iPlayer as a “portal”—viewers gazing at phosphoric BBC content in mystical electro-space—and towards representations that depict the use and function of iPlayer in the spaces and routines of everyday British life.

In the move from portals to port-a-loos (the tempting alternative title for this blog), a 2012 trailer called “Beyond the Computer” would depict the iPlayer logo descending onto screen devices being used in a range of spaces across the UK, from buses, beach huts, canal boats and office blocks to windmills, flats and the aforementioned portable toilet. Promoting the extension of iPlayer onto multiscreen devices, this trailer emphasized platform mobility in contemplative representations of “digital Britain.

More recently, however, iPlayer campaigns have taken a different tack, and have focused more deliberately on what BBC managers that Catherine Johnson and I have interviewed call the “need-states” of on-demand television. This involves communicating the relevance, rather than simply the availability, of iPlayer to audiences. A 2014 campaign called “Always There When You Need It” demonstrates this attempt to show how iPlayer can serve the “entertainment needs” of prospective users. Targeted at the audience persona of “mainstream mums”—women in their thirties and forties with children, seen by the BBC as a group that under-uses iPlayer—the promo imagined “moments and opportunities” where iPlayer could fill gaps and fit into the time-pressed lives of people negotiating hectic, harassed and occasionally hungover moments of the day.

At some level, “always there when you need it” chimes with Max Dawson’s analysis of DVR advertising in the U.S. By the terms of his argument, digital television technologies became linked in the 2000s to discourses of attention management. Dawson connects this to wider neoliberal ideologies and the reflexive project of learning how to allocate attention profitably. Alert to quotidian moments, “Always There When You Need It” depicts scenes where iPlayer solves problems of time and attention in social, familial and workday life—from viewing “opportunities” on a delayed train to calming over-energetic children.

And yet, there is something in these promos that extends beyond a concern with the profitable allocation of attention. In cultural terms, they also contribute to the way the BBC has sought to promote its identity and value as a (digital) public-service broadcaster. In a period when the BBC is having to justify its purpose and unique funding arrangement ahead of charter review in 2016—and in the face of attacks by a Conservative government intent on reducing the corporation’s size—it is perhaps no surprise that the BBC has developed vernaculars that imagine, and assert, the BBC as something that wraps around British life.  While the purpose of “always there when you need it” was to highlight iPlayer’s capacity to meet entertainment needs, this trailer and subsequent promotions (such as this year’s “if you love something let it show” campaign, which invites audiences to share recommendations through iPlayer) have as much to say about the BBC’s own political “need-states” as they do the conditions and situations where audiences might turn to iPlayer as a service.

‘If You Love Something Let It Show" campaign (2015)

‘If You Love Something Let It Show” campaign (2015)


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Streaming Across Borders: The Digital Single Market, Web-Based Television and the “Global” Viewer Thu, 04 Jun 2015 11:00:54 +0000 eudigitalsinglemarketPost by Sam Ward, University of Nottingham

This post continues the ongoing “From Nottingham and Beyond” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media. This week’s contributor is Sam Ward, PhD candidate in Film and Television Studies in our department and Visiting Lecturer in the University of Roehampton’s Department of Media, Culture and Language. 

Last month, the European Commission (the executive body of the European Union) announced plans for its Digital Single Market (DSM) initiative. Over the next two years, the initiative aims to increase cross-border trade in media and communications and standardize the consumer experience across the continent. Among a variety of likely ramifications, the proposals have sparked warnings that the BBC will be forced to make its iPlayer on-demand platform available outside the UK. Since its launch in 2007, the iPlayer has proven a popular aspect of the BBC’s “public purpose” in “delivering to the public the benefit of emerging media technologies and services.” But it remains available only on British soil, where it is paid out of the universal license fee. In the press conference announcing the DSM, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker complained of such “national silos,” envisioning instead a globe-trotting, always-connected media consumer: “You can drive from Talinn to Turin without once showing your passport, but you can’t stream your favorite TV shows from home once you get there.”

In her contribution to this column last month, Elizabeth Evans pointed to the important place of age in the industrial discourse surrounding digital television consumption. With this post, I want to continue with the question of how new forms of viewing are framed, but in terms of the equally definitive discourse of global connectedness. Just as Evans points out that “post-broadcast” viewing habits are reflexively associated with a “youth” demographic, the idea that viewers should be allowed to take the iPlayer with them as they move across borders reflects how those same viewing habits are increasingly tied to transnational flows. Traditional scheduled channels have always been perceived as a key aspect of what makes a television system national – especially, perhaps, in countries such as Britain where the most-watched channels have historically been those with a public-service remit requiring them to serve national cultural and economic interests. So far, the iPlayer has functioned as a digital extension of this logic, making the DSM all the more notable. (This is especially significant at a time when a newly elected British government prepares for both a referendum on the country’s membership of the EU and, as Evans explains, a potential renegotiation of the BBC’s revenue model.)

pic2The DSM will reportedly also have a significant impact on how commercial VOD platforms such as Netflix and Amazon operate on the continent. It promises to enforce an end to “unjustified” geo-blocking and to consider broadening the scope of the EC’s Satellite and Cable Directive to account for online services. In fact, a more borderless European digital market would seem to be compatible with the promotional positioning of these U.S.-based services, which are commonly framed in terms of a deterritorialized mode of consumption. In the run-up to Netflix’s UK launch in 2012 – marking its first venture into Europe – its CEO Reed Hastings foresaw “a service for the world’s best content for the world’s citizens.” Hastings’ rhetoric epitomizes the tendency for streaming and downloading in the UK to be strongly associated with the transnational flow of content. A glance at the main webpage of any commercial VOD service available in the country presents a more or less entirely non-British range of content. This is the case even with British-based services such as Blinkbox (whose flagship offerings currently include HBO’s Game of Thrones, The CW’s Arrow and Danish period drama 1864, among many other imports, and just a handful of old BBC series). Netflix has emerged as the most popular subscription streaming service largely thanks to its being the only way British viewers could watch all five seasons of AMC’s Breaking Bad (known here as a “Netflix hit”) and its exclusive rights to House of Cards.

At the same time, the national territory remains a key point of reference for viewers and providers alike. To continue with the example of Netflix, it has increasingly sought to integrate itself directly with the domestic system, both in technical and cultural terms. The company has negotiated several partnerships with broadcast-based platforms to make its content accessible via web-connected television sets, as well as laptops and tablet computers. Meanwhile, its imported drama is commonly advertised with the help of domestically familiar personalities, as with Ricky Gervais’ flying tour around flagship Netflix shows in a promo from last year.

Since rolling out in several European and Asian countries, Netflix has opened up to commissioned content from domestic markets across its non-U.S. territories. The Crown, a £100 million adaptation of a play about Queen Elizabeth II, is planned for 2016, produced by British production company Left Bank Pictures.

Playwright Peter Morgan’s The Audience, source of the announced Netflix adaptation The Crown.

More recently, Netflix has for the first time issued an open commissioning brief to UK companies for factual and entertainment content. Netflix report that this new content will be made available simultaneously in all the territories in which it is active, as had been the case for House of Cards. This hugely expensive strategy may yet see the realization of Hastings’ global customer. As The Hollywood Reporter put it, “Instead of waiting for Europe to create a single digital market, Netflix will do it itself.”

For now, what is clear is that both the European Commission and the new corporate powers of the “post-broadcast” era are keen to define technological connectivity as intimately linked with transnational connectivity. This gives rise to a host of pressing questions for media scholars: about television’s historical tethering to the national sphere, which will undoubtedly persist even as transnational projects flourish; about the textual characteristics of content Hastings has in mind for Netflix’s “global” citizen-consumer (note, for example, the clear attraction of one of Britain’s most successful world exports as subject matter for The Crown); and about the reception of both the content and the brands of these new providers among audiences internationally. The key question for all concerned is whether the true potential of any “digital single market” lies in developing a newly transnationalized form of European public-service media, or simply in keeping pace with the demands of commercial giants’ global expansion.


Public-Service Streaming: BBC Three and the Politics of Online Engagement Thu, 21 May 2015 11:00:13 +0000 Post by Elizabeth Evans, University of Nottingham

This post continues the ongoing “From Nottingham and Beyond” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media. This week’s contributor is Elizabeth Evans, Assistant Professor of Film and Television Studies in our department.

BBC 3-image1

In March 2014, the BBC announced plans to “transform” one of its channels, BBC Three, into an online-only “channel.” Under the proposals, BBC Three would cease linear broadcasting and exist only via the Corporation’s website and the hugely popular online catch-up service, iPlayer. This would then allow the channel’s broadcast spectrum space to be transferred to a new BBC One+1 channel and to increase the broadcast hours of children’s-only channel CBBC from twelve hours to fourteen. The announcement comes at an uncertain time for the BBC. After several years of budget freezes, its Royal Charter, which gives the BBC the right to collect the legally enforced license fee, is due for review in 2016. Its future has been positioned front and center in public debates. Party leaders called for the Corporation’s reform during the recent UK general election. Prime Minister David Cameron then appointed a new Minister for Culture, Media and Sport who had likened the license fee to the hugely unpopular and riot-inducing Thatcherite poll tax. Central to these debates are questions around the future of television viewing in light of digital technologies, and the continued value of public-service broadcasting.

It’s unsurprising that BBC Three has been the catalyst for these debates. BBC Three is clearly and incessantly labeled as a “youth-oriented” channel with an intended audience aged 16-34. That same group is equally consistently associated with changing viewing habits and a shift away from traditional distribution avenues such as broadcasting. This association was central to how the BBC announced its plan. Director of TV Danny Cohen told the press in December 2014 that it was the BBC’s responsibility to adapt to perceived changes in how 16-24 year-olds watch television. This necessary change is, apparently, a move away from broadcasting, producing a mix of episodic and short-form content, and positioning streaming technology at the heart of the BBC’s activities.

BBC 3-image2-BluestoneAlthough justified via beliefs concerning changing audience behavior, the BBC Three announcement also involved a series of claims about the value of broadcasting or, more specifically, values that broadcasting lacks. Cohen pronounced that the new, online BBC Three would “have the freedom to break traditional shackles and allow the BBC to be a leader in digital change.” BBC Three Controller Damien Cavanagh equated this “breaking [of] traditional shackles” to short-form video and to more transmedia or interactive storytelling forms designed to promote debate and to generate a “richer experience” for audiences. This sense of experimentation and innovation was explicitly positioned as a value that BBC Three’s new form would offer its youth audience, and which broadcasting apparently lacks.

Broadcasting was instead constructed as beholden to regimented episode lengths and slow production schedules. Both claims are somewhat ironic and problematic. BBC Three already produces short content in the form of 60 Second News, and on multiple occasions during its history, the BBC has created broadcast content that isn’t an hour or half-hour in length. Short-form content is a regular feature of rival public-service broadcaster Channel 4’s weekday evening schedule, with a five-minute slot for its series 4Thought. The BBC has equally ignored the hour and half-hour as program start times, most notably in Saturday early-evening slots. In terms of responsiveness to emerging events, the valuing of online over broadcasting also ignores the central technological feature of broadcasting: that it can be live, with news and current-affairs programming regularly responding rapidly to real-world events via broadcast means. Nothing inherent in broadcasting technology requires regimented slots or a delay in production. Ultimately the BBC positions the creative value of online engagement in terms of freedom from the (perceived) traditional practices of the broadcast industry, practices that have seemingly restricted the potential of broadcast technology itself.

Thus, the transformation of BBC Three has been couched in debates that devalue broadcasting in favor of a streaming-based distribution system seen as more agile, creative and relevant for younger audiences. To this end, the proposed changes to BBC Three are positioned as not simply about changing a single television channel, but about reinventing what the BBC, and what public service, means, future-proofing it for 2016 Charter renewal and beyond.

BBC 3-image3-I-survived-a-zombie-apocalypse-posterAt the same time, however, the proposals contain unspoken value statements that actually privilege broadcasting. After the full plans met with criticism, Kavanagh worked to reassure critics that new BBC Three content would still appear on BBC One or BBC Two in late-evening slots, creating a hierarchy of content at the fringes of the BBC’s broadcast activities. More prominently, at the heart of the BBC’s announcement is the provision of a BBC One+1 channel, which would repeat that channel’s content one hour later, along with expanded broadcast provision for children aged 6-12 via CBBC. By balancing an online BBC Three with broadcast expansion elsewhere, the Corporation makes a number of further assumptions about the value of television technology for its audiences, highlighting contradictions in its overall strategy. The general audience is positioned as still predominantly valuing broadcasting, but that “general audience” apparently does not include younger audiences or those who enjoy content aimed at younger audiences (that is, people not aged 16-34 but still interested in content pitched to that demographic). It also assumes that BBC Three’s audiences will not suffer from the same problems with accessing broadband services that BBC One’s audience would. Younger audiences, according to the BBC, would not only prefer to access content via streaming but are also universally able to do so, and thus are unaffected by the myriad of socio-cultural factors that play into the digital divide or infrastructural discrepancies in broadband access.

Whether the transformation of BBC Three actually goes ahead is still to be seen (governing body the BBC Trust has yet to approve the idea, and it has already been delayed until 2016). However, the way the BBC has proposed the strategy highlights the contradictory values currently at play in the UK television landscape. The notion that public-service broadcasting must change is positioned as self-evident. Online spaces are seen as agile and creative in ways that broadcasting is not, as protected against any further changes that may be wrought by digital convergence. Younger audiences are seemingly denied this value of broadcasting and firmly associated with the changes that are positioned at the heart of the new public-service media. But at the same time, additional value is placed on broadcasting for general – read older – audiences. As the BBC presents streaming and digital technologies as the future, it simultaneously reinforces broadcasting and the TV set. This works to position the Corporation as embracing the new while still valuing the old, and reiterates the centrality of the relationship among content, audience and distribution to public service broadcasting’s future definitions.


Report from NYTVF Digital Day 2014 Wed, 05 Nov 2014 15:00:52 +0000 NYTVF marqueeThe New York Television Festival describes itself as a “pioneer of the independent television movement.” It takes place every October and celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. I attended the panels on Digital Day, including “How A Show Gets Made,” “Incubate This: The Next Generation of Digital Content” and “Supply and Demand: Why Indie TV Will be the New Indie Film.”

Even though NYTVF bills itself as independent TV festival, more and more legacy media companies are present at the festival. In the case of this year’s Digital Day, digital studios or digital programming units that are part of established TV networks, channels, and studios were well represented on all panels. The majority of panelists were from legacy media companies, including the digital branches of Comedy Central, the CW, Starz, and Universal. Others represented established players in digital distribution, including My Damn Channel and Vimeo. While the panel make-up depends on who is willing and available to appear, there seemed to be a clear trend toward including legacy media representatives at NYTVF.

The audience—or at least the imagined audience evoked by panelists—consisted of content creators trying to break into the industry. Panel discussions and questions centered on how to catch the attention of the companies represented by panelists and get a pitch meeting. The discussion thus did not center on how to create a web series that one would self-finance and distribute on a platform like YouTube, at least not in the long run. This focus struck me as different from much of the usual discourse around web series and the conversation at least year’s Digital Day, which included panels about Kickstarter or other ways of self-financing and featured creators like Adam Goldman (creator of web series like The Outs and Whatever This Is), not executives.

Another marked shift from previous years resided in the panelists’ description of preconditions an independent creator needs to meet in order to get a development deal. Executives emphasized that they are looking for two things: one, a fully fleshed out show that has a few episodes under its belt and an “established social following”- or, in other words, a guaranteed loyal audience. Ideally, you should also have a marketing strategy. Simply pitching a great idea is no longer enough. As David Katz (VP of Digital Media at Starz) put it, “bring that entire eco-system to me.” Listening to these preconditions made me wonder just how independent the digital TV landscape is; all of the talk of pitches and development deals echoed pilot season rather strongly- except merely having a pilot is not enough to get picked up by Starz or My Damn Channel. Moreover, the financial prospects don’t seem to be that promising, either. As Jed Weintrop (VP, Head of Production, Condé Nast Entertainment) pointed out: “Nobody gets rich here,” which was echoed by other panelists throughout the day.

NYTVF panelFinally, the many callbacks to legacy media history surprised me. Perhaps it shouldn’t have. After all, one panel was called “Supply and Demand: Why Indie TV Will Be the New Indie Film.” Throughout all panels, executives evoked the history of film and cable TV to frame the current digital TV landscape. For example, Rob Barnett of My Damn Channel stated that digital TV was like “baby cable” and added that it feels like it’s “’80, ’81,” before the big players in cable had emerged. New Yorker columnist Adam Sternbergh described the discovery of exciting new digital content as “going to Sundance in 1988, ’89.”

Stray observations:

  • Panelists identified Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu original programming as “television,” not “digital content.” To panelists, the dividing line was budget and programming length. Aimee Carlson (VP, Digital Development and Production, Universal Cable Productions) defined “digital content” as short form, low-budget, episodic video that premieres exclusively on digital platforms. The half-hour and hour-long programs on Amazon et al do not fall under this umbrella even though they are also made exclusively for digital distribution.
  • Jennifer Titus (SVP, On Air Creative, CW Seed) pointed out that the average age of CW viewers for “linear” (i.e. primetime programming) is 38. For their digital content on CW Seed, the average age is 22.
  • Another common piece of advice across panels: connect to specific audiences; don’t throw your product at a broad audience. Sam Toles (VP of Content Acquisitions and Business Development at Vimeo) was particularly adamant about this strategy. He stated that millennials aren’t engaging with traditional media/advertising, which is why “indie TV” creators need to connect with them in a targeted way. As a strategy for cutting through the noise of digital content, he advised attaching content to a specific audience already invested in the genre/topic and “seeding a clip across social media so they notice it and start sharing it.”


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Rethinking Media Distribution Wed, 20 Nov 2013 15:00:21 +0000 Tryon pic

The news that the subscription service Netflix now has more total subscribers than premium cable channel HBO further confirms that media industries are changing rapidly, especially when it comes to the practices of movie and TV distribution. Beyond altering the economics of media distribution, subscription services such as Netflix and Hulu have introduced a whole new vocabulary for both media consumers and industry professionals alike. Activities such as binge watching and “Netflix adultery” were unimaginable just a few short years ago, while more traditional practices—such as the weekly trip to the video store—have practically disappeared. With those changes in mind, Jeff Ulin, a media distribution expert who has worked at Lucasfilm, Paramount, and Universal, has substantially revised his 2009 book, The Business of Media Distribution, for the era of digital delivery, providing a fascinating and engaging road map for both media scholars and industry professionals.

The new edition of the book starts by spelling out how studios and networks manage media properties in order to create value—through managing intellectual property rights, for example—before tracing several different modes of distribution: theatrical, home video, television, and internet. The final sections of the book focus on aspects such as marketing and promotion, especially as those practices have been transformed by the emergence of social media tools. Ulin also reiterates one of the key observations discussed in his first book: the idea that studios are best understood as “financing and distributing machines” that seek to maximize value, in large part by managing the distribution “windows” when movies or TV shows are available through a specific platform. Ulin emphasizes the process by which studios carefully balance when movies are available theatrically, through VOD platforms, on DVD, and eventually through subscription services such as Netflix, in order to maximize the value of a given text.

In his map of the film distribution landscape, Ulin traces several of the key factors that drove the adoption of digital projectors, most notably the role of 3D in serving as a means for justifying surcharges to consumers. But another major factor identified by Ulin is the role of China as a major marketplace for Hollywood theatrical films. Specifically, Ulin points out that the U.S. government negotiated a deal to raise the limit on the number of international films screened annually in China from 20 to 34, with the stipulation that the additional movies be screened in 3D. While Ulin is less explicit on this matter, the clear implication is that China’s theatrical market will likely shape the choices studios make when it comes to picking projects for the foreseeable future.

But the strength of Ulin’s book is his thorough explanation of the changes in the home video marketplace, especially as online video sources are poised to upset DVD rental and sales. As Ulin points out, the conflicts between physical or bricks-and-mortar retailers and online sources including Amazon are often more complex than they appear, especially given incentives such as using DVDs as “loss-leaders” to draw shoppers into big-box retailers such as Walmart and Target. More crucially, however, subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) services such as Netflix and Hulu and transactional video-on-demand (TVOD) retailers such as Amazon and iTunes have upset traditional revenue streams and the distribution windows that were designed to provide various platforms (theaters, pay cable, basic cable) with periods of exclusivity that allowed studios and exhibitors to protect the value of the movie being distributed. These conflicts have played out in the ongoing debates over day-and-date distribution, especially for independent and low-budget movies, or shorter theatrical windows for studio films. But they also inform how TV shows circulate, especially when the interests of production companies and SVOD services such as Netflix compete with the interests of cable TV channels such as TNT and FX that are currently negotiating to extend their “broadcast window” to encompass the most recent season of a show, rather than just the five most recent episodes. Such battles are likely to persist in our current on-demand culture

One of the challenges that faces any book that focuses on the media distribution landscape is that it changes so rapidly. As I was reading Ulin’s book, Blockbuster Video announced that it would be closing its last 300 stores, resulting in the loss of over 3.000 jobs and leaving Redbox as, perhaps, the primary option for DVD rental for most US consumers. However, Ulin’s book remains relevant, in large part because he offers several key principles to describe the ongoing evolution of the media industries. With that in mind, we can read all of the recent changes—Netflix’s competition with HBO, Blockbuster’s closure of its U.S. stores, and China’s emergence as a crucial theatrical market—as part of a larger system in which studios and other media institutions use windows in order to generate and retain value for the films and television shows they distribute, no matter how we access them.


All My Commodities: Valuing the Online Soap Opera Tue, 30 Apr 2013 14:00:25 +0000 ProspectParkAntennaWhen ABC canceled One Life to Live and All My Children in 2011, it was based on the determination that they were no longer valuable to the network’s daytime lineup. When Prospect Park licensed the properties to revive them online, surviving a lengthy struggle with unions to bring the two series back to life, it was because they believed there was still value in those properties under a different set of metrics operating within digital distribution.

However, in prominent popular discourse surrounding the series’ return, journalists have privileged the value of the programs to producers rather than their value to audiences. While talk of profit margins is all well and good, the two soaps’ move online involves asking audiences to accept new definitions of a soap opera’s value—once “free” over broadcast—within the television marketplace. Although the product itself—its characters, its narratives, its evolution—will determine its ultimate value to fans, Prospect Park’s release strategy intersects in complicated ways with discourses of televisual value within an evolving space of digital distribution, which is being adapted in order to fit the specificity of an atypical televisual form.

When broadcast networks started selling their shows through the iTunes Store, it was a pivotal moment for the digitization of media content and the growing impact of convergence on industry business models. However, it also rearticulated our conception of televisual value by placing a distinct price on an episode of television as a discrete twenty- or forty-minute entity.

This articulation was part of the larger digital distribution revolution: while iTunes and its competitors Amazon Instant Video and YouTube continue to sell individual episodes, streaming services like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime have reframed televisual value through access to expanded libraries of content, largely leaving the iTunes model as an industrial afterthought (albeit one which is still useful for cord-cutters).

Prospect Park’s distribution strategy for All My Children and One Life To Live is an unorthodox merger of these two business models. Their primary partnership with Hulu—under their “Hulu Exclusives” acquisition strategy—is itself a combination of two different streaming logics: the online Hulu service features recent episodes of the series for free, ad-supported web browser streaming, while the multi-platform Hulu Plus service—$7.99 a month—will have the entire library of each series along with HD ad-supported streaming to tablets, game consoles, Roku players, etc. In order to articulate these options, particularly to viewers—imagined as older viewers in popular discourse—unfamiliar with online streaming, Hulu drafted One Life to Live stars for a video explanation:

In the process, Prospect Park and Hulu have dissected the experience of watching soap operas on television into two discrete values. The first is being able to “revive their daily drama habit”—to use Hulu’s marketing rhetoric—for free, with the caveat that their viewing must remain daily (as only the most recent episodes will be available). However, the second is the ability to “relax on your sofa and watch on your TV,” which Hulu has commodified by limiting device-based streaming to its subscription service. The distinction allows viewers to determine which parts of their soap viewing experience were most valuable to them, and specifically asks if watching on a television—or on a tablet—is worth $7.99 a month.

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 6.43.05 PMAnd yet Prospect Park’s arrangement with iTunes is even more interesting, given that no currently running soap operas are distributed through the service (whereas Days of our Lives and General Hospital also stream on Hulu). They are offering what they call a “Multi-Pass,” which is comparable to a “Season Pass” for primetime series with one caveat: instead of an entire season, it instead gives viewers twenty episodes—or four weeks—of a series for $9.99; viewers can also choose to purchase individual episodes for $0.99.

Whereas the Hulu arrangement asks viewers to place a value on their soap viewing habits, the iTunes arrangement explicitly asks viewers how much they are willing to pay for an episode of a soap opera. Prospect Park’s choice of $0.99 is half of what iTunes charges for primetime television episodes in standard definition (Hulu Plus remains the exclusive home of high-definition episodes), a decision that reflects the large volume of content viewers are expected to pay for—hence the Multi-Pass discount of $0.50 an episode—but also reinforces existing hierarchies of value between daytime and primetime programming.

However, the two soaps also fit somewhat awkwardly into the logics of streaming, given that one of the key values of streaming services—an extended library of previous episodes—is thus far unavailable to the two programs. Although one could expect that many fans of the two shows would invest in the ability to access decades of soap opera content through a streaming service like Hulu, the ability to revisit previous episodes has less perceptible value when there are thus far no previous episodes to revisit (as ABC’s stake in the new ventures—as license holders—is not strong enough for them to actively support Prospect Park with such library content beyond 8-10 minute recaps for potential new viewers).

Although it’s unclear what kind of data Prospect Park will be releasing—it will, as always, depend on whether releasing the data has value to them—any determinations about the “value” of the two relaunching soap operas have to be withheld until we understand how audiences respond to these initial articulations. While online distribution is often framed as offering audiences new ways to experience television, the habit-based nature of soap viewing has led Prospect Park and Hulu to devise and promote specific distribution strategies which emulate more traditional viewing patterns, at a price.

As a result, the stakes of this project are neither as simple as Prospect Park’s financial investment in All My Children and One Life To Live nor as broad as the very future of digital distribution. Rather, the specificity of this experiment will determine what value soap audiences have within future conceptions of digital distribution, their acceptance or rejection of industrial definitions of value shaping how and where they will be programmed to in the future.


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The Future of Media Production? Wed, 03 Apr 2013 13:30:31 +0000

At this year’s Academy Awards, Inocente became the first Kickstarter-funded film to win an Oscar (for best documentary short). Around 10% of the films accepted by the Sundance, Tribeca, and South by Southwest film festivals were funded using Kickstarter. And several weeks ago, a high profile Kickstarter campaign was launched to fund a movie version of UPN/The CW television series Veronica Mars. The goal of $2 million dollars was reached within the day, record breaking both in its quickness and the amount of money raised. As I write this, the total amount has surpassed $4 million. The attention on Kickstarter these days struck me as significant in the current production landscape, and I set out to write a post on new trends in production financing. Almost as quickly as the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign succeeded in its goal, my colleague Myles McNutt published a post that addressed what this campaign might mean for teaching fan cultures in the future and suggested that perhaps participating in a Kickstarter campaign might be more about being involved in the experience of a project’s creation, being a part of the journey, than the final product. While the topic of this specific Kickstarter campaign has been widely discussed, I’m curious how it relates to broader trends in production financing.

Although people who give money to projects on Kickstarter do so in order to create a final product, the idea that Kickstarter provides donors with access to the experience of the production process is an important aspect of donating. Looking at Veronica Mars as an example, the incentives for donating include email updates throughout the production process and a copy of the final shooting script. These engage donors with the process of filmmaking; indeed, part of Kickstarter’s appeal and success seems to come from the fact that people enjoy feeling like they’re part of the action. The campaign also just announced that it would offer email updates for the $1 tier donors (lowering the barrier for people to get involved) in an attempt to bring an even larger number of people into the project and break the record for number of backers. Financing a project through upfront, donated funds differs from traditional funding methods (where production cash is often borrowed and repaid after the release of the product and subsequent earnings). We have yet to see how big budget projects will be affected by receiving up front financing with no need to repay loans (although it should be mentioned that a large production like the Veronica Mars movie could be budgeted at much higher than $4-5 million, depending on the discretion of producer Warner Bros.). With Veronica Mars, people who contribute more than $35 receive a digital copy of the movie, and therefore will likely not pay to purchase it after the film is completed. Since they have a copy of the movie at the time of its release, it is also questionable whether some of them will skip the theatrical release and just watch their own copy, potentially cutting into future profits.

The concept of grassroots fundraising is by no means new. In my own area of study, independent LGBT films and filmmaking, I know of numerous instances where filmmakers raised money from friends, family, and others who were dedicated to seeing alternative images than those offered in Hollywood films. Nicole Conn, for instance, raised money for her 1992 film Claire of the Moon by finding lesbian backers who were interested in creating a film that was made by and for lesbians. The lack of lesbian images in film at the time inspired people to give money and create their own images. Conn is an interesting example in this context because she funded her most recent film, A Perfect Ending, in part through a Kickstarter campaign. Using the same foundation, grassroots financing from a fan base dedicated to creating more lesbian images in film, Conn has updated her methods to make the most of emerging technological opportunities.

This idea of user supported media extends beyond Kickstarter and other particular fundraising practices. Emerging digital distribution models can offer another area of direct audience support and participation. Again pulling from my own area of study, niche marketing sites such as BuskFilms offer audiences around the world the chance to support filmmakers more directly. This site offers a large selection of lesbian films (and is expanding into the full range of LGBT films) available for streaming rentals. Unlike larger distribution companies that have high overhead costs, BuskFilms is able to give a larger percentage of rental fees directly back to filmmakers who can then re-invest the money in future production projects. Similar to the process of grassroots fundraising, this model of distribution allows for greater audience participation in supporting filmmaking projects.

User supported distribution models are not limited to film. To give another example, this time outside my area of study, the Cultural Capital project (or CultCap) focuses on resolving the difference between the music industry and cultural music consumption by creating an online, non-profit patronage system and social network that uses an adaptive “algorithm to allocate equitable compensation via micropayment.” By eliminating middlemen and gatekeepers, the site would in theory fund musicians through fan engagement. Although the site is in a theoretical rather than functional state at the moment, the drive behind the site’s linking of fans/consumers with artists/creators of content reflects the same impulse of Kickstarter and Buskfilms.

Taken together, these examples suggest both a desire for users to play a more direct role in production of media projects that they feel passionately about and the potential that technological advancements and internet connectivity can offer the industry. I do not mean to imply that utopian ideals of directly user-funded and supported content will imminently wipe out established modes of production, although the success of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter might tempt studios to engage with “pre-selling” future projects. People invest in media production every time they pay for media (whether through buying a movie ticket, downloading a song through iTunes, paying for a cable subscription, etc). However, the concept of putting in this money before or during production, or paying media makers more directly, carries significantly different connotations. While some have speculated on the effects Kickstarter might have on the future of filmmaking, only time will tell how these shifting models of funding and distribution will affect established modes of media production.


Episodic: What Games Learned From TV Wed, 05 Dec 2012 14:25:30 +0000 In two short years, The Walking Dead has become one of the hottest intellectual properties in America. Starting as a comic book series in 2003, the introduction of a record-breaking AMC television adaptation in 2010 begat a media juggernaut, with the additions of a live talk show, fan conventions, media tie-ins and more. Yet it is perhaps a video game adaptation by Telltale Games that has had the most impact of all on its particular medium, as The Walking Dead: The Game has succeeded both financially and critically with a unique televisual-model of distribution, releasing ‘episodes’ of a single season over the course of 2012, possibly heralding a new age (good or bad) in video games thanks to digital distribution as well as unique gameplay possibilities.

The Walking Dead is certainly not the first video game to borrow from television, particularly in terms of aesthetics and style. Alan Wake, published by Microsoft for the XBox 360 in 2010, is a full-length psychological thriller that is internally structured like a television series. ‘Levels’ of the game are presented as ‘episodes,’ each with their own arcs and cliffhanger endings. The most overt element is a “Previously On Alan Wake” cinematic that plays before each ‘episode,’ quickly recapping the events of the game so far. The function here is less practical (as it is used on actual television shows to remind viewers of possibly long-forgotten plot points) as it is much more stylistic, meant to imitate the particularly televisual device, perhaps even parodying it.

While Alan Wake certainly captures the aesthetics and presentational aspects of television, it is still a primarily singular experience. Yes, the game features episodes and levels, but games have always had levels since their very inception. Whenever Mario (well, Jumpman) would reach the Princess in Donkey Kong, he would quickly whisk her away, prompting the next episode’ of conflict and adventure for our hero. But Alan Wake shows the inherent structural similarities between these two media. Both television and many video games utilize a particularly fragmented organizational style, wherein smaller yet distinct parts come together to form a whole that allows starting and stopping, as opposed to film which is meant to be experienced in a single sitting. Games often take several hours to complete, and television seasons and entire seasons certainly tie to this mode. With all of these connections, as well as the obvious fact that games are primarily played on televisions, the real question is why episodic gaming is the exception and not the rule?

An 'Episode' of Donkey Kong

The first episode of The Walking Dead game was released in April of 2012. Subsequent episodes (2-5) were released roughly every two months, meaning the entire ‘season’ of the game took about seven months to be fully released. While a disc-based, physical release containing the entire season will be released in December, over 1.2 million unique players have downloaded and experienced the game so far (and these sales numbers only take into account the first three episodes) and was the highest-selling game in August 2012. What is most fascinating about the game’s success, from an economic standpoint, is the growth in downloads from Episode 1 into later installments. Like a television show gaining viewers from season to season, The Walking Dead gained players as word spread in the months between releases. The episodic television model was not some gimmick as it played aesthetically in Alan Wake, but a financially successful distribution model for a gaming product.

There are many factors required for this system to be successful. First and foremost, digital distribution is needed by publishers like Telltale Games in order to keep costs down. The idea of packaged episodic content would raise prices exponentially, particularly considering that each episode only contains roughly 2-3 hours of content (as opposed to full-retail games ranging from 20-50 hours). Players are even able to buy a ‘Season Pass,’ getting all five episodes cheaper than buying them individually, encouraging early adoption.

Beyond the digital technology, the game had to be good, which allowed for both popular and critical acclaim to spread, increasing interest in the product while it was still on the market, so to speak. Instead of possibly buying a game most people had already purchased and played to completion, new players could ‘catch up,’ and join the conversation. Herein lies the rub; while episodic gaming is a new frontier for how developers make games, helping avoid the huge risk market of long development cycles and increased budgets, it is perhaps an even larger divergence in terms of how we play games.

Fan Art for "The Walking Dead" Game

One of the more lauded aspects of The Walking Dead is the element of player choice. The game frequently confronts players with moral and practical choices that change the plot throughout the rest of the game, with decisions as major as killing or saving certain characters. This entire system gains more worth for the player when it is shared socially, with players discussing stories and divergences in various play-throughs, leading to a variety of unique narratives. Communities like The Walking Dead Confessions (SPOILERS!) have sprung up around the game, and the episodic nature was crucial to these discussions, as posts before the final episode frequently featured theories and hopes for how the rest of the game would play out. Players were socially-constructing their play experience because of the episodic nature, rather than individualizing the experience and sharing after-the-fact.

As television continues into its (arguably) new “golden age,” the shift in video games towards the televisual model of both aesthetics and distribution may be a sign of quality to come. Despite the entrenched history of AAA-games and off-the-shelf distribution, the rise of digital and more small-scale games portends a seismic shift in the industry, for players, developers, but perhaps most importantly, for the games themselves.


What Are You Missing? Apr 29-May 12 Sun, 13 May 2012 15:17:17 +0000 Ten (or more) media industry news items you might have missed recently:

1. Happy Mother’s Day! Nielsen reports that among American moms, half have smartphones, and they love Facebook and Pinterest (Twitter, not so much). For the general US population, mobile data access is a big area of growth, while check-in apps are still mostly niche. In India, women use their phones more for talking and texting, whereas men do more web browsing.

2. “More video is uploaded to YouTube in one month than the 3 major US networks created in 60 years,” tweets a YouTube exec, with 60 hours of video uploaded every minute. Now there’s word that YouTube could add a premium subscription service. But with YouTube getting so vast, some are finding smaller competitors offer a better platform, especially for mobile sharing.

3. Ebay and Wal-Mart are looking to develop their own search engines to battle against Google’s dominance, right as a Google report insists that search engines have First Amendment rights, which would mean Google could pick and choose which content and in what order to load up for a search reply. But Google isn’t allowed to violate internet privacy the way it apparently did by hacking into Safari to track users. Microsoft might also be cheating by making Internet Explorer the only browser that will work right on the upcoming Windows RT system.

4. While the documentary has a storied history in Canada, filmmakers are having a hard time finding funding for documentaries today thanks to federal cuts. If they can dig up an extra $20,000 or so from someplace, those filmmakers can get their films into the DocuWeeks program, which will still be a conduit to Oscar nominations, over Michael Moore’s objections.

5. News out of the National Association of Theatre Owners CinemaCon convention included 20th Century Fox planning to end 35mm film distribution next year, which will have complex consequences. Plus all manner of new theatrical magic is on its way, including lasers. A few theater chains are reporting a surge in attendance right now, while the AMC chain might be looking to sell to China.

6. Overall home entertainment spending is up for the first time in awhile, though that’s mostly thanks to digital streaming and Blu-ray, and not DVDs and rental stores, of course. Blu-ray might decline too once people realize they’ll now have to sit through two government warnings before getting to the movie.

7. Microsoft has invested in the Nook, which is now worth more than Barnes & Noble itself. B&N is trying to find ways to reconcile physical and online book sales without killing off the former, as possibilities for survival and the future design of physical books are up for speculation.

8. April was a bad month for video game sales, and while EA did well last year, investors didn’t like its weak outlook for this year. EA has big development plans, though its big investment in social gaming company Playfish hasn’t paid off yet, as a CityVille competitor has flopped.

9. Rovio had a huge year in 2011, thanks of course to Angry Birds and its one billion downloads, and the company is hoping to replicate that success with the new Amazing Alex. Zynga is also trying to recapture magic with a Farmville sequel. Zynga’s acquisition of Draw Something’s company doesn’t seem to be working out, but its cloud technology is apparently to be envied.

10. Some of the finer News for TV Majors posts from the past few weeks: Renewals/Cancellations/ Pickups, Request for Family Programming, Dish Ad Skipper, Aereo Warning, HBO No, TV Everywhere Trademark Fight, Dish Dropping AMC?, Just Cancel, Kutcher Ad Pulled, Online & TV Ad Buys, Nielsen on Viewing, Bloomberg Wins, Hulu Authentication Coming?, BSkyB Defending Itself, Murdoch Criticism, TV & Diversity.


What Are You Missing? April 15-28 Sun, 29 Apr 2012 14:37:54 +0000 Ten (or more) media industry news items you might have missed recently:

1. The Cannes Film Festival lineup is out, with heavy representation of English-language films, and the jury is also set. Meanwhile, the Tribeca Film Festival has wrapped up, with jury award and audience award winners that include a film whose Cuban actors are now seeking asylum in Miami. But Robert Levin says the big impact from Tribeca will come from its new model of digital distribution via the Tribeca Online Film Festival. And Toronto wonders, can there be too many film festivals?

2. In film production tax credit news, a British tax credit system is credited with offering a big boost to indie films, California has passed a 5-year extension, and we wait to see if Ohio deems its tax credit scheme worth renewing. We’ll also wait to see if there’s anything to the suspicion that Hollywood studios bribed the Chinese to allow them access to the Chinese film market (a deal mentioned in a previous WAYM). The SEC should also investigate to see if Russians were bribed to go see John Carter.

3. More directors are clamoring to get their films on IMAX screens, while Martin Scorsese has fallen hard for 3D, but Peter Jackson is one-upping them all by going to 48 frames per second, and even though it apparently looks crappy, Jackson says there’s no stopping it now. Some think recent indie films haven’t looked crappy enough.

4. Howard Stern’s lawsuit against Sirius XM has been dismissed, but this may not be the last we hear of it. The British will get to hear more live music, thanks to new rules that will streamline the process for small venues to book live acts. And we could soon be hearing Spotify sound just like Pandora.

5. Nintendo is struggling, so much so that they’re making video game sales overall look bad, and it might even be time for Nintendo to sell, but Nintendo thinks the Wii U and especially the 3DS will save it, with a new digital distribution strategy also offering hope for growth.

6. YouTube’s video service has turned seven years old, and for its birthday, Germany wants to give it a massive music royalty bill and demand that it better police copyrighted content, though this could mostly boil down to a negotiating tactic. A group of Hollywood studios failed in their attempt to hold an Australian internet provider responsible for piracy, but Voltage Pictures just won’t quit until they chase down every last Hurt Locker pirate. And it remains to be seen if Hollywood will go after a 92-year-old shipping bootleg DVDs to American soldiers overseas.

7. Facebook has had a drop in ad revenue this year for the first time, but it apparently doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme. After all, Facebook is nearing one billion users, over half of whom visit daily, and makes about $1.21 from each user per quarter. And yet, with 58% of its user base female, Facebook somehow hasn’t found a woman to appoint to its board of directors.

8. Apple is killing it in China with iPhone sales, and, in a fascinating story, apparently iPads can only be made in China, not due to cheap labor but to rare earth elements, which China has almost exclusive control over. Meanwhile, Microsoft is looking like the anti-Apple in the smartphone market and the consumer technology arena, but it hopes it can be all China-like in controlling Windows apps on iPads.

9. Is a Facebook “like” protected free speech? Apparently not. Is a tweet yours to own? Apparently not. Is a Tumblr with ads still a Tumblr? We’ll find out starting May 2. Will we get the internet and be able to tweet about a Tumblr we like once we’re on Mars? Maybe.

10. Some of the finer News for TV Majors posts from the past few weeks: TV & Diversity, Media Use, Political Posting Imposed, Web’s Impact on TV, Hulu Partner Out, NEA Giveth & Taketh Away, David Simon’s Blog, More News Corp Trouble, Future of TV is Broadband, Assessing CNN, The CW Online Impact, Sunday DVR Slam, Girls & Race, Girls Coverage, Hulu’s Growth.