By Kate Bulkley
The days of ‘We make it, you watch it’ are numbered, thanks to cheap production and distribution tools. But who will pay to watch user-generated content, asks Kate Bulkley
“It’s only television!” How many people in this industry have used that self-mocking phrase, but maybe it’s easy to be self-deprecating when you make programmes that are watched by millions and can sometimes even change lives.
But that same phrase may be coming back to haunt the TV world because what was once mysteriously crafted by innovative and talented professionals is increasingly being produced by every Tom, Dick and Harry with a camcorder or a video phone.
The days of the “We make it, you watch it” mentality are being swept away by easy access to cheap production and distribution tools.
Amateur hour is the new buzz-phrase in TV production, whether that’s phone camera footage of underground commuters escaping a terrorist bomb on our evening news programmes, or four-minute documentaries made by Joe Public and distributed by a public service broadcaster like Channel 4.
A recent article in the Los Angeles Times by Patrick Goldstein (5 March 2006) conjectured that even big, so-called “watercooler” events like the Oscars and the Grammys are garnering smaller audiences because “elite, top-down culture” is being “supplanted by a raucous, participatory, bottom-up culture in which amateur entertainment has more appeal than critically endorsed skill and expertise”.
The article contends that people aren’t interested in having the professionals at the Motion Picture Association of America tell them what films are “best”; instead, they would rather watch their peers trying to “make it” in shows like the American version of Pop Idol. In fact, in the US this year American Idol attracted 12 million more viewers than the Grammys.
Certainly, when Rupert Murdoch slapped down $580m last year to buy community sharing site MySpace.com, a corner was turned in Big Media’s appreciation of what some big audiences seem to be interested in. Murdoch says the MySpace generation “talks to itself without frontiers”.
There are some 32 million registered users of MySpace.com, young people who hang out on the site, swapping music and video clips. And MySpace also has pages for specific interests and fan sites, including, famously, this year’s pop sensation, the Arctic Monkeys.
The rise of the Arctic Monkeys from local Sheffield cult heroes to Brit Award winners in a matter of months happened because of word of mouth on an epidemic scale. An epidemic made possible by the internet, where millions of people are willing to listen to the verdict of their peers, rather than waiting for the A & R department of a multinational record company to tell them what they should be listening to.
Co-produced by you, the viewer
When ex-ABC programming honcho Lloyd Braun famously went to Yahoo! to run a new content division in late 2004 he began to hire content-making talent and talked about bringing TV sitcoms and talkshows to the net. But recently Braun has had a change of heart; now the traditional content guy thinks the best way to keep users on his sites is to offer them ways of creating their own content.
Microsoft’s latest gaming console, the Xbox 360, is the first to allow players to upload content and create their own customised games. “What we are seeing now is the co-production of content,” says Chris Yapp, head of public sector innovation for Microsoft. “Rather than running and saying ‘digital copyright everything’, some of us are saying, ‘Is there a way we can use this new technology to extend the value of our core franchises?’”
But what are these developments in “user-generated content” and who is behind them? And are they a threat to the kind of quality TV productions that fill our mainstream channels?
“There is more video shot in the month of June at people’s weddings in the UK than the members of Pact produce in a year,” says Anthony Lilley, chief executive of interactive media specialist Magic Lantern Productions. “But most of it is not stuff you want to watch unless you went to the wedding.”
The point, says Lilley, is that the line between the professional and the amateur content creator is being blurred. But the act of simply making it possible for anyone to publish and share their content doesn’t necessarily make it desirable to others. “Giving me a pencil doesn’t make me Leonardo da Vinci,” says Lilley. “It’s just me with a pencil.”
Well, perhaps the clues are in the origins of amateur content. School site friendsreunited.com was built up by ordinary people wanting to re-activate friendships (including Charles Allen, whose positive experience on the site was one factor in ITV’s decision to buy it last December for up to £175m).
The mobile phone industry has spotted the trend: 3, the 3G mobile operator, launched SeeMeTV last October as a platform for users to showcase videos shot on their phones.
Viewers dial up not for sports clips or music videos from Big Media, but to see some of the 30,000 short films uploaded by fellow phone users, including Hot Dog Boy, a clip of a guy binging on frankfurters – and, perhaps inevitably, quite a lot of videos of girls pulling their tops up.
In this new world of user power, Channel 4’s FourDocs broadband site has also tapped into people’s desire and ability to create by building a destination for aspiring filmmakers to post their mini-docs. Nearly 100 four-minute films have been posted since the launch last summer. Taking a cue from Amazon.com, viewers rate the films from one to five stars.
“FourDocs is, in part, an experiment into whether, as a matter of policy, PSBs should get proficient with the shepherding of user-created media as well as the production of professional media,” says Lilley of Magic Lantern, which created and designed the FourDocs site.
Certainly, FourDocs has already had some interesting results: four of the mini-docs, including My Mini by Paul Beard, have been sold to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (for up to $700 each) to air in their late-night magazine show, Zed TV. Would these films have come to the attention of CBC without FourDocs? Probably not.
Lilley thinks that fully funded TV and film programming could disappear altogether in this new, choice-led, internet-distributed world. But he adds that the future will not simply be a zero-sum game where user-generated and amateur content replaces professional content.
Quite the contrary: the value of professionally made content may increase. “In the net world, it’s not about the cost of production, it’s about the value of product,” he says.
“This is difficult for TV and film producers to understand because they are creative-led and sell the product they want to sell. But in the new-media world there are not many business models like that. Instead, there are blended business models where funding comes from a number of different sources.”
The truth is that the vast majority of user-generated content is (and will probably always) be pretty awful. Sometimes that’s the attraction. But some will help develop new formats and content.
The move towards collaborative content represented by the type Microsoft is encouraging with its Xbox 360 will continue to grow.
“The industry will be given a run for its money by some of this. If I was in the business of commissioning, I would be watching things like Google Video pretty closely,” concludes John Pink, director of business development at Red Bee, formerly BBC Broadcast. If that’s not a warning shot across the bow of the Good Ship TV, then what is?