News on the virtual second
By Kate Bulkley
Thursday May 21, 2007
Sky News and 4 Radio aim to seize new audiences by creating a media presence on the Second Life platform, which boasts about six million users
This week the two British broadcasters launch their presence on the Second Life platform, a booming virtual world online that already boasts some six million registered users and an economy that is worth the equivalent of $500m.
Hoping to tap into new audiences, Sky News is building a virtual replica of the Sky newsroom (for a lot less money than the real one) and presenter Adam Boulton - who already has his own blog - will have a virtual version of himself. The pay TV company is also planning to give away virtual television sets to Second Life residents so they can watch Sky News in their virtual living rooms, thereby becoming the first 24-hour news channel in Second Life.
Meanwhile, Channel 4, which already offers some of its TV programming in Second Life on a virtual TV network, plans to launch 4 Radio into Second Life this week, becoming the first UK radio station to have an ongoing presence there (BBC Radio 1's Big Weekend was simulcast in Second Life a year ago this month; 30,000 people attended the real gig in Dundee, Scotland and 6,000 attended in Second Life).
While any number of radio stations simulcast their schedule on the web, 4 Radio will offer podcasts of individual programmes in Second Life, much as it already does now on the Channel4radio.com website. By offering a wide variety of programmes from music to speech, 4 Radio is trying to "offer individuality on a mass scale," says Nathalie Schwarz, director of radio at Channel 4. "Our ambition is to do radio differently and Second Life is a way to take radio to where consumers hang out instead of expecting them to come to us."
Channel 4 also plans to make listening to 4 Radio easy wherever Second Life virtual residents might be, by giving branded watches to those who show up to its virtual studios. Like the TV sets for Sky, the special watches will allow residents to listen to 4 Radio content even when they are somewhere else in Second Life. Why not give away radios?
"We are always thinking of our listeners' needs," says Schwarz with a chuckle. "We didn't want to burden them with boom boxes! Watches are much easier to carry around, even in a virtual world." Over the last year Second Life has become a phenomenon, now adding some 25,000 new residents every day, making it increasingly attractive as a testing ground for all kinds of companies, including big media. Second Life is also considered by some to be the first step toward the next phase of the internet - a 3-D, immersive experience.
Second Life is not the only virtual world on the Net, there are several others, including Habbo Hotel and MTV's virtual Laguna Beach - a virtual version of the popular US TV show. New ones are launching all the time. For example, Nickelodeon's Nicktropolis had three million registered users only three months after launch in January. However big the competition, Second Life has managed to create a real buzz, partly because its creator, Linden Lab in California, has taken a fairly hands-off approach to running the world, allowing the residents to create and do pretty much what they want.
The free-spirited approach has also caused a certain amount of backlash. The most recent is a furor in Germany earlier this month over allegations that some Second Lifers are trading child pornography online. Linden Lab issued a strong response to the allegations on its blog, saying Linden has "absolutely zero tolerance for depictions of child pornography within Second Life" and that perpetrators would be "permanently banned and subject to legal consequences".
Despite some issues with how some of Second Life's residents may be spending their time, Sky and Channel 4 are joining a long list of companies, charities and even embassies that have set up shop in this high-profile virtual world. Adidas, The Gap, IBM and Reuters are just a few of the companies already doing business there, from running virtual stores to testing new marketing concepts. In the case of Reuters, the information and news company has a virtual version of a real correspondent Adam Pasick (known as Adam Reuters in Second Life) who reports on news in the virtual world.
"We felt that Second Life has the biggest and most potential for growth," says Simon Bucks, associate editor online for Sky News. "This is really new territory for us and for everybody else but we thought this was an opportunity to reach a whole new audience."
Sky will launch its first simulcast in Second Life on May 27 with Sky News' Sunday Live with Adam Boulton from the Guardian Hay Festival (Sky is a corporate sponsor of the festival). Boulton and his guests on the programme, including Clive James, Mariella Frostrup and author Tim Guest, will all have virtual Second Life avatars and questions will be taken from the virtual audience gathered in Second Life. There are also plans to populate the virtual Sky newsroom with special briefings about news stories given by the avatars of real Sky News correspondents. Sky also plans to encourage interaction with Second Lifers through a virtual Speaker's Corner using a 3-D message board.
Neither Sky nor Channel 4 are focused on earning money in Second Life, but rather see it as a way to experiment with the growing phenomenon of virtual worlds. "It's about beginning to cultivate online communities and understanding how this is going to work and how people will use content," says 4 Radio's Schwarz.
At the moment, Second Life is the only world where 4 Radio currently exists; the station exists online but it is waiting for a decision from Ofcom about the success of its bid to run the UK's second national DAB multiplex. "We genuinely see Second Life as a place to learn and experiment and show that our approach to radio is very different. It's not just a bid device," Schwarz insists.
Other UK broadcasters are also experimenting in Second Life, including the Sci Fi Channel which has streamed some of its content on Virtual Life TV, a network in Second Life operated by specialist creative agency Rivers Run Red. Rivers run Red also is responsible for building both the Sky News and 4 Radio presences in Second Life.
So far ITV has not built a virtual version of Network Centre in Second Life, but producer and filmmaker Roger Graef and his team did sign up for Second Life and create personal avatars in order to scout talent for Web Lives, an online series for ITV. They did find several of the stars for the series in Second Life but unfortunately the three-minute episodes are only available on itv.com.