The initial fear-based reaction to the possibilities of on-line video – caused by the experience of the music industry – has now been superseded by a market with very diverse players eager to exploit this new business opportunity as quickly as possible
Though as they admit they are fumbling their way through, trying to find out which business models to pursue, plenty of initiatives are popping up all the time.
“We will feel our way into how content will be funded in the future, no one really knows.” This was one of the statements uttered at the closing panel discussion of Future TV Show 2006, which gathered a number of key players from the digital TV business (with a predominance of British representatives), broadcasters, telcos, mobile companies, software producers, service providers, advertising agencies and analysts. The spirit at the conference was dominated by an eagerness for all the possibilities the digital technology offers and a lust for experimenting with various ways of making business out of content on this market.
Different Platforms Working Together
The discussion of which platform will win over the other seems to have died out. Everybody agreed that old media will live together with new media, and that every player on the market needs to be present on all platforms – both traditional linear TV, Internet portals, video-on-demand (VoD) and mobile TV. And the advantage of using all those platforms is to get them to work together to support each other, so that one platform directs viewers over to another. The new mantra is to build up on-line audiences around the programmes by making extensions to TV programmes like behind-the-scene stuff and chat forums, stretching the on-line platform to create communities.
One example of how the different platforms are successfully used together is the very popular drama series “Lost”. On Channel 4’s website you can download a podcast about the show, you can download episodes as VoD (episodes from the last season, and new episodes a week after its premiere for 99 p each). There are behind-the-scene videos, chat forums and a blog. In addition, the US network ABC is launching an Internet game “The Lost Experience” which plays together with the series, and they are producing 2-minute episodes exclusively for mobile phones entitled “Lost Video Diaries”, introducing characters which do not appear visually in the TV series, but play together with the show. ABC has also put episodes of “Lost” on iTunes.
All these offers work together to build up a community around the series and, of course, to get more viewers: if your friends play “The Lost Experience” you want to play together with them, etc. The VoD service is effective for keeping viewers who would otherwise skip the whole series if they missed an episode; now, they can easily catch up. Although this strategy is suitable for series, the starting point is different for one-off documentaries, yet the strategy could be applied around strands. BBC’s doc-strand Storyville has a website offering background info, filmmaker interviews, viewer comments, reviews, but all based on written text (though with the possibility of watching preview clips). This could be developed in similar ways.
Some speakers at the conference were quite confident that there will always be the need for “live television”, for television that is scheduled and transmitted at a certain time, and that VoD will grow alongside with that. Some broadcasters do offer VoD services for a limited number of their programmes. BBC and C4 do it for series, and in France Arte, FR3, FR2 and Canal+ all have VoD services for some of their programmes, including documentaries. They are geographically protected so that only viewers in countries for which the channel has the VoD rights can watch them. The price varies; on ARTE, for example, you can download “Darwin’s Nightmare” for EUR 3.99. Furthermore National Geographic and Discovery have VoD channels and the Documentary Channel in Canada has a VoD service. All broadcasters will probably follow in the near future.
VoD is launched not only by broadcasters, but also by telcos or distributors, and it comes in different forms, either as pay-per-view or as subscription-based ‘VoD channels’, where you can get access to a package of a certain type of programme: music videos, kids programmes, entertainment. Programmed a bit like theme channels, except that the programmes are not linked to a certain time, but can be downloaded or streamed at any time. Some of the new players on the TV scene are the telcos that want to deliver content to sell their other services, as well as software producers like Microsoft, mobile operators and electricity companies. They mostly buy programmes from other distributors (like broadcasters or Hollywood studios), but some have started to commission programmes as well; for example, mobile operator O2 commissioned Endemol to create a mobile TV format, an interactive reality TV series/docusoap show about the pop group Sugarbabes.
Culturally-based initiatives are also bidding in on the market. The National Film Board of Canada is about to offer all Canadians VoD access to a good part of their library.
Movie distributors are also creating VoD services, typically as an extension of their home-entertainment business. Cinema and video distributors like Scandinavian SF-films has created SF-anytime offering VoD of their titles. Canal+ in France has created Canal+ Active, there is Filmflex in the UK, and Comcast, Movielink and Cinemanow in the US. And the hugely popular US-based Netflix Internet DVD rental shop is looking into the download business as well. These are mainly fiction films providers, but there are also some initiatives looking into documentary on-demand.
In France the filmmaker-owned documen.tv offers docs for pay-per-view download for USD 4.99.
Distributor Mercury Media in the UK is launching a subscription-based documentary broadband site in October: joiningthedots.tv. They are asking producers for non-exclusive rights, so the producer can license the film to other websites as well. They will run the site as a subscription-based members’ club: for a monthly fee you get access to all the films on the site. MD Tim Sparke explains that they won’t charge a pay-per-view as the transactions costs are far too big to make it feasible. They will start up with 100 titles, adding 10–20 each month. The subscription fee will probably be EUR 9–10 per month, with a differentiated pricing structure so that less wealthier countries will pay a lower fee. They will pay back the producer 30% of the net subscription revenue and calculated according how many downloads the single film gets. Tim Sparke doesn’t think that the site alone can create a healthy income for the producer, but as the site grows in popularity and with world-wide potential it should be possible to get a decent revenue. Tim Sparke points out that if the film gets many downloads and positive user ratings and comments it can also help the film to get a TV sale.
The site will be set up like a club where members can communicate with each other. Each film will get a forum and they will implement Amazon-like systems for user ratings and user recommendations. Initially, films will only be available in English, but there are plans to add more languages in the future.
Mercury Media has chosen to stream films from their own site rather than put them out on platforms like Homechoice. They want to control the site content, though in the future they might cooperate with other platforms.
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