Earlier I wrote about podcasting and the rapid uptake. Well, there’s every indication that video podcasting, of some sort, will follow. I think this is a tremendous opportunity for content creators because podcasting isn’t about broadcast but in fact an opt-in subscription service. In any discussion of these subjects it keeps echoing in my mind that RSS – is really simple subscription management (and yes, conditional access is possible) and Blogs.
To draw some parallels with traditional media: blogs are the journalism and writing and RSS would be the publishing channel (the network). Blogs and podcasting are bypass technologies – they bypass traditional channels. If pressed for an explanation for the truly astounding growth of podcasting and blogging to a lesser degree, I would hypothesize that they are to some degree a reaction against the uniformity of voice of modern media, where one company owns a very large proportion of the radio stations in the US (and music promotion and billboards) and news media is limited to a half dozen large company sources with little bite and no diversity.
The “blogsphere” (hate that word but it’s in common use) broke the CBS faked service papers during the last Presidential election campaign, and even in the last few weeks has been instrumental in the firing of a high level CNN executive and revealing the “fake” White House journalist and his sordid past. Collectively at least this is real journalism – and more importantly, it’s investigative journalism of the sort that isn’t done by traditional news outlets.
Blogging is popular because it’s easy and inexpensive. Sign up for a free blog on a major service, or download open source blogging software like WordPress (like I use) running on your own server. In a few minutes your voice is out there to be found. In my mind it harkens back to days of Wild West newspapers where someone would set a printing press and suddenly, be a newspaper publisher. But unlike a newspaper, blogs have an irregular publishing schedule. You can bookmark your favorite blogs and check them (when you remember), or you can be notified by your RSS aggregator application when there’s a new post (the URL for the RSS feed for this blog is in the bottom right of the page if you want to add it to your favorites).
Podcasting is easy and inexpensive unless your podcast becomes popular – then the bandwidth expense becomes considerable. Podcasting is a superior replacement for webcasting or streaming that does not have to be in real time. It’s produced and automatically delivered for consumption when it suits the listener. Those are the key attributes that, in my opinion, contribute to its success. There’s no need for a listener to tune in at exactly the time it’s “broadcast” – listen or miss it – or even to remember to visit some archive and download. My own experience on DV Guys totally parallels this. DV Guys has a nearly-five-year history as a live show (Thursday 6-7 pm Pacific) but has always been more popular through its archives pages.
Shortly after the advent of podcasting we set up a podcast of the live show available by the next day. Since then DV Guys has enjoyed more listeners than at any other time in its life. People tended to forget to visit the archives site weekly, or every second week. Even visiting every couple of weeks was too much of a commitment for a show that, while entertaining and informative, wasn’t at the top of everyone’s “must do” list. But with a podcast DV Guys is ready, available whenever a listener has a few moments – at the gym, during a commute, while waiting for a meeting or at an airport. DV Guys, like most radio, is consumable anytime. Importantly, it puts the listener in control, not the creator, of the listening experience.
Podcasting audio has another advantage – it’s easy to create. Almost as easy as blogging but not quite so easy. There are, consequently, proportionally fewer podcasts than there are blogs, because of that higher entry requirement. Even then, most podcasts are simply guys (mostly guys) talking into a microphone from a prepared script, or a few people together talking around a microphone. More highly produced podcasts are rarer.
The simplicity of publishing a blog means that it can be published for as few as half a dozen people – in fact there are people looking to use blogs and wikis as part of a project management tool. Podcasting can reach thousands but in broadcast terms that’s a tiny niche market.
Here’s a new truism – almost all markets are niche markets. What these new publishing models do is aggregate enough people in a niche to make it a market. There’s a lot of money to be made in niches. Particularly in the US, where there are a multiplicity of cable channels, small niches in the entertainment industry can be aggregated with appropriate low cost distribution channels, into profitable businesses. There are a lot of niches that are too small to be have their needs met by even a niche cable network, so cable channels get subdivided, or there’s no content for small niches.
RSS, low cost production tools and P2P is your new distribution channel. This is the other side of the production revolution we’ve been experiencing over the last 10 years, when the cost of “broadcast quality” content has dropped from an equipment budget of $200,000 upward (for camera, recorder and edit suite with titling and DVE) to similar quality at well under $20,000 (and many people doing it for under $10,000). At the end, a computer (or computer-like) device will be one of the inputs to that big screen TV you covet and you’ll watch content fed via subscription when it suits. If it’s not news, it can come whenever, ready to be watched whenever.
The relative difficulty of producing watchable video content will further limit the numbers (as happened from blogging to podcasting) and the current state of video blogs will make experienced professionals cry. That should not stop you planning for your own network. Instead of “The Comedy Network”, the “Sci-Fi Network” etc, prepare for a world of the “The fingernail beauty network” or “Fiat maintenance network” or “Guys who like to turn wood on a lathe network”, et al. Content could be targeted geographically, or demographically. There are very profitable niches available. Two that I’ve been involved with, at the video production level were for people who like to paint china plates (challenging to light) and basic metalwork skill training. There’s no need to fill 24 hours a day 7 days a week with this network model. When new content is produced, it’s ready for consumption when viewers want. We do something similar with our Pro Apps Hub where we publish content from out training programs piecemeal, as it’s produced, before we aggregate the disc version.
Note that I am not, basically, talking about computer-based viewing. My expectation is that software and hardware solutions will evolve into something usable as a home entertainment device. “TV” is a kick-back, put your feet up experience, video on the computer is a lean-forward pay attention experience. While both could be used for the end target of this publication model, what I’m really talking about is content for that lean back experience.
Now, I don’t expect “Hollywood” (as a collective noun for big media) to embrace this model early, or even ever, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to become viable. The most popular content will probably still go through the current distribution channels, however they evolve. It also doesn’t mean we’ll be restricted to small budget production either. It could (should) evolve models where the viewers were in much closer touch with the producers, without the gatekeeper model.
For example, the basic skill training video series I produced back in Australia was niche programming. There were, effectively, 75 direct customers in the small Australian market (smaller, I should point out, than California alone). No customer or central group had money for production but each one had $150 – $300 to buy a copy of a product. Since these were very simple productions requiring a small crew and being produced in a regional city, each project had about a 30% profit margin. If the same proportions applied to the US market, the budget would have doubled but the profit would have quadrupled or more.
Take another more current example. Star Trek Enterprise has been canned but the last season had 2.5 million viewers an episode with a budget of $1.6 million an episode. If each viewer paid 75c for the episode, delivered directly to their “TV storage device” (somewhere between a Media PC, Mac Mini or TiVo) then the producers would turn a profit of $200,000 an episode or 12.5% margin on what they were getting from the network. At 99c a show, that’s nearly 50% more revenue than was coming from the network. And the audience isn’t limited to just the US market – that same content can be delivered to Enterprise fans anywhere in the world. As the producer I could live on 13 episodes at $200,000 profit above and beyond previous costs (which presumably included some salary and profit). Moreover, producers wouldn’t be locked into rating cycles and the matching boom/bust production cycle.
It doesn’t matter if each high quality (HD if you want) episode takes 20 hours of download “in the background”. When it’s complete and ready to watch it appears in the play list as available.
Bandwidth would be a killer in that scenario – even with efficient MPEG-4 H.264 encoding, a decent SD image is going to require 1-1.5 Mbits/sec and HD is going to want 7 or 8 Mbits/sec. Assuming 45 minute episodes (sans commercials) that’s around 700 MB an episode per person, or in HD about 5 GBytes, per subscriber. Across 2+ million subscribers that’s going to eat my profit margin rather badly without another solution. There are technologies in place that could be adapted.
Assuming the bandwidth challenge is resolved. What’s left?
Two things mostly: the device that stores the bits ready for display on the TV and software to manage the conditional access (you only get the bits you bought) and playlists. Something like a video/movie version of the iTunes music store. We’ll need to wait for a big player like Apple or Sony to wield enough muscle for that, but in the meantime, we see the beginning with Ant but as a computer interface and without the simplicity and elegance of a Dish/Direct/TiVo user interface. But it will come.
Will you have your network business plan ready? I’m working on mine already.
Wired has another take. Videoblogging already has a home page and for a bit of thinking on the flip-side, how this might all work for the individual wanting to aggregate a personal channel, Robin Good has a blog article on Personal Media Aggregators in one of my favorite (i.e. challenging) blogs.