The present and future of post production business and technology

What are the four problems we have to solve for independent television?

Clearly Distribution U and the “fantasy” of my last post about starting over with a clear slate have been continuing to weigh upon my thought process. Just yesterday we broke down the challenge into four problems that will need to be solved. Each is complex but there are already indicators that the problems are solvable.

1.     How do we reduce the cost of production without noticeably reducing the quality (so that shows can be profitable with smaller audiences)?;

2.    How do we build audiences for our shows (in the absence of network or cable marketing)?;

3.    How do we take the audience that we’ve attracted and recover the cost of producing the shows (and a little profit, thank you)?; and

4.   How do we fund the whole thing (because the income comes long after the expenses start)?.

1. How do we reduce the cost of production?

Not a new subject for me – in fact there’s a whole section in The New Now on that very subject, some of which I posted here in How to Produce more cheaply back in March. But beyond those then ways of reducing cost without reducing quality, we also have to consider the inefficiencies if inventing workflows again for each production; setting up facilities anew for each project and not taking much advantage of efficiencies that could be derived from new production tools and techniques.

I also think there are huge opportunities for more efficient production and post-production by embracing metadata-based intelligent workflows, such as the Assisted Editing tools my day-job company Intelligent Assistance is working on.

Change will come slowly (unless there is a cataclysm) because most projects have a lot of money on the line and people are reluctant to embrace change if it means there job and reputation might be on the line. Ultimately though, lower production budgets, with increased efficiencies are coming – whether we like it or not, really!

2.    How do we build an audience for our shows?

Many of us are in this business because we love being involved in the process of production, but ultimately if we’re only making shows for ourselves, we’re not going to be able to continue for very long. We need to build an audience. Traditionally this was done by spending a lot of promotional dollars on advertising and a PR/marketing blitz. Plus, of course, networks and cable channels use their own air time to promote new shows.

Without money or a compliant channel, how do we build an audience? I see a lot of good signs from what Independent Filmmakers have been doing to build audiences and I think a lot of that will translate to building audiences for independent television.

It will help, though, if we know there is an audience for a show before we start production! Right now some research is done but ultimately the decision to “go or not” with a show is up to the “gut feeling” of some executive. By making sure first that there is an audience before committing to production (using similar techniques to Demand Media) we introduce more efficiency into the process.

Plus, of course, every social media tool can be turned into audience building tools, as long as people are treated as part of a conversation, rather than a “targeted demographic”. This is going to be  a hard lesson I suspect, because we can also use social media to influence the direction of story lines:  if an audience is reacting badly to a story it can be changed before becoming damaging to the show. (I’m thinking of the strange murder subplot in season two of Friday Night Lights.)

3.    How do we monetize the audience we’ve attracted?

Frankly, I don’t think there is any one answer to this question. Instead independent television will be funded by a wide variety of methods. We’ve already seen how this pans out with independent film.

Here’s some ideas:

  • Single sponsor shows where the sponsor’s message is integrated into the programming;
  • Product placement;
  • pay for program – a non-advertising alternative that could be attractive to some audiences;
  • live events around program themes (Glee, a current season hit on Fox, undertook a 10 city tour to promote the show back in August 09);
  • merchandise of all kinds, associated with show themes;
  • and a whole lot more ways yet to be discovered.

A key point is that the revenue may not come directly from the content as part of a more complex business model where the content may be free, but revenue is raised on the back of the content in other ways. Traditional advertising is this kind of model but I’ve already expressed my thinking that traditional advertising – interrupt a program with mass-blast ads – isn’t a viable path in the future.

4.     How do we fund independent television?

Oddly enough, I think this is the easiest part of the equation once we have the first three in place. Funding businesses that have a track record, and a model that leaves little to guesswork, is already a proven model. Lots of projects require advance funding before they generate revenue. If the model works, the funding will be available.

Are these huge challenges? Every one of them is and the answers are complex and mostly unknown. That doesn’t mean they can’t be solved. Creating a new model of independent television is a much easier challenge than fixing the economy, putting a man on the moon, or even creating an operating system. Human ingenuity solved those problems and I dare to believe we can solve these four to create a model of independent television.

Note: I’ve shamelessly appropriate the term “independent television” from Matthew Weiner, producer of Mad Men who used it during a presentation to the TV Academy in 2008. His usage, as is mine, essentially adapts the approach of an independent filmmaker to television production.