The present and future of post production business and technology | Philip Hodgetts

Nov/09

15

What if there were no established TV production “industry”

One way or the other I’ve been thinking of what a “new media studio” would be like; how will people be paid; what would drive consumer demand; and all the rest that goes with a theoretical construct of a “replacement” for what we have now. Practically speaking, it’s more likely to evolve with many ideas in parallel, than come in one sudden upheaval that creates a new greenfield.

Although, as an aside from my main theme, I look ahead two years to when the actors’, writers’ and directors’ contracts come up for renewal. My feeling is that they’ll either have negotiated a settlement before the contract runs out, or we’re in for an apocalypse.

Remember that this a purely theoretical construct so I’m forgiving myself for not having every detail covered. What set me thinking, horrible-though-it-is was Demand Media. Wired’s article The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model is really a nasty kick in the mouth for production skills: essentially “quality” has no place in this (highly profitable) production line, where costs have been driven down by competitive pressure. It is probably the dystopian future we were warned against when the industry became “democratized”.

Fortunately I don’t think it’s feasible for television-like content. (I’ll just call it Television, but I mean the sort of content that people watch on networks, cable channels, or off a satellite or even via Hulu.) For a thousand reasons I’ll bet at a minimum a more complex production process and higher demands for writing skills. Even relatively successful Internet Shows often have underdone production values from lack of quality writing, lighting or sound. (And some are excellent in all three because they have been made by “old school” folk.)

But let’s step back and apply some of the principles and see what might come of it.

Based on audience demand

Instead of basing program ideas on  some ‘gut feeling’ of a producer or executive we can take a lesson from the Demand Media case and design shows tailored to specific audience demands. Demand Media have algorithms that watch search terms and derive future “shows” as answers to questions people are asking ‘now’.

I’m sure there are ways of tackling similar challenges for TV shows. Monitor social media interactions for the types of comments being made about shows; use that data to derive algorithms to direct existing shows and find ideas for shows that will have an audience, and the business model for that audience would also be known. (See below, Funding it All)

Production Line

Everything becomes a production line. It’s going that way now, but the whole process needs to not be recreated anew for each show. In a greenfield model, employment is constant with people moving from show to show as they come and go; moving from one creative grouping to another.

Everything is standardized: production gear, cameras, record formats, etc. Standard workflows, controlled by the studio.

Talent

Talent would be mostly staff – from writers, production crew, actors, editors, audio post – paid decent salaries and with good benefits. Everyone would get a decent salary with a flat salary structure (instead of the enormous salaries for some) but would also share in the studio profits. Everyone is motivated to make it work.

Talent (across the board) is nurtured in their craft advancement based on merit. (Implicit in advancement is the concept that people will leave, unless the studio always grows.)

Production

Put production in inexpensive facilities, either purpose built (long term) in inexpensive locales (low cost counties) or in excess facilities from a declining (declined) old industry.

I see a lot of standing sets and green screen, and frankly a lot of synthetic sets.

Again with standardized production gear, all matching grip and common set modules for set construction. Work on the model of Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin America: one standard service, in standardized aircraft with much simplified maintenance and costs for spares.

Standardizing on common equipment, workflows, formats and outputs would save production and post huge amounts of money. Equipping with modern gear that has great quality at affordable prices taking advantage of all the cost reduction of the last decade.

Production will require talent. We need it to “look and sound like Television” because that’s where a large market is at (if we’re in a greenfield remember). It will still need to be lit well; recorded well and finished to a high standard, but I would argue that the most profitable approach would be to go to the least expensive “good enough” solution. And by “good enough” I do mean that it has to be good, but maybe for this type of content, shooting with a Viper might be “more quality than we need to pay for”. But AVC-I or direct ProRes acquisition with a KiPro makes for high quality and efficient pipelines that maintain “good enough” quality.

Apply that concept across the range of production departments: good enough, but not luxury.

Promotion and Audience Building

I think there are a lot of lessons from the independent film producers who have learned how to build audiences, and it’s something I’ve presented on before. It will be more building and nurturing fan bases and involving them in the process as much as possible.

Funding it all

Ah yes, the million dollar question. Or multi-billion dollar question if we’re talking an alternative to the current Television industry. Of course, I don’t have any definitive answer because, well frankly, there won’t be one. As was obvious at Distribution U, there are many avenues to funding a program:

  • some audiences will want to pay directly, and that’s a viable business model as I’ve demonstrated before, for even quite small audience sizes;
  • less expensive productions make it easier for one advertiser (a.k.a. brand in recent discussion here) to sponsor the whole show (Mark Pesce’s Hyperdistribution model)
  • use the show to promote merchandise, live performances, or other scarce good.

In one part of my mind I think a model like this could actually work. In fact I’m sure some variation on this is part of Jim Louderback is attempting with Revision3 and Kip McClanahan is attempting with On Networks. I suspect that no-one is going as radical as Demand Media, and I hope no-one ever does.

Kip McClanahan
CEO, On Networks

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7 comments

  • Simon Wyndham · December 3, 2009 at 4:45 am

    I don’t understand this current drive for quantity over quality. Which is better? One well made show that gets 30 million viewers, or 30 million useless shows?

    The Demand Media model is sickening. While the website owners are making money left right and centre, the contributors are not. I would dearly love to know how even the most basic of video equipment can pay for itself, along with travel costs, editing equipment costs, apartment rent or house mortgage payments, food shopping every week, healthcare, etc etc using money made from Demand Media?

    The way that people are seemingly queuing up to work for such people is astounding. They remind me of people in third world countries surrounding food supply trucks. If these people have any skills at all, why are they so willing to prostitute themselves? Is business *really* that slow in the corporate or TV sectors?

    • Admin comment by Philip · December 3, 2009 at 10:35 am

      The reality is that some people are that hard up for work. Business is *really* that slow apparently.

      Philip

  • Libby · December 3, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    I think corporate and television are actually different in standard and requirements. I know when I was in the corporate world we often produced an nice opening and closing for a video, but filled it with lesser quality content in the “middle” because information changed so quickly that it wasn’t possible to afford high quality throughout. It wasn’t ideal, but we got paid and the customers remained happy.

    I worry though, that as people get used to lesser quality that it will be harder and harder to justify spending the time and the money to do things really well.

  • david bogie · December 4, 2009 at 8:24 am

    Philip,
    I enjoyed this and you used a bunch of werdz I haven’t seen since taking Political Science 101!

  • Dave Bittner · December 4, 2009 at 8:25 am

    The Demand business model would have been very attractive to me when I was a college student. I was living on campus, my expenses were paid, but shooting for Demand would have been a great source of beer money. And I suspect a lot of shooters are using it that way. Got a few empty days on the schedule? Go crank out a few how-to videos, make some cash that you wouldn’t have made otherwise. The other key to this is that it can be done stealthily. You could be out shooting for Demand whenever you have free time, but your regular clients don’t have to know about it, so you’re not necessarily pushing your core business downmarket. You’re not advertising this as a service, you’re just doing it for Demand when you have the time, and assignments come along that you can crank out quickly.

    Seems to me this whole this is about the push-pull between content and quality. I believe compelling content wins every time. The shows that Demand is generating aren’t “useless,” they’re drawing traffic and generating revenue. That’s not to say that quality doesn’t have it’s place, it certainly does, but it’s been demonstrated time after time that viewers will tolerate low production value if the content is compelling.

  • Chael · December 10, 2009 at 9:51 am

    This:

    “That’s not to say that quality doesn’t have it’s place, it certainly does, but it’s been demonstrated time after time that viewers will tolerate low production value if the content is compelling.”

    Upon buying my first HD TV and connecting it to an HD source, I showed my wife a channel in both SD and its’ HD brethren.

    I gloated, “Isn’t that incredible!?”
    She said, “I hate this show.”

    Fact is, most consumers cannot differentiate quality unless the difference is overly exaggerated (think, 100k 10fps 160×240 30% quality motion-jpeg vs. uncompressed SD or HD), and it is even more disassociated if the content is something of interest

    Does that mean as professionals we shouldn’t strive for better production value than the common YouTube “broadcaster” recording from their webcam? Certainly not, at least IMHO.

    However, in my mind, it does make 99% of the constant technical arguments about acquisition equipment kind of moot, if they weren’t already. I mean, honestly…do you think the average person would know the difference between a 5D, 7D, Rebel, Red, or a good quality DV camera? Maybe looking at a clip and being asked which looks the best. But for most, if you presented their favorite show to them, shot on any of those various tools, they wouldn’t think twice about it.

    Content has always been said to be king, but timely, relevant content is the ring to rule them all.

    I still don’t get how the money can tie into all of it, but I’m rambling.

  • Bill · December 25, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    I agree with all the comments re content being king. Over 30 years of editing drama and documentary have confirmed this to me over and over again.

    One of the great advantages of the “democratisation” of production is that even though the equipment may be cheap, when it is in the hands of skilled and creative people the cost does not necessarily increase (if they are working for themselves) but engagement with an audience does.

    The one technical element that fails most often in my observation is quality of sound. Everyone wants to me a DP and hey doesn’t the camera come with a microphone?

    Experiments have shown that people will willingly suffer poor image quality if the content is good but if the sound is similarly poor they will struggle with it.

    When a low grade image is played with poor sound then again with good sound people perceive its quality to have improved.

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