Business  •  June 2, 2006

Developing Content for Television of Tomorrow

This year, video portals like YouTube, iFilm, and vSocial are all the rage. It appears that online video viewing has finally reached a critical mass. It is interesting to think about what this means for the content developers. Before we get into the specific implications, I would like to discuss the general trend in the business world today.

A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a friend who is a content developer for TV, and he talked about a site called CoSwap where you can have graphic designers from around the world bid on your project. I came across that site several years ago, and thought that the idea was promising. Say, for instance, you need a logo designed for your company. You can post your project on the site, describing your requirements, and hungry graphic designers from around the world will bid on it. Often, you will get many people who are willing to do it for free (although the site requires that the designers charge something.). My friend knew someone who uses the service often for logos, and he turns it into a competition with a hundred dollar prize. He gets to choose one from hundreds of different logo designs submitted to him, and he pays only for the one he chooses. The same idea can be used for short copywriting, like taglines, which would be even more effective since anyone can type. (To design a logo, you at least need to know how to use a graphics program.)

This is the direction many industries are heading towards; global democratization, and to a degree, global meritocracy. TV programming is no exception. This is exciting and scary at the same time. I think it is great that this trend will bridge the gap in wealth between rich nations like the US and poor nations like India. The manual laborers were the first to lose their jobs to underdeveloped nations. The computer programmers have lost a huge amount of business to them in the past five years or so. The clerical workers are losing their jobs now. Many believe that it won’t happen to creative jobs, but I don’t think that is true. The democratization of content development is already happening within the US.

Until recently, content development for TV has been an exclusive domain of those who were well connected in big cities like New York. Since there was no way to guarantee the success of any content pitched to the network executives, they tend to trust people they personally know or like. A lot of charm and salesmanship was necessary to get them to spend money on you. With the advent of video portals, this will no longer be necessary. Rather soon, the networks will probably abandon the idea of developing new content on their own. They would have no reason to take any risk if there are many contents available that have already proven their popularity on the net. They will function more like record companies. That is, they will be in the business of finding good content, and promoting them. The only problem is that they won’t be able to own the copyright, but the record labels don’t own rights to their artists’ songs, and they make plenty of money.

This could be bad news for established TV producers. Many of them will lose their business to those who have proven themselves online. Having a hit show in their portfolios will not be enough to earn the trust of the network executives. If they can buy a program which is already popular, why bother taking any risks at all? Even a famous producer like Mark Burnett can produce flops in the future. Just because you were lucky enough to hit upon a great concept like “The Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”, it does not mean that you can come up with another. Unless your name and face as a producer is famous, like Simon Cowell from “American Idol”, it will be difficult to negotiate another deal, since an abundance of popular risk-free contents are available for purchase. (If you are famous like Cowell, you become the content that the audience wants. In this sense, I would imagine that the queers in “Queer Eye” will get more out of the show than the producer who created it.) With the efficiency of the Internet, the shelf life of the fruit of your success is much shorter now. The flipside of “15 minutes of fame” is that not many will remain being famous for much longer than 15 minutes. But this is not to be confused with a state where everyone is famous at the same time (thereby no one is really famous). The power law of popularity will continue to exist. This simply means that, at any given moment, very few will always command the attention of the majority; it is just that their hold on popularity wouldn’t last long.

Another interesting implication of online video is that the network executives will be less reliant on their own taste for developing content, because the popularity of any content can be tested and proven online before they bother spending millions on producing it.

As I watched the popular video blog, Rocketboom, I was shocked by how unfunny it was. I don’t think my face even grinned once. It was like watching a French comedy in French. Had I watched it before it became popular, I would’ve guessed that it would never be popular. This type of error in judgment happens all the time in the creative business. Harry Potter, for instance, was turned down by many publishers before it was picked up. This does not mean that the publisher of Harry Potter never makes this type of mistake. Everyone does. There is something fundamentally unpredictable about human psychology, which is clearly reflected in the stock market, and it defies any attempt to theorize it. As soon as any theory is formulated, that very theory influences the market and invalidates itself. With the popularity of video portals, there will be no need to guess. You’ll know.

This means that content development is a numbers game; the more you shoot, the better chance you have of coming up with a hit. And, to shoot more, you need to produce them cheap. For the network executives, online videos are a collection of pilots from which they can choose to develop further. It will save them unnecessary money, time, and risk. In the near future, no network executives would be willing to invest millions of dollars in something that hasn’t proven its popularity. Now, they have access to free pilots and focus groups. In fact, online video portals are far superior to conventional focus groups, since it’s the real world they are testing on. The executives can put their own taste aside, and stop speculating what would become popular. The power law will guarantee that the small minority will always get the vast majority of the audience. As long as they play their cards right, the networks will always have a viable business.