Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Broadband Generation
The Revolution Will Be Digitized, Webcast, Streamed, Vlogged, Podcast...

by Thomas Rigler

Earlier this year, at the annual TV business circus called NATPE, attendees were treated to an unconventional keynote speech. Its unlikely presenter was Gary Carter, a senior executive at FremantleMedia, and the company behind the global Pop Idol phenomenon (American Idol in the US).

The speech managed to clarify the current dilemma of whether or not we are actually mourning the demise of television brought on by technological innovation, which, according to Carter, misses the point:

"Technological development is a story which runs through human history, and part of that story is the rise of what we call 'media.' This is about us, in a very deep and a very profound way, and it's about the way in which we as a species are driven by creativity."

The broadband video age actually already started back in the 1970s with the invention of the VCR. Rewind, Pause, Recordfor the first time in the history of the moving image, viewers could adapt their viewing pleasure according to their lifestyle and not resign themselves to the limitations of "live" exhibition and broadcast.

The audience quickly rid itself of linear viewing habits and hungrily requested technological innovation from entertainment giants like Sony, Philips and Apple. The resulting digital development boom still ripples through to this day.

The only difference today is this: The consumer is in charge and dictates what, when, where, on which platform and in which type and file size the industry is allowed to serve up video and entertainment. Within 24 months, thousands of video portals have launched to quench the audience's insatiable thirst for short-form video clips, movie downloads and television programming delivered through the Internet pipeline.

On-demand, speed and portability are the new standard for the broadband generation, and the parallels to the early days of television are remarkable: Back in the 1950s, a new technology was introduced to the mainstream with the tube, spawning innovative ways of storytelling, distribution, advertising, financing and monetization--just like today.

The audience consumed moving images at home instead of visiting the neighborhood movie theater. Today, computers, iPods, game portals and mobile phones lure viewers through their ability to display moving images on the go.

Even if broadband video might not quite equal the lasting impact of the dawn of the television age, it's certainly comparable to the advent of cable television in the late 1970s and early 1980s. From one day to the next, a handful of trusted broadcast entities exploded into dozens of analogue networks, eventually leading to hundreds of digital stations.

Fueled by the lightning-fast adoption of broadband DSL connections in industrialized nations, the current offerings for viewers, producers and advertisers alike have reached more than 10,000, if not 100,000, international broadband networks. And herein lies the opportunity for innovation on the part of filmmakers with this new technological platform.

While production had been democratized through digital technology, distribution and exhibition still continued to travel through corporate bottlenecks. With the arrival of broadband and ubiquitous Internet video, the rules of the game have changed: Content goes global, brands become the dominating force and niche economies reincarnate as viable sources of revenue for film and video.

In the old days, reaching a global audience required enormous effort, involving international ad buys in various territories. In the broadband era, it'll be possible to pick matching partners for your demographics from a far larger group of broadband networks that will each provide specific yet accumulatively global viewership.

It's therefore no surprise that viewing and programming habits are changing rapidly: Production budgets are shrinking and in return, content gets shorter, more flexible and more interactive, thereby leaving proven television formulas behind: Popular shows like Prom Queen, Lonely Girl 15 and The Burg routinely reach millions of viewers without much promotion, relying instead on the viral strength of word of mouth.

How did the so-called broadband revolution actually take place? It's been years since early hype during the Internet bubble. The biggest push the second time around came probably from the least likeliest participant in revolutionary activitiesthe corporate office cubicle.

Let's be honest: Without office downtime, the viral wave would never have happened so fast. Who's still opting to read the paper at the desk if clips from CNN, New York Times Video, Comedy Central and YouTube are waiting with the promise of well-deserved distraction?

A new generation of PCs equipped with fast processors and flash players, connected through efficient modems and capable DSL connections was already waiting for the arrival of compressed video files.

While the studios were focusing on long-term Internet download solutions to distribute their catalogue, media players from Adobe were already simulating the first multi-channel broadband player environments. Global portals like Yahoo! and AOL had already served up their first billion music videos before formerly innovative channels like MTV and CNN even began to launch their own broadband networks.

When the first commercial players popped up in 2005, everyone knew where the train was heading: Traditional TV stations, Internet portals, music labels, print magazines, museums, car manufacturers and independent content providers all simultaneously discovered this promising new form of direct marketing and distribution of video content.

In 2006 alone, BrightCove, one of the market leaders for flash video players and video hosting networks, issued more than 5,000 licenses for its product. According to the BrightCove sales team, the majority of these broadband networks were started by small businesses and medium-sized organizations, well placed amid TV networks and international media brands.

Therefore, the brands count the most in this new broadband economy. Whether these brands are also media companies is of lesser importance. Extremely affordable technology has become available, enabling manufacturers to reach potential consumers with tailor-made contentonline, on both an individual and global level.

Furthermore, the new digital technologies of the broadband era foster the creation of countless Internet TV channels that a younger and broadband video-savvy generation is already discovering and claiming. Traditional media providers--whether movies, television or the antiquated print publishing industry--have to step up and play a defining role during this seismic shift if they want to avoid losing considerable significance.

This goes

for the big Internet portals, too, which seemed ideally positioned to succeed the studios and networks as media companies of the future.

Yahoo! shut down its promising production studio in 2006 after a failed attempt at establishing a lavish in-house video production arm. AOL is trying to re-invent YouTube without much success under its Uncut moniker, while MSN even had to take its failed version called Soapbox temporarily off the market.

Google supposedly solved its video needs not through the homegrown and chaotic Google Video but by purchasing YouTube, the most popular video-sharing portal on the scene. It remains to be seen what the $1.6 billion investment truly bought, since the search giant's most visible dependent has been mostly busy fending off copyright litigation suits.

The YouTube and MySpace phenomena, however, demonstrated brilliantly the importance of online communities forming around video portals. Without these communities, new video portals lack any chance to succeed. The audience expects to participate and communicate with each other, post comments on clips, share videos and accumulate "friends" la MySpace. The message is clear: The viewer wants to take part in creating the experience.

And that's where both TV and the studios have so far missed the boat: Spoiled by the classic one-way street of traditional television, they have failed to address the interactive urges of their Internet customers.

Viacom president Les Moonves, whose empire includes GenX player MTV as well as television forefather CBS, recently addressed the failure of CBS broadband network Innertube in an interview with Internet bible Wired magazine. Successful and exciting microsites for TV shows like Lost, Heroes and Battlestar Galactica and niche experiments like LinkTV are the clear exceptions for an industry that's as far from mastering new media business models as it was 12 months ago.

In the meantime, others are writing the success stories. What's working very well are niche operations that video-sharing portals like Vimeo, Revver, Heavy and SuperDeluxe serve very efficiently. In a very short timeframe, these sites managed to create their own communities and skillfully tap into a hipster scene of bloggers, vloggers and twitter enthusiasts.

Vimeo, for example, already sports 100,000 members dedicated to the art of vlogging and creating whimsical video miniatures about everyday occurrences., a new addition to the user-generated and nonfiction-savvy market, already serves 10 million clips per month after less than a year in operation. Not quite YouTube figures, but far ahead of's two million unique users per month, in spite of Viacom's promotional prowess.

It's these demographics of young Internet-savvy viewers and early adopters whom every new portal is currently courting. This generation doesn't watch television anymore and barely makes it to the movies, doesn't subscribe to cable services except for the benefit of an Internet modem, and gets all its video entertainment from DVDs and online. That's an entire generation of kids growing up and graduating from college outside of the traditional, linear movie and TV experience.

Other corporate entities are increasingly stepping in to fill the vacuum left behind by Hollywood, such as Comcast, the largest cable provider in the US, phone and Internet operator AT&T and the start-up Joost from Skype founders Janus Friis and Niklas Zennstrm.

Through classic syndication deals with TV networks, established production houses and movie studios, these companies position themselves as Internet television cable providers with the goal to offer an alternative to cable and satellite providers.

We still seem to be years away from the TV/living room convergence, the great promise of the boom. No matter whether AppleTV, Tivo, Intel and Microsoft's XP Media Center provide the solution, one major problem is still waiting to be cracked: Video search.

Operators like Podzinger and BlinkxTV spider the Web for video descriptions, experimenting with voice recognition and audio capture. Ultimately still relying on other people's poorly written tags and descriptions, viewers find themselves navigating an ocean of video like seafarers without a compass.

No wonder Dmitry Shapiro, the brilliant CEO of video download pioneer Veoh, has publicly called for the re-invention of Google as a video search engine, most recently during a panel at the industry-defining Digital Hollywood conference in Los Angeles.

Joe Mandese, editor-in-chief of the online publication MediaPost, recently sketched a useable scenario that might actually work: In his futuristic article, dated from the year 2009, a merger between Google's Universal Search and TV Guide finally solved the problem:

"My right thumb still twitches with phantom muscle memory every time I pick up my Apple iRemote to change the channeler, video screen platformeven though the nifty new device relies solely on a retinal interface. And I'll never get used to those Eyebuds. I don't care how freakin' cool they look, they keep falling out."