Indies embracing the web and new platforms

3 02 2008

The growth of new distribution opportunities via the internet has prompted some independent production companies to find additional options for exploiting their content, while others are producing content specifically for the web.

Here’s a round-up of some of the key players so far:

  • Miles Beckett and Luke Hyams, the co-creators of LonelyGirl15, are rightly dubbed the kings of social networking drama. The duo have gone on to form LG15 Studios, with backing from Hollywood talent brokers Creative Artists Agency, deepening their relationship with Bebo by producing Kate Modern.
  • Veteran U.S. independent Mark Burnett Productions, best known for a slew of reality TV formats, has been actively syndicating derivative programming to web portals for a number of years. Its series Rock Star: INXS was offered via MSN, albeit as an enhancement / spin-off to the linear show. However, the company is getting more active with pure new media plays: last September it launched Gold Rush, an online reality game via AOL.
  • Ex-Disney chief Mike Eisner’s Vuguru was founded in March 2007 and rapidly cut through with Prom Queen, a scripted drama comprising 80 x 90-second minisodes, distributed via its own site , YouTube and Veoh (which Eisner is also backing).
  • U.K. indie RDF is currently developing Rough Cuts. a comedy portal featuring full-length download-to-own programmes from its own catalogues (RDF is a distributor, as well as a production company), other independents and, it hopes, under license from broadcasters. Last July, the company’s U.S. offshoot inked a licensing deal with Daily Motion.
  • Endemol – the company which brought the world Big Brother – was one of the first major indies to license its back catalogue content to U.K. IPTV service BT Vision, as well as to pure web plays, such as Joost and newcomer Next.TV. The company is also producing Gap Year, a web exclusive travelogue for Bebo. At the C21 Future Media conference in London late last year, Endemol’s Peter Cowley, managing director of interactive media, disclosed that its digital division was contributing between 10 to 20% of overall revenues.
  • FremantleMedia’s strategy focuses on marrying up excellent creativity, low budgets and profitability. The company – behind linear hits such as American Idol – owned by media conglomerate Bertelsmann subsidiary RTL Group, has a new platforms division overseen by programme syndication veteran Gary Carter. Aside from licensing deals, the company’s key new media property is web and mobile comedy channel Atomic Wedgie, an aggregation of younger-skewing short-form programmes which achieved nearly 3 million views via MySpace during Q4 2007. The company is working on an interactive drama format for syndication to web aggregators during 2008.
  • IMG and its television division TWI has established a fearsome reputation for global syndication (the business was built out of sports talent management) and boasts a programme catalogue of 250,000 hours of premier sports events (Wimbledon, the PGA Tournament and U.K. Premier League are among those it represents). The company has been developing content propositions for new platforms – albeit based on wobblier technology than today – as far back as 2003. The company’s Gamer.tv format (which enjoys the dubious distinction of being banned in China) was one of the first made-for-TV shows to be syndicated to web portals, such as MSN.




Disney’s Club Penguin: update

3 12 2007

Following Disney’s up to US $700 million acquisition of kids’ social network Club Penguin back in August, the company sees the U.K. as a key European market, following news that it is readying plans for a Brit flavour of the service by the middle of 2008.

“Club Penguin has already attracted a significant audience in the UK with its North American service, but we believe there is a real demand in this market for a safe online community destination for children that has local relevance,” Walt Disney Internet Group, EMEA, senior VP and MD Cindy Rose told C21.





Dangerous Dave embraces Gen YouTube

11 11 2007

The U.K. Conservative Party is reaching out to connect with the online video generation by launching its own channel on Friction.tv, a social network aimed at stimulating political debate, founded by Omer Shaikh, the former head of Saatchi & Saatchi Interactive. 

A short film about party leader ‘Dangerous Dave’ Cameron’s recent visit to California and his campaign to make poverty history in the U.K. are among the first films uploaded by Tory Central Office. A couple of new films are promised every week.





TV nets face up to growing online competition

25 09 2007

Variety reports on the latest online video forecasts produced by market analysts Screen Digest: the U.K. market for online TV will be worth £181 million (US $362 million) by 2011, but growth of the online movies segment is predicted to be slower.

There’s no doubting that across the Pond, the competitive environment is really gaining traction, as observed by the Financial Times: in the two years since that watershed moment when iTunes first started offering download-to-own TV shows from Disney, all of the major networks have scrambled to not only beef up their own sites, but also to broker those all-important third party syndication deals.

In the last week alone, Walt Disney-owned ABC has agreed a deal to syndicate its shows, for free, via AOL. The net joins CBS, which has been aggressively pursuing its own syndication strategy for the past few months, while Hulu.com, the online video aggregator site JV between NBC Universal and NewsCorp. is due to bow next month.

Hopping back over the Pond to the U.K., the BBC, ITV, Channel Four and five all have online catch-up TV services: the BBC offers the broadest range and volume of hours, while ITV and Channel Four are increasingly bolstering their catch-up offers with back catalogue shows. Satellite broadcaster BSkyB is broadening its Anytime service, with different flavours of the catch-up service available both via broadband and Sky+ DVRs; the company’s recent pact with Sony will also see an extension of the service for Playstation PSPs.

The Screen Digest research referenced at the top of this post acknowledges that established players such as TV networks also face competition from non-traditional market entrants, such as Joost and iTunes. Significantly, it may be players such as Apple and Microsoft, which stand to gain the most if they can finesse their strategies to leverage consumer relationships through ownership of devices, such as iPods, or the world’s most uniquitous operating system.

Four predictions of my own:

  1. The last year or so has merely been about positioning and trying to establish which online video offers work, and which don’t. Note CBS is moving beyond merely offering full-length TV shows online and gradually ramping up 2.0 functionality: conversational content. 2008 will see the space grow up considerably. 
  2. Whether it’s aggregators or TV networks’ own sites, online video offers are principally restricted to ‘walled gardens’ of content, usually from the operating network or a select few content partners. This is wholly alien to the TV viewing experience: consumers don’t watch shows from a single network or producer. The walled garden approach smacks of protectionism and, over the fuller term, it won’t last for all but the smallest handful of players. The creation of Hulu.com is the first acknowledgement by two major players that hybrid partnerships such as thes, which broaden out the available content offer, are the way to go. YouTube is further evidence of a successful broad-brush aggregation model – albeit with some copyright complications.
  3. The market is already overcrowded: come further shocks to the world’s stock markets (an inevitability), watch the venture capital evaporate. Incumbent players looking to second or third round financing, against a backdrop of unproven business models (let alone profit) will shutter or consolidate. Viacom had better be hoping that it can pick up the assets of Joost for a song.
  4. Apple TV and Microsoft Media Center are the first two examples of mainstream PC/TV convergence: but neither has yet created a compelling enough content offer nor low enough price points to give the products a reasonable run at setting the market alight, beyond early adopters. Next gen games consoles from Sony and Microsoft will up the ante by gradually bolstering their IP-delivered VOD offers, but even these may struggle to break through beyond gaming loyalists. Either some boffin will come up with the cheapest and most elegant plug-and-play convergence-enabler – witness what Freeview set-tops did for the U.K. market – or new product categories, such as networked DVD player / recorders or DVRs will hit that magic tipping point of attractive pricing and mainline retail distribution.




Pyro.TV brings online video to Facebook

29 08 2007

Online video aggregator and rich media publisher Vibe Solutions has integrated its Pyro.TV portal with Facebook, offering the social network’s 24 million users access to a range of video content from networks such as ABC, NBC, Comedy Central and CNN.

Facebook users can embed a version of the Pyro.TV player in their profile and customise channel line-ups.

The development follows last month’s announcement that Pyro.TV had partnered with video search engine Blinkx.

In related Facebook news, online measurement firm Hitwise reveals that the social network is now the 10th most-visited site in the U.K. and is ranked 20th when it comes to diverting onward traffic to retail sites.





Ads don’t get more contextual than this

23 08 2007

The Wall Street Journal today reports on plans under development by social network Facebook to launch ads based on information revealed on the site by its users.

While the article states that the plan is currently at an early stage, it has become the company’s # 1 priority, with an initial rollout as early as autumn, presumably in reaction to Google beefing up its own designs on monetising YouTube.

The new service would let advertisers visit a Web site to choose a much wider array of characteristics for the users who should see their ads — based not only on age, gender and location, but also on details such as favorite activities and preferred music, says the WSJ. Facebook would use its technology to point the ads to the selected groups of people without exposing their personal information to the advertisers.

The report continues, next year, Facebook hopes to expand on the service, one person says, using algorithms to learn how receptive a person might be to an ad based on readily available information about activities and interests of not just a user but also his friends — even if the user hasn’t explicitly expressed interest in a given topic. Facebook could then target ads accordingly.

Most potently of all: Facebook’s plan, if it works, could be potentially powerful for advertisers. While Google’s keyword-targeted ads aim at “demand fulfillment” — that is, they are triggered by Internet searches conducted by people who are actively looking for something that they want — Facebook’s new ad plan could help advertisers address an area called “demand generation.” This involves using available information — not just from a user but also the activities and interests of his “friends” on the site — to figure out what people might want before they’ve specifically mentioned it.





Social networks for the time-poor

23 08 2007

Multiple profiles across Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, LinkedIn… but not enough time to keep them all updated? MyLifeBrand allows users to manage up to 8 profiles on social networks and view / update these through a single browser interface. The site claims to have already signed up 500,000 members.

A timely opportunity to point to this piece of research from iProspect, which suggests that the following % of U.S. internet users have never visited the below sites:

  • LinkedIn: 96%
  • Facebook: 92%
  • YouTube: 63%
  • MySpace: 62% 




YouTube: and now the monetisation begins

22 08 2007

The long march toward Google attempting to monetise YouTube commences today, as the company unveils its contextual advertising strategy for clips on the site.

YouTube has shunned pre-roll ads, used by many of its competitors on broadcast and portal sites, electing instead for animated, transluscent overlays across the bottom of its video player console.

Ads appear 15 seconds after a clip has started playing, inviting viewers to click on the overlay. If clicked the original content pauses and the ad begins playing in the video console, if not the overlay disappears after 10 seconds (presumably to be replaced by another).

Reports range from 20 to 50 charter advertisers signed up for the launch of the new InVideo service, including BMW and NewLine Cinema. The rate card for InVision ads starts at US $20 per 1,000 times the ad is displayed

But Google doesn’t see it as a panacea, as Eileen Naughton, its director of media platforms told Reuters:  “In the history of Google, there has never been one ‘answer’. It’s not the end-all, but it’s a very promising format that we are ready to bring to the market.”

It’s less of a surprise that most ads will be paired with professionally-produced content, such as Warner Music Group videos, though Google is dipping its toe in the water of ads wrapped around consumer-generated content.

Now begins the task of Google making its $1.65 billion investment in YouTube pay off (not that it needs to pay the money back to anyone!)

Edit: early reaction to the new ads.





BBC iPlayer and the U.K. ISP bandwidth row

17 08 2007

So a typical download of a TV programme (of unspecified duration) costs U.K. ISPs £0.67 at peak times, according to Jeremy Penston on The Register, a site which has selflessly devoted itself to BBC iPlayer-bashing in recent weeks — given that BAA, the operator of London’s Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports is outside its reporting remit, probably understandable, given it’s silly season.

While the piece offers a more conciliatory slant on the BBC’s position, highlighting the fact that ISPs with unrealistically-tighter margins are feeling the greatest squeeze, it neglects to mention that the recently-beta-launched iPlayer is but a drop in the ocean of online video usage.

YouTube’s figures grow exponentially month-on-month, for every YouTube there are 100s of lookey-likeys, alongside BBC iPlayer there are also dozens of video download services (most of which got to market before); so why is the BBC’s product singularly responsible for all of this greater usage?

While a major marketing campaign to promote the iPlayer once it fully launches is inevitable, together with the halo effect of other services which don’t have access to the kind of on-air time or impact at the BBC’s disposal, just take a look at the chart below, illustrating daily reach over a one month period: the flatline at the bottom is one of the world’s most popular websites (bbc.co.uk; which includes BBC iPlayer), barely registering on the radar. The one at the top is another of the world’s most popular websites 🙂 YouTube…

graph.png

Then there’s the £0.67 figure itself: where does it come from? Regulator Ofcom’s earlier estimates were based on an average user downloading 13 x 40-minute programmes over a typical month. Even at peak times of consumption its estimate was that this would cost no more than £0.50 per hour, per user.

But the clincher is that the average iPlayer user (take as a generic for average user of a video downloads service) would typically cost an ISP £0.24 per hour of usage. That’s tough on operators like Carphone Warehouse and Tiscali, who have chosen to underprice competitors, but perhaps they should be pricing in the exponential growth of other online video, or targeting the offer at market segments which are less likely to reach even average levels of consumption (e.g. research has demonstrated that the 55+ market, an ever-more-active online usage segment, is least likely to warm to the idea of consuming big files, like video downloads).





Bebo becomes U.K.’s favourite social network

17 08 2007

ComScore has released its U.K. internet traffic figures for July, showing visits to Bebo up 63% from the beginning of 2007, making it the most visited social network site in Britain. While Bebo tops last month’s rankings, it’s the growth of rival Facebook which is more astonishing: up 366% from the start of the year.





Online video lures 73 million Americans during July

16 08 2007

Stats from Nielsen//Netratings for July reveal 73 million unique visits from U.S. internet users to online video sites. 75% of the audience visited YouTube, taking 55 million hits, up from 51 million in June.

MySpace had 18 million hits, Google Video 16 million, AOL Video 15 million and Yahoo! Video 14 million.





Paid online video: Google throws in the towel

11 08 2007

Google has conceded failure in its attempts to monetise video downloads and ended its 19-month experiment to offer paid programming, reports the Washington Post.

Google has been offering a range of video on a download-to-rent or download-to-own basis since January 2006, with titles ranging from US $2 to $20 and viewable only through a downloadable player.

Google’s decision to close the retail part of its video site indicates the company had less success selling content than attracting advertising spending, which accounts for 99 percent of revenue, said the New York Times.

“The current change is a reaffirmation of our commitment to building our ad-supported monetization models for video,” Google spokesman Gabriel Stricker said in an e-mail to Bloomberg.

Visitors to Google’s sites watched 1.8 billion clips in May, accounting for 22% of videos viewed in the U.S., according to online measurement firm ComScore. However, the vast majority of these were via YouTube.





YouTube may need to re-brand as SueTube

7 08 2007

First came Viacom’s US $1 billion action against YouTube, then the U.K. Football Association and music publisher Bourne piled in.

Now others including the U.S. National Music Publishers Association, the U.K. Rugby Football League and the Finnish Football League Association have joined the class action.

Rumblings from Japan too, where a consortium of television, music and film companies is saying that the video sharing site isn’t doing enough to counter copyright infringment. This time it hasn’t turned legal, yet, but the criticism adds to a growing clamour that Google is dragging its heels over the introduction of content-fingerprinting technology.





Chinese social networks: business models

4 08 2007

Adding to an earlier post on Chinese video sharing sites, here are some downloadable interviews with Victor Koo, CEO of Youku.com and Gary Wang, CEO of Tudou.com.





Yahoo! overhauls online video

3 08 2007

Yahoo! is to revamp video across its site by year end, say Bloomberg. Music videos, movie trailers, television shows and sports highlights are among the features that will be available on the new site, in a move aimed at attracting more video-hungry users to Yahoo!

Currently Yahoo! share of online video traffic in the U.S. is just 4.6% (vs. Google/YouTube accounting for 21.6% and Fox/MySpace taking 8.1% of traffic).

This Bear Sterns briefing note on Yahoo!, suggests the company focus its activity on social networks, in order to build site stickiness. It also notes that social networks now account for 60% of global online traffic.





LonelyGirl15 takes a final bow

3 08 2007

The finale of LonelyGirl15 screens today and MySpace has bagged an exclusive 12-hour premiere window. The site will also offer compressed catch-up minisodes for those who want to recap on the backstory.

The exclusive window builds on an earlier experiment by MySpace, aiming to build appointment-to-view online. From April-June MySpace featured premiere episodes of Prom Queen, created by Michael Eisner’s Vuguru. Again, episodes were made available exclusively to MySpace for the first 12 hours.





Standing out in the crowded social video space

3 08 2007

Social network and video sharing site Your Truman Show has opened up its beta to the general public, 10 months after its initial launch, around three months later than originally anticipated.

Cheekily borrowing from the title of Paramount’s 1998 movie [has Viacom sent in the lawyers yet?], the site has cleverly positioned itself with the focused offer of being “dedicated to collecting personal stories”, simultaenously a sufficiently broad content definition to catch a huge range of consumer-generated content.

One novel feature of the navigation is the ability to filter content on a sliding scale ranging from comedy to drama, alongside the somewhat curious mood-based categories of calm to exciting.

At a time when major players in the market are aiming to make their services stickier by adding more professionally-produced content, Your Truman Show may struggle to stand out through consumer-generated tales alone. That said, the BBC’s digital storytelling initiatives Video Nation and Telling Lives continues to attract regular, if niche, audiences and has done a tremendous job in promoting media literacy among its users.





Disney bags kids social network

2 08 2007

club_penguin.pngThe Walt Disney Company has paid US $350 million, potentially rising by the same amount again based on performance over the next two years, for pre-teens social network Club Penguin.

Launched in late 2005, the service provides an ad-free, snow-covered virtual world for six to 14-year-olds to interact with eachother. Following the takeover, Club Penguin will be re-named Disney Club Penguin and be used to cross-promote other Disney properties.

Last reported figures state 700,000 subscribers (each paying $5.95 / month) and 12 million active users, mainly based in North America; though post-acquisition Disney has big plans for expanding the property in Asia and Japan. Competitors include Webkinz, Stardoll, Gaia, Habbo Hotel and Viacom-owned Neopets.





Online video: two new original content sites debut

31 07 2007

Two new services had the wraps taken off today, both promising to put some finesse into online video.

mydamnchannel.com was conceived by Rob Barnett, formerly a MTV and CBS Radio exec., with contributions from comedian and Simpsons and This Is Spinal Tap star Harry Shearer, muso Don Was, comedian Paul Reiser and filmmaker David Wain. The site is billed as “an entertainment studio and new media platform created to empower artists to co-produce, distribute and monetize original, episodic video content.”

The aim is to host short-form content both within the site and to syndicate content via third party sites social network and video sharing sites, including a branded channel on YouTube. Revenue will generously be split on a 50:50 basis between the site and the content creator, reports Variety (for the Google deal it’s 50% to mydamnchannel and the other half to Google).

David Wain, best known for appearing in MTV’s 1990s comedy series The State, as well as directing his own material, will produce Wainy Days, a 10-part web-exclusive series, following his dating exploits.

Harry Shearer will produce and star in a seven-week series of pop culture and political spoofs, as well as a 20-part series of animated shorts.

In further echoes of the linear broadcast model, there’ll be an emphasis on content refresh rates on a weekly basis.

“There’s a slew of sites with hundreds of thousands of videos that are impossible to find,” Rob Barnett told Variety. “We’re taking a very different approach than all the YouTube imitators.”

In its coverage the New York Times has gone a 2.0 step further by embedding one of the vids from the new site. [The same piece also references Next New Networks and Funny or Die, also worth a look at if you’re curious as to how indie-driven online comedy offers are shaping up.] But there’s also a killer quote from Barnett on the lack of imagination driving equivalent TV network offers rights now: “Their strategy is to try to force feed a lot of pre-purposed programming onto the Internet to make a quick buck. What I wasn’t seeing was a charge to create new and original content for an audience that frankly is a little bit smarter than some of the crusty old media moguls.”

Additional coverage from Time lays it on thick on the distinctiveness [disruptiveness?] of the offer, compared with mainstream counterparts [somewhat ironic, coming from AOL TW], while the Hollywood Reporter echo sentiment expressed by Barnett in the NYT: “”The old media companies don’t know how to correctly program for this medium — they have senior vice presidents on top of vice presidents telling the most talented people in the world how to sing and act. We’re giving artists total freedom, and we’re paying for everything — technology, bandwidth, PR, production and promotion to put up a fully functioning Web site.”

mydamnchannel is backed by an undisclosed sum from Okapi Venture Capital.

Also bowed today was 60frames.com, the much-anticipated launch from Hollywood’s United Talent Agency and online ad agency Spot Runner and backed by filmmarkers the Coen brothers. Judging by the holding page in place at time of posting, it’s more of a press / investor ploy right now than for joe punter.