FlowTV.com dissemination essay

This is cross-posted to my LiveJournal blog here. Please feel free to comment in either space.

[1.1] On January 31, Flowtv.com published an essay I wrote entitled From Irrelevance to On-Demand: Changing Models of Dissemination, which Flow summarizes as, “Innovative Internet distribution models in music and television strike back against Big Media hegemony.” It’s an analysis of the irrelevance of current modes of distribution of media, and I provide two grand experiments that attempt to use the Internet to bypass these modes, one in music and one in live-action TV: Radiohead’s online, pay-what-you-want release of their album In Rainbows, and the production of Web-only TV show Sanctuary.

[1.2] No sooner does this essay come out, of course, than it’s obsolete: In Rainbows is no longer available for download from the artists, and Sanctuary has parleyed the success of its Webisodes and its viral fan base into a 13-ep deal with SciFi.com, which will involve reshooting the entire show. SciFi.com, in Sanctuary Comes to Sci-Fi, emphasizes the virtual sets. Executive vice president of original programming Mark Stern notes, “This stylistic approach to virtual sets has proven hugely popular on the big screen, and we have been looking for a chance to use it on a television series.” 300 and Sin City, which were both filmed with extensive CGI, were precursors that tested the genre and proved it viable.

[1.3] Whereas SciFi.com emphasizes the technological advance of green screen shooting, a blog entry entitled Green Means Go at the official Sanctuary site emphasizes the fans: “A big reason why this television deal was secured, was on the strength of our popularity online. Sanctuary, the TV show, would not have happened without the immense popularity of Sanctuary the web series and we have you, the fans, to thank for that.”

[1.4] At Gateworld.net, in part 1 of a two-part interview, Sanctuary star and producer Amanda Tapping emphasizes that the Web presence will still be important to the project, with content and fan interactivity there not seen on TV. However, the project’s big limitation was, unsurprisingly, money:

[1.5] I think our intention was to try and launch a completely Internet series, but the model doesn’t work yet to monetize it. The business model just doesn’t work. It’s too easy to pirate everything on the Internet, which we encouraged initially because we thought “At least it gets the word out there.” But it’s too hard financially to make a completely Internet series work of this scale, with this kind of budget.

[1.6] These grand experiments need to be done, of course, in order to test the limits of dissemination and to see how far consumers of content (let’s call them fans) will go. The answer, at least for now, seems to be, they won’t go so far as to shell out money. As Comscore found, only 38% of In Rainbows downloaders chose to pay, and as Tapping implies, piracy made it hard to make money, even though it had the side benefit of becoming part of the viral fan experience, which in turn led to the TV deal.

[1.7] As a fan-consumer, I feel like I pay plenty for content, but what I’m actually paying for is dissemination: I pay high-speed Internet fees, and I pay for cable TV. I don’t pay for TiVo, but in that regard, I find that I am unique among my peers. When you add all this up, hundreds of dollars a month are being spent on accessing content that you don’t get to keep. It feels like I’m paying enough; I don’t want to also have to pay a couple bucks to download something that I can’t watch on my TV and that is poor quality.

[1.8] More needs to be done with cross-platform infrastructure before fan-consumers will shell out. If I could cancel cable (and you could cancel TiVo) and just stick with high-speed Internet, I ought to have enough money to pay a couple bucks for the few TV shows that I actually want to watch and keep, if I could download them to a magic box that would stream the show to my TV without requiring the intermediary step of burning a disk with the item or converting it to another format. If content were available for free to stream, I’d be more willing to do that if I could beam it upstairs to the TV. Although wireless transmitters are available, they’re hardly mainstream, and most are designed for music, not TV.

[1.9] I’m watching Big Media’s take on all this with interest. When someone (Apple? an open source project?) comes up with a TiVo-like mainstream transmitter, and when someone else comes up with some kind of encoding format that works easily across platforms, Big Media may have to change its ways. Until then, it looks like Sanctuary and In Rainbows showed us a way that isn’t going to be the way. Nice try, guys, and don’t give up!

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