In previous instalments I’ve dealt with the entertainment industries’ addiction to myths about piracy and how internet pirates are doing a better job of delivering sports over the web than some mainstream broadcasters. This installment is about how the lot of them are missing the boat when it comes to promoting new stuff: new TV shows in particular (although the thinking is similar with music that’s a proper kicking in an installment coming soon – the music industry have done enough wrong to deserve that one all to themselves).
The internet is not a “thing” per se; it doesn’t have a particular identity, it is not evil, it is not kind. It does not care, but it also doesn’t not care. We have a tendency to anthropomorphise things in rather a counter-productive way. This is why when Twitter came along, numerous credible journalists decried it as being mindless, noisy and self-obsessed whilst others were still blaming it for the London riots, terrorism and gayness long after they should have known better. In fact, it’s just lots of peoplelinked together. Alright, technically it’s lots of machines hooked up to each other, but it’s really just people. There is no defining characteristic when billions of people
are grouped together. All kinds of very different people exist alongside each other in that group: from good to evil, blondes to brunettes, psychopaths to philanthropists, genius to music industry executive.
This linking of so many people leads towards the so-called hive mind, a mass of people thinking and combining as if one unit; then there’s the ability to see actual chaos theory at work – tiny ideas can become memes, spreading like the proverbial viruses and becoming so powerful that they can actually change behaviour. Such characteristics are, frankly, the wettest of wet dreams to marketing people. Remember, these are the people who want you to associate any positive emotion you may have with, say, buying a car; for them, somehow promoting the idea that washing powder may actually change your life is a career highlight. When people start to believe that their shaving kit is the “best a man can get” they really do buy more of them. So you would think that if you had a new TV show, then this whole interwebs thing, something which allows friends to share new stuff at the speed of light, would be marketing gold.
A wee tale from history. It is 1996 (I think – my memory is hazy). We are in our offices in Pudsey, Yorkshire, where we have recently installed THE INTERNET*. Our swanky new place has more wires behind the skirting boards than GCHQ and all so we can ALL access the internet. True, my machine has to be logged on for everyone to get a signal, and, yes, I have to redirect people’s emails to their machines (as there isn’t a way of everyone getting their email directly yet) and yes, true we are all sharing a 56K modem, but WE HAVE THE INTERNET. And this is very exciting. Suddenly a world of message boards and forums opens before us. Flash is yet to be ubiquitous, Netscape is the browser of choice, the animated .gif is but a pipe dream. Video? HA! Good luck with that – it takes about 15 minutes to download 1 whole megabyte so video is not on the cards at all. But we somehow manage to enjoy the South Park short Jesus vs. Santa. We are howling with laughter, doubled over the desk.
We are – I kid you not – reading the script. We have never seen more than a picture or two of the characters and don’t know which one is which. But we are sick with the laughing and can’t wait to tell everyone we know.
A friend in the US sent us a link to the script. We had never heard of it before, but you can be sure we sent it to all our friends on email too (probably about eight people we knew had email at the time, admittedly). And by the time it was shown on UK TV for the first time, we had amassed an army of fans-to-be ready to suck it all up. Like it or not, South Park was one of the first things I remember “going viral”** over the web. And none of us had seen a single frame. This is what happens when like-minded people are linked together. They share, they enthuse, they become an audience together, even though they aren’t in the same room.
But that was 15 years ago and we have progressed, right? Erm… nope. In fact, we are right back where we were. Keeping with the theme of childish, toilet humour, animation-based chortles, I was recounting an incident in “American Dad” to a fellow Hebe. Roger, an alien, goes on a date with a woman he meets on JDate, a Jewish dating site. It is an astute piece of observation and bitchiness. My friend has been on a JDate not so long ago, but he’s never seen American Dad and I want to send him a link so he can share in the laugh. He is thus primed for a bit of advocacy / evangelism (as marketers oft call such behaviour). But there is no such thing as a link I can send him, because either (a) any clips from said programme on YouTube or Vimeo have been removed for copyright violations, (b) there are no Google or other video search results that have it listed in the rankings or (c) the places where it is featured or ranked tell me that it cannot be shown in my territory.
The thing is, I know my friend better than the broadcaster could ever do. BBC3 may have bought the rights to the series, but their ads for it are restricted to the BBC network (and there aren’t many of them other than “Over on BBC3 right now….” style stuff). I know my friend’s sense of humour, I know this will appeal and I have the technological means to put it right in front of his eyes. But this is where our old friend “le dumb” has come round to play. I cannot do this. I am not allowed.
Here, then, is another example of ignoring audience demand to serve no particular purpose (or, at least, no extra benefit to the content owner).
The perceived benefit to the content owner is that they restrict the exploitation of the content; the original content owner will license the content rights to broadcasters in different territories – each of those broadcasters may also license the rights to some form of “internet broadcasts” too – and they don’t want to lessen the value of those rights by letting any old soul watch the stuff via an unlicensed channel.
This is understandable in one sense but short-sighted in another. If I own the rights to broadcast a show, I most likely make my money from the advertising that I sell pre- post- and during broadcast. The short term view says “if people can watch it online, they won’t watch it on TV.” And that means they don’t watch adverts and I can’t make money from it. Understandable.
But look a little further ahead: For a series license to be renewed, it needs an audience; for it to gain an audience it needs exposure and / or marketing spend. True, some of the bigger series get a marketing budget to pay for TV trailers, a PR agency to handle the press, a website perhaps, maybe a localised Facebook page and more. But a “gamble” show doesn’t get that kind of spend. It may also get a relatively lousy time slot. Then, without the budget to hire outside agencies, the marketing becomes the responsibility of in-house teams at the broadcaster – and they’re responsible for “everything else” on the schedule; perhaps if it’s a show someone on the team particularly loves it may get a little extra love, but the likelihood is that it gets mostly reactive marketing – if someone emails asking about it they get some spiel, maybe a press pack or whatever, but very little active work will be done on it. The viewing figures are accordingly modest, perhaps it holds its own for ad income just about, but it doesn’t set the world on fire.
In my mind all this looks a bit like planting a sapling. Sapling grows branches, branches grow other branches, branches grow twigs and so forth. The web and its interconnectedness of everything makes it easy for new branches and twigs to grow. When I show someone a clip I know they like I create a new branch. It may yet produce some more twigs. Restricting that behaviour is like building a wall around the sapling’s trunk and saying “nah, we don’t need it to grow anymore.”
Fact is, if you want something to maintain a large audience, you need a depth of engagement. “Yeah I saw it, it was quite good” or “I Tivo’d it… will probably watch it at the weekend…” may not be a strong enough reaction to result in a 2nd week or 3rd week audience worth talking about. What you need then is the people who saw it and loved it to be saying “What?! U Mad? Did you not see the bit where the kid slapped the donkey with the kippers? Watch this NOW [link]”… In the first dozen years since my first internet pipe was installed this was a predominant behaviour. People sending each other stuff they liked, those people sending it to more people.
Which brings me to my next case study of doomy dumbness: MTV (not the villains here) and their parent company Viacom (have a guess). At the end of 2007 we got asked if we wanted to take a look at a brief from MTV that was toilet humourish, childish, rude, offensive. We were there in seconds. No, really, we actually worked across the road from them. And there was this odd combo of Warp Films (godlike coolness) with some damned funny writers on board and MTV who were prepared to risk quite a bit on it. It all revolved around puppets doing un-puppety things. Nods to Avenue Q, Meet The Feebles (and way before Mongrels). Moreover, and with a prescience that did not really exist at the time, they were into social media as a way of building interest in the show. And we had a plan.
This kind of thing is de rigeur now but at the time the idea of creating myspace, Facebook, IM and forum / message board profiles for the puppet characters was pretty out there. We couldn’t believe they (MTV, Warp & the writers) were backing us. We got three guys in the office to method act the three characters, behave just like them, respond to people, create their pages the way we thought they’d really look and do all this for a good couple of months before any content was shown or even any hint of it being a TV show (we figured people would work out that it was something like that, but people just seemed to ignore it and talk to the characters directly).
And then we dropped this little beauty into the mix (NSFW, language)
And off we went. I posted it from my personal YouTube account at the time as did the characters from their own pages. And off it went. Millions of views. Top of the video charts in UK, Poland, Germany, Spain, people translating / subtitling it themselves. It went, as they say, “viral.” [That’s actually viral as in people spinning it out to other people they know, because they know they’ll love it too etc., not pretend viral which is buying enough slots for a piece of content until people can’t ignore it any more.]
The time slot wasn’t brilliant – too late at night – and the marketing budget got cut before we had a chance to refocus. More stupidly still, no other channel in the group was allowed to show it for reasons I couldn’t understand. We could see the buzz from fans was brilliant but then things got really stupid: Viacom sued YouTube and the fallout began to reach the UK. And suddenly, any piece of content that Viacom identified as its own, YouTube had to do some heavy backpedalling, issue takedown notices and so forth – and that meant neither I nor my furry little friends could access our accounts, not without getting into a debate about whether or not we had the right to post the content. If this all sounds complicated then think of it like this: We were working for Viacom, promoting their shows, doing a very good job of it, only to have YouTube tell us to take it down because Viacom had told them to do it. The million-viewed, award winning vids were mostly deleted. Links that featured high in search results led (and still lead) to deleted clips. Branches got walled up and lopped off.
OK, let’s leave aside the yays and nays of that little contretemps between the old media and the new and be clear that we understand that a whole company’s future relationship with a major medium (YouTube) shouldn’t revolve around the fortunes of one show. This isn’t about whether or not Viacom should have sued YouTube. But this is about the effect restricting viewing opportunities on the show had then and still has now for new shows. If you let people spread stuff, they advocate for you. The economics of allowing that to happen are simple – more fans means more viewers, more viewers means better advertising income, DVD & merchandise sales and so forth.
This recent article listed a load of shows that I would never have seen without t’internet. I have bought boxsets of several of them. And I have become an advocate for many of them. I have single-handedly converted people to Breaking Bad if it meant stapling them to the sofa with their eyes taped open and projecting it onto their retinae. Moreover, when some of those series finally make it onto some pisspoor Freeview channel late at night, I will watch the odd episode. And by watching it, I increase their audience; should more like me do this, they will increase in audience share and their advertising rates will go up. This addition of numbers to the audience pool seems like it might be a good idea.
The fact is, what passes for piracy in the common lexicon is often of vast benefit to content owners. Nobody is pretending that mass copying & distribution of valuable products doesn’t do some harm, but the entertainment industry needs to buck up its ideas and work out how to turn all this stuff to its advantage. Blindly shouting “piracy is bad” is ensuring they continue to miss valuable opportunities. And that’s just dumb.
Perhaps my friend will watch American Dad on BBC3 late night; perhaps he will, by chance, catch an episode that completely appeals to him. Perhaps, but I cannot help. I do not even have a script to send him.
*This has to be in capital letters because in 1996 having your own internet pipe was a REALLY BIG DEAL. We’d fax people to tell them all about it.
**Every time a marketing person uses this phrase a LOLcat dies. And a really good LOLcat, too, not one of those shit ones your cousin made with Comic Sans.