Digital Darwinism

Most content providers are trying to engage existing audiences more deeply, while at the same time attract new, younger viewers with revved-up websites and mobile media. Allocating resources so that all viewers get what they want when they want it is tricky. Both content creators and providers are finding it takes more planning and better strategies to connect with audiences.
January 1, 2007

Most content providers are trying to engage existing audiences more deeply, while at the same time attract new, younger viewers with revved-up websites and mobile media. Allocating resources so that all viewers get what they want when they want it is tricky. Both content creators and providers are finding it takes more planning and better strategies to connect with audiences.

Discovery Networks has been particularly proactive in its use of new media platforms, and has created a special unit to coordinate on- and off-air multimedia. Its New Media Group works with outside producers to identify and secure whatever video may be needed for media applications. ‘Our goal is to ‘pre-purpose’ the extra elements each project needs,’ explains Carole Tomko, EVP of production at Discovery Networks, ‘and coordinate with each project’s EP so that we’re all on the same page. Some producers can shoot and edit the online video, while others shoot it for us to edit – whatever works best. My goal is to avoid having to repurpose footage or reversion story elements by securing all the key components within the production cycle.’

At the core of the New Media team is its resident flock of ‘preditors’ (producer/editors). Preditors typically produce, write and edit video shot by the prodco for the multiplatform applications, but when necessary they’ll also shoot the extra video. ‘For the Animal Planet program World’s Ugliest Dog Competition, a preditor captured footage for New Media and we ended up sharing it with the production company since they were looking for more B-roll to use in the linear program,’ says Doug Craig, VP of programming, New Media Operations at Discovery Communications. ‘For Baseball’s Secret Formula, a Science Channel series, we piggybacked on the production process to create five short Physics Of Baseball [pieces] covering hitting, pitching, fielding, the flight of the ball and weather.’

The New Media Group also commissions original online video unconnected to TV. ‘We commissioned [Toronto's Ellis Entertainment] to create a series of short videos mainly for online use,’ recalls Craig. ‘Animal Metaphors demystifies old sayings like ‘When pigs fly,’ or ‘Happy as a clam.’ Ellis has done a lot of work for Animal Planet, so they’ll produce the metaphors themselves, after pre-purposing it together,’ explains Craig.

The New Media Group is also targeting mobile. ‘We’re developing tips for travelers: where to eat, sleep, and shop, plus [listings of] theaters, museums and other attractions in travel destinations around America. You’ll download them to your cell and even use its gps to pinpoint the exact spot. It all ties in with our brand motto – discovering your world – whether on TV, online or on your cell phone.’

The virtual silk purse
It’s difficult to ignore the excitement user-generated video networks like YouTube and MySpace have aroused. So, in the spirit of ‘If you can’t beat them, join them,’ an online outfit called DaveTV is creating a new model that cleverly blends an online social platform with a dynamic user-generated video network around specific TV shows. ‘YouTube and MySpace have pulled many 18- to 35-year-olds away from tv,’ explains Rex Wong, DaveTV’s CEO. ‘What we’re doing is using and expanding their techniques to bring them back to TV, one show at a time.’

In its initial deployment on behalf of Hollywood studios with TV shows on the air, DaveTV provides a video-rich website where fans can not only discuss the show and its characters but meet them virtually. More importantly, they can establish a rapport with each other around many aspects of the show. They can even download clips from specific shows to create their own mash-ups (recuts, for those older than 30), and share these with each other via the website.

‘On our sites,’ explains Wong, ‘program owners encourage users to download and alter the show and share it with friends. It’s the reverse of the studio policy on movies. Our goal is to build a vibrant online community around a TV show.’ Wong says that DaveTV currently has several such active websites with many more underway, including some for Hollywood studios, as well as large corporations and even churches. ‘The interest and behavior are already there,’ he explains. ‘We just enable it.’

The Nature of online viewership
Taking advantage of existing interest is critical for nets looking to expand online. Case in point: Thirteen/WNET New York’s Nature strand. While Nature has had video on its website before, many clips were low quality. Today’s video-centric media landscape demands more. ‘Our focus groups show Web visitors want more high-quality video,’ explains webmaster Dan Greenberg. ‘Also, they want to go behind the scenes, meet the filmmakers and learn how and why they did what they did. They want to learn more about the animal characters and what inspired their story.’

Greenberg notes that younger viewers are particularly video oriented: ‘They’re always looking for really cool, short videos, with good action to watch and share. We’re trying to do that with short promo videos placed on YouTube, MySpace, Google, iTunes, and others. We stamp the air date and time of broadcast [on each clip] to encourage them to watch on TV and always include hyperlinks to our website.

‘It’s still early days, but our website traffic is already up,’ furthers Greenberg. ‘Technically, the video is loading and playing well, in Quicktime and Windows Media Player, and the letterboxing looks great on the Web and on iPods too. This is just the tip of the iceberg.’ He adds that he would like to make downloads of entire Nature shows possible, but that rights issues currently preclude that.

Interestingly, WNET and PBS have managed to surmount rights issues to offer downloads of popular PBS programs. Last November, WNET launched Thirteen on Demand, a portal where programs can be viewed or downloaded in their entirety. These include favorites like Frontline; The NewsHour; Nightly Business Report; NOW; Moyers on America; Wide Angle, plus WNET’s local New York Voices.

‘Currently, nine PBS programs are entirely downloadable and accessible 24/7. Each episode can remain on the site in perpetuity,’ says Anthony Chapman, director of interactive and broadband at WNET. ‘We can only offer programs wholly owned by WNET or PBS – mostly current affairs shows, which age fairly quickly,’ he explains. Coproduced shows, such as Nature, cannot be downloaded or viewed in their entirety, though wnet does offer Nature fans dvd-type extras. ‘The audience wants fresh information and detailed background about our shows and they want to see original, high-quality video on the website,’ observes Chapman. ‘We’re now providing program highlights and original podcasts which include interviews with the filmmakers, behind-the-scenes B-roll and other unique video on our website. It all reinforces the Nature brand online.’

Underlying the growth of downloadable programs and value-added content online at WNET and PBS in general is the growth of broadband penetration. ‘Forty percent of Americans now have broadband at home,’ notes Chapman. ‘This means that they can receive and handle high-quality video online. The Internet is now an important link to our core audience and to a new, younger one that grew up with computers, online.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.