The online alternative

Sure, online portals are almost a viable distribution alternative to broadcast. But have any of them gone to the birds...?
November 1, 2008

For years, we’ve been hearing how broadband would explode hundreds of TV channels into thousands, creating a new media paradigm that shifted from broadcasting and mass audiences to narrowcasting and niche audiences. With this in mind, six years ago, a birder/producer colleague boldly predicted an avian channel in this decade. Given the paucity of avian one-offs, let alone series on TV, it was easy to be skeptical, even cynical about his prediction.

Fast forward six years to a diversified media landscape where YouTube hosts millions of videos a day, shot on everything from HD to cell phones. When you become a YouTube contributor, you effectively create your own channel, reflecting your interests. Not surprisingly, this includes many with wildlife and a few with strong avian content. In fact, a search of ‘wildlife’ on YouTube yields pages of wildlife with everything from raw amateur clips to sequences from the best of the BBC, PBS (Nature) and Nat Geo. One surprise was the number of clips with several million views, particularly when featuring predators like lions, tigers, wolves and polar bears. And not all of them by the majors. While these numbers are cumulative (vs. simultaneous), they are impressive given the myriad video options now available online. Moreover, it underscores the key, network-like role now played by major online portals like YouTube in reaching millions of viewers daily.

Not surprisingly, YouTube has become a key cyber beachhead for many major wildlife brands. In fact, many of Discovery’s cable/sat channels now have their own online channels on YouTube, and other popular Web portals (e.g. MySpace, Facebook, Flickr…) for video as well. ‘Each of our [Discovery] channels has a site on YouTube and other Web portals, even though we are in the TV business,’ says Doug Craig, SVP programming, digital media. ‘Since people use the Web differently from TV, we don’t offer the same fare online. Instead we experiment, and often promote our linear TV efforts. We produced and placed Green Gadgets, a series of green inspired shorts online and on mobile, in the weeks and months leading up to the launch of Planet Green. They were very popular and helped build buzz for the launch.’

According to Craig, Discovery content made for the Web often links to its linear channels in some way. Around 50% of Discovery’s online content is either repurposed from current TV shows or is from its library. ‘One series of shorts (for the Web), Jaws & Claws, features predation highlights, mainly from our library. But, with all new scripts, music and graphics. Another 25% is ‘pre-purposed,’ like our new Nature’s Perfect Predators, which could evolve into a series for linear TV,’ he adds.

Craig says that he’d like to commission more original programming for Discovery’s digital platforms, but that the ad support isn’t there yet. ‘The online audience is growing, but the revenue model for digital space is still evolving. First and foremost, we’re a linear TV company and will be for quite awhile. That’s where the numbers are. We do use the Web to reach next-generation viewers and bring them to our linear channels. The Web is a new frontier for TV content and is growing fast, followed by mobile. We’re experimenting now so we don’t have to play catch up five years from now.’

Craig’s challenge is to coordinate the Web strategy of Discovery’s various TV channels to make the best use of resources. Its motto is ‘produce once and publish everywhere,’ he says. Although most Web content is now short-form, Discovery is also beginning to offer a few full-length programs online. ‘We’re now testing a new player by Move Technologies which handles the large files much better. Right now we’re only offering full-length pilots and previews of new shows,’ Craig added.

For the time being, the BBC is a bit ahead of the curve in delivering long form (TV) programming online. Their recent iPlayer program enables UK viewers to catch up on Beeb programs from the previous week, including natural history docs. A current PC and free iPlayer software are the only prerequisites for British viewers to watch – free of charge.

However, the BBC’s NHU has been conducting its own Web experiments with nature specials like Big Cat Live. Among other things, BCL features live webcams and message boards 24/7 during their limited (broadcast) runs. The live webcams appear online a week before the broadcast begins and remain live 24/7 for a few weeks while the show airs. This enables viewers to select among multiple cameras to track several families of big cats in Masai Mara, Africa. They can also help shape the discussion by emailing questions to be answered on the air. According to Paul Deane, EP of science content at the NHU, BCL draws a large, broad audience which can connect with the big cats and the producers online, anytime, for a period of several weeks. In addition there are active message boards on social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and MySpace. ‘We get more than 50,000 posts during the three week run,’ he observes, ‘and not just teenagers. It’s very big with adults 40 to 60 [years old] too. Viewers take advantage of the opportunity to get up close and personal with several families of African big cats, with the webcams.’

A similar approach generated high ratings for another unlikely BBC nature program, Springwatch, which follows the northward progress of native birds across Britain during their spring migration. ‘This project lives both on TV and the Web,’ says Deane, ‘but continues live online each night for 20 minutes or so after the broadcast ends. Viewers can upload their own photos and videos (re: migrant species) which can comprise five percent or more of the TV program. We also invite their ideas for new stories and locations to explore in future shows. It’s very viewer driven.’ He adds that there is now a 10 minute kids’ version with an online component.

Springwatch has done so well on TV and the Web that a shorter fall version, using fewer cameras, just launched this year. Autumnwatch uses a similar format with a strong online component. ‘If all goes well, we’ll try this approach with even more shows next year,’ Deane said, adding that he attributes the success of Springwatch and Big Cat Live partly to better technology. ‘All the webcam streams now use (Adobe) Flash Player which works with dialup and broadband, and is free of charge. With RealPlayer (a paid subscription), our online response was much lower,’ he said.

New technologies have definitely contributed to the higher-quality of video, of a greater length, now on the Internet. One of these championed by Web video pioneers like Brightcove, monitors the bandwidth available within a network and dynamically adjusts the video quality output based on the bandwidth available. Quality increases as bandwidth increases, and decreases as traffic increases. Their software is widely used by major cable/sat channels to deliver long- and especially short-form programming to dialup and high speed cable users. They also work with clients to develop viable economic models for online video delivery. ‘More clients are interested in delivering long-form programming reliably and economically,’ says Brightcove communications director, Josh Hawkins. ‘Our software makes the best use of available bandwidth while Flash plays at high quality on Macs and PCs – which comprise 90% of the market.’

With recent advances in the online delivery of broadcast-quality long-form, economics remain the key sticking point for prodcos keen to distribute online. ‘Payment is based on ad impressions which comes in small amounts over a long time,’ observes Erik Schuit, head of digital content at Off the Fence Productions. ‘Overall, the return is much lower and slower than with broadcast. The good news is that online channels have sponsors for quality programming, but the payment is much less than for broadcast and getting advance money for new production is very rare.’ However, Schuit feels optimistic that this will change as the online market grows and believes that services like Hulu and Joost, with millions of subscribers, could begin commissioning soon, if they keep growing at their current pace.

In the meantime, OTF is distributing series of half hours and hours from their library on online networks like Factual TV and Babelgum, both specializing in factual content, the latter with a science/environment focus. But, Schuit cautions that the payback is very modest at this point. He says new technology, which blocks out territories where broadcast rights conflict, is opening new avenues for online distribution.

Some prodcos with large libraries, such as Scandinature, hope to create their own portals by partnering with telcos and other new broadband providers which will need plenty of content as they launch new services. ‘The telcos have been steadily losing market share since deregulation,’ says Bo Landin, president of Scandinature, ‘partly to cell phones. That’s why they’re pushing new services like DSL and broadband TV. To be successful with broadband TV they’ll need lots of content. We have a big wildlife and science library but we’ll need funds to produce more. That’s part of the ongoing negotiations.’

Other prodcos with wildlife libraries have balked at distributing full-length programs online due to piracy concerns. ‘The ability to download HD and to dub it on Blu-ray raises concerns. Once your material is out there you can’t get it back,’ says Danny Tipping, Parthenon’s online director. ‘But, with broadcast fees shrinking, we have to make up the difference somehow. The online and mobile markets are growing fast, and don’t need HD so they could be a viable outlet for our pre-HD library. We’re considering various options. We’d like our own [online] channel, especially if we could earn money for our producers and depend less on broadcasters,’ he says.

NGOs like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, National Wildlife Federation, etc. have been using their websites and sites on YouTube and MySpace to post short videos highlighting their concerns and programs for some time now, and the quality keeps improving. At least one, Filmmakers for Conservation (FFC), hopes to launch a de facto channel online, with a strong conservation message. ‘We’ve just upgraded our website and are working with Brightcove to deliver films of different lengths made by our members, at very high quality,’ said FFC president, Tanya Petersen. ‘Many of them also need to generate funds with this to continue their conservation work.’

Now that the technological hurdles to delivering long-form programs at near broadcast quality online are largely being resolved, everyone with skin in the game, including the altruists, are finally able to focus on developing sustainable economic models for delivering content of all kinds online. Perhaps one or more high caliber channels for the birds will happen this decade – if they haven’t already.

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