Notes on the Futuremedia TV conference

“No-one’s watching TV any more, and even worse, all this user-generated content is killing us.” That was the cheerful attitude at the C21 Futuremedia TV conference I went to last week. The audience was composed mainly of TV executives, with a smattering of smug ‘internet people’ like myself, who alternately confirmed their worst fears and then told them that they still had something to offer (well, some of them, anyway).

Everyone seemed to be reasonably aware of the difficulties facing the TV industry, although there were many differences on how best to adapt, let alone thrive. As the conference went on and we heard more and more speakers talking about user generated content and how wonderful it was, there was definitely a sour mood among some executives. Anyway, I’ll explain all of this in time. First, to the keynote!

The future of TV in the digital world – Gavin Mann, Digital Media Lead, Accenture Media & Entertainment

Gavin’s talk was taken from a survey of TV content and distribution execs by Accenture, i.e. lots of facts and figures. I don’t have the booklet with me now, but I’ll put some of the more interesting ones in when I have time. Normally these studies simply tell you what’s obvious, but this was better than usual.

Risky Business – Anthony Lilley, CEO Magic Lantern Productions

I didn’t take many notes during Anthony’s talk, but I recall two main points. Firstly, TV companies have to move faster. What’s happening to the entertainment industry now is not a surprise and the worst thing to do is to continue business as usual.

Secondly, ignore stuff like Second Life. It’s a tiny focus group (his words) and concentrate on doing what you’re best at – making entertaining, high-budget, long-form video productions.

Anthony also chaired the next panel that I was on…

Adventures in digital narrative in multi-platform entertainment (Case Studies)

Five speakers, with about 5-10 minutes each to talk about their projects. Not much time, but it prevents people (including me) from waffling, so I approved. Ian Tweedale from BBC Wales New Media talked about the various Doctor Who interactive things they’ve done over the past two years. The main highlight was the interactive TV Attack of the Graske, but he also mentioned some of the Flash games and behind-the-scenes videos on the BBC website.

Now, I’ll be honest. Like many others, I don’t like Doctor Who any more. Russell T. Davies just got lazy in Season 2, and the interactive stuff that the BBC is doing is not very adventurous. Flash games, videos on the web – it’s all been done before, and Attack of the Graske, while very flashy, was ultimately a shiny (and more frustrating) version of Dragon’s Lair.

I then spent about eight minutes doing a rapid walkthrough of Perplex City, which was certainly my shortest presentation ever. Here’s how it went:

Puzzles on cards, clues, clues go to websites, websites go to other websites, websites go to offline media. Community is great, look at the wiki, Google Maps mashup, 13th Labour and Tales from Earth. Season 2 is going to be great.

I don’t think many in the audience knew about ARGs or Perplex City, so it was received pretty well, since everyone likes to learn something new.

Peter Mossman, head of production from ITV Consumer talked about… I’m not sure really. They’re doing some interactive stuff on the web, and they think that red-button interactive TV is not as bad as people think. Oh, and they’re doing an interactive storyline for Emmerdale on Christmas Day where you can investigate ‘Who Killed Tom King?‘ Seems like an odd fit to me, but who knows. I’ll withhold judgement until Christmas, but even with Michael Grade, ITV is in dire straits, especially online.

Jeremy Flynn, CEO of D2see (a mobile TV consulting firm) told us that TV on mobiles just isn’t going to fly – it’s certainly not going to make anyone a lot of money, either. Short form stuff is the way forward.

Andrew Chitty, MD of Illumina Digital talked about their new game Axon, which is an educational video-based online adventure game made for the BBC. You could call it an ARG, but that wouldn’t be very accurate since it lacks many ARG characteristics. ARG-like is probably a better term. In any case, it’s a very interesting project and I think the target audience of teenagers will really enjoy it. I’m definitely looking forward to trying it out when it launches early next year.

I was rather pleased by the way that the panel discussion and questions were all liberally sprinkled with the term ‘ARG’, even though I make a habit of not using the acronym myself. A lot of people in the audience actually started using ‘ARG’ as shorthand for ‘any interactive multimedia web game’, which is both alarming and wonderful.

The panel chair, Anthony Lilley, asked me an interesting question: ‘Do you find all of this stuff to be terribly quaint?’ I was so surprised I had to get him to repeat the question. No, I didn’t find it quaint, I said. For all the talk of user-generated content, the things that persist and people watch and talk about are all major dramas like 24 or Lost, and no-one’s going to make those using a webcam.

I continued: some people are just good at telling stories and making TV shows. The TV industry does this better than anyone else, and there’s not much to be worried about on that part. It’s also understandable that companies don’t want to take too many risks with their major brands like Doctor Who, but if they don’t do anything, they’ll just disappear.

(I really believe that, by the way. There’s no point in the TV industry just beating itself up all the time – they need to shape up, realise what they do best, and focus on that. They also need to start being more adventurous with their best IP.)

The future of entertainment: are we obsolete yet?
Claire Tavernier, Executive VP, FMX FremantleMedia

‘No’. FremantleMedia are looking to short form entertainment and harnessing user-generated content. In an odd demonstration, Claire told us about the short clips they’re making for the mobile (smart) and the ‘Baywatch in 60 seconds’ program they’re doing. Yes, it’s a compressed episode of Baywatch with a very fast ‘comedy’ voiceover. It wasn’t terribly funny – not as funny as the best stuff on YouTube, at least. And that’s what I don’t understand – why on earth would a big TV company deliberately try and imitate user-generated content?

Probably the best part of Claire’s presentation was when she highlighted the difference between passive TV and interactive games. She announced we were all going to play rock, paper, scissors and that we should all stand up and find a partner. “We’re going to do massively multiplayer RPS,” I told my partner confidently. “I’ve seen this before at another conference.

Abruptly, Claire told us to sit down. We weren’t going to play the game, but did you feel a rush of life and excitement when you stood up? That’s the difference. Very nicely done.

User-generated content meets traditional television (Case Studies)

This time, only four presenters in the panel. Andy Bell, a friend of mine and MD at Mint Digital was up first. Mint Digital create brandable mini-YouTubes that TV companies can use for specific purposes. Andy talked about Islandoo, a site set up for Channel 4’s reality TV show ‘Shipwrecked’, where people submit photos and videos to become a contestant.

The interesting thing about Islandoo is that it’s not really YouTube at all, it’s more of a social network that’s been cleverly engineered to encourage good behaviour and socialisation. As Andy put it, the premise of the site – get on a reality TV show – has ultimately become an excuse for people to join what is essentially a chat and dating site. Tagging and commenting are all rewarded in the site, and people even self-censor. Brilliant.

Celia Taylor, Channel Controller of Challenge and Trouble, talked about Trouble Homegrown – a YouTube for Trouble where they pick the best user-generated content videos and put them on TV. Usual average UGC (well, the person sitting next to me was harsher than that), but the really interesting thing was a competition in which viewers had to create a music video for Oasis’ Aquascene. It’s a clever way of putting new music in front of viewers and engaging them, without alienating them.

Patrick Uden, Executive Editor of Four Docs talked about… Four Docs. It’s a minisite by Channel 4 where users submit documentaries. There’s been slow uptake so far, only 400 videos in a year, but they’re all very good. The videos belong to the creator, and many have been sold to Channel 4, the Canadian Broadcasting Company and Current.TV (note to self – exactly how many?…). Their emphasis is on quality, and all videos receive very critical but useful feedback.

Simon Gunning, European director of entertainment at Yahoo, talked about all their various web stuff. Nothing terribly exciting for anyone who keeps up with the web. The most amusing thing was their Google-inferiority issue, where Simon corrected Patrick when he talked about ‘Googling’ for something and suggesting he could say ‘Yahooing’. Uh, no, Simon – you’ve already lost that battle.

According to my notes, Simon also talked about their new target behavioural advertising system, which will apparently be opt-in (hmm…).

In the questions, Celia said she felt that quality was not an issue in user generated content. Some of it is crap and some of it is good. Who cares? Patrick did – he declared that it was an issue and that at Four Docs, they constantly try and improve the quality. It may be worth noting that Patrick seemed like he was from an older generation, being more than a little grumpy about being surrounded by these lightweights who didn’t care about good content.

A good point was made about pirated content. Advertisers won’t want their name next to ugly or ripped off videos, so clearly something will have to be done about those.

Quote from Patrick Uden: “Pepsi can’t afford to not be on user generated video.”

MySpace Interview

Martin Blakstad, head of new media at Granada interviewed David Fischer of MySpace Europe. Martin started off by saying, “According to Hitwise, MySpace accounts for 80% of all user generated content.” Audible scoffing was heard throughout the audience. No-one doubts that MySpace is a giant, but 80%? That’s not even wrong.

A number of people mentioned to me that they thought the interview was mostly about justifying their respective business models, and I did notice Martin paying a large amount of homage to MySpace. Hmm.

Digital Distribution (Case Studies)

By this point, I was feeling pretty bushed – the schedule was pretty dense and there were a lot of people to talk to. My last notes were on this session, and unfortunately, it wasn’t very interesting – mostly thinly-veiled adverts for their company’s products.

For me, the highlight of the session was when Griff Parry, director of broadband and mobile from Sky, was showing off Sky’s new online video store. I’d read earlier that they were selling episodes of Lost for £2.50, and I hadn’t quite believed it, but here Griff was, saying it was true. I just had to ask…

“Lost costs £2.50 on Sky. If you buy it in America from the iTunes Music Store, it costs about £1. Why is it so much more expensive, and do you think anyone will buy the episodes?”

Griff: “They’re different regions, so it’ll cost different amounts. I think the interesting thing would be for iTunes to open up in the UK and start selling Lost – maybe they would charge £2.50 as well.”

Me: “Well, iTunes already sells music in the UK, and it is more expensive, but not 2.5 times more expensive. So what’s the reason? Licensing problems because of the different regions? Or are you just making more profit?”

Griff: “We did our research, talked to consumers, and came up with the £2.50 price point. That might change in the future. £2.50 isn’t the only price point, we sell other stuff for £1.50.

John Pink (another panel member): “You know, ABC lets you watch episodes of Lost for free directly after it airs, and you just need to sit through a few minutes of adverts. Music only costs 79p from iTunes, and most people listen to that multiple times. TV shows, you normally only watch once. Clearly the cost will have to change.”

Poor Sky.

And that’s about that for my notes. I found it interesting to see what’s going through the TV companies’ minds and how they intend to respond. There’s clearly a lot of interest not only in user generated content but also in cross-platform entertainment like ARGs. The next few years will really determine the fate of many large companies like ITV or Granada.

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