I was traveling yesterday, so I picked up USA Today. It is nice to see the paper telling middle America the future of entertainment, because if it didn't, the country would never know what they really wanted. According to Marco R. della Cava, the country is crying out for television on the Web. Never mind your dual tuner TiVo enabled, surround sounded 60" plasma screened home theater experience, when you want content from the Coen brothers, you are going to watch it in tiny 2 minute segments on your computer. With broadband, you can even make it full screen. You see, in the future, people aren't going to want their content to take advantage of the unique attributes of the interactive, lean forward medium, they will be over the novelties of connections to others, and the mouse and stuff. They are going to want to see the same execution on the new, smaller, screen. Hence our film business' heavy dependance on the language of the stage. Oh yeah, that's right, the film industry does not film plays because it would be stupid.
The agents cited in the article are looking at the web as an outsourcing opportunity. Low cost production, low cost distribution. The funny thing about cheap content, is it looks like cheap content, regardless of the delivery medium. They are trying to bring their industrial revolution models to the information age and it just won't work. They realize the ad rates and the consumer commitment to the property is lower cost as well and they cannot afford to play in small dollar market like the web, so they look for exit opportunities, rather than self sustaining content. Their only opportunity to make sense of the business is to leverage the creator or the content off the web, a feat which is very rare. Andy Samberg grew from the Web, but as Michael Yanover of CAA said in the article, talent is finite and still hard to find, and property migration is even tougher - look at Quarterlife. They are cribbing the venture capital business, but building it around a hit driven model rather than leveragable technology. The Web has great potential to expand their businesses, but they are not looking at it as an end point.
People are turning television off in droves. Audiences are falling. But when people ignore the 150 plus channels on their big screen, it is not for Funny or Die, or Prom Queen and it is not always for the Xbox 360, PS3 or Wii. They are playing Facebook apps ("widgets"), listening to music on Myspace, or starting their own communities on Ning. When they consume filmed or pre-produced entertainment, the repeat visitors are going to Alternative Reality Games ("ARGs") which leverage community, interactivity and various delivery media. They have to. You can only watch so many "America's Funniest Home Video" clips, even if they are made by Will Ferrel. When the agencies look at the web, they see another pipe into the home. When people who came of age with a vibrant Web in place look at the Web, they see a pipe out. They want to use both. The winner in this market will be the one who figures out how to maximize consumer engagement and harness community. Neither will happen from a unidirectional approach. ARGs and widgets are not the only answer but they are sure are teaching us a lot about the future.
Creators like Matt Wolf, Jordan Weisman and Elan Lee build ARGs. You may not be familiar with these names, but you will. Disney knows Matt, he was responsible for the only Emmy in the history of ABC Family when his ARG beat offerings from NBC and CBS last year. Steven Spielberg knows Jordan, he worked with him on the Beast 7 years ago. Rather than spitting content at people and hoping they pass it on virally so after a year, the aggregate viewership is equal to the first ten minutes of Gossip Girl, these guys bring people together around an intellectual property. Consumers of video content spend a couple of minutes watching it and then send it to friend. Consumers of ARGs spend hours upon hours in the ARG world, and bring friends into the experience, building community and value in the IP.
ARGs start with rabbit holes, just like Alice in Wonderland, the first challenge is finding it, the second is succumbing. Some are more apparent than others, but because it is a challenge, people who find them tend to brag, or virally spread word of the ARG. In last season's Heroes, the rabbit hole was on a business card exchanged on camera. In this summer's Hellboy 2 ARG, the rabbit hole was a real life protest and graffiti campaign and the New York Comic Con. Once identified, consumers receive content and story bits via all possible media and in the physical world. Viewers may find pieces of the story in youtube videos, but they will also get Twitter messages, read blogs, find facebook and Myspace profiles, fake websites, and in some cases, even get phone calls or items in the mail. ARG's engage communities in ways no unidirectional media can.
In last year's Emmy Award winning ARG, Ocular Effect, hundreds of members of the audience got together of their own accord, and signed, and mailed in a birthday card to Faith, the lead character, commemorating her fictitious birthday. Faith thanked the audience for the card in a video on her blog, leading to more forum and posting activity from the audience who all felt more deeply invested in the character. More recently, The HETFET community came together spontaneously, and without the urging of the creator, or Universal, the studio behind Hellboy 2, staged Save the Trolls rallies in the real world.
The community forms a "hive mind" around the ARGs and players talk in forums and build wikis telling others how to navigate the ARG. Some these can be seen at The Sky Remains, HETFET. This may sound really complicated, and some some consumers just want to be entertained and don't want to play the game, no problem. During the game, consumers can see the videos online on youtube, or read the blogs from the various participants in the experience. At the end of the experience, the ARGs are often revealed in a walk through, so those consumers who are not interested in playing the game, can be entertained.
The Alternative Reality Gaming Network, tracks on-going ARGs and introduces new ones. Right now, they are tracking a dozen different games under their "What's Hot" section. Some of these are marketing efforts, supporting films like Batman and Hellboy 2, but others are stand alone. They can stand alone better than video content because the medium defines itself as reality emulation, product placements and ads are unobtrusive. Rather than the sidebar ads, or ads preceding content like the Hollywood sites. A blog created soley for an ARG will have ads in the normal positions for an ad. Simulated webcam pickups can integrate consumer products consistent with the character. There is nothing unusual about a girl picking up a coke and drinking it during the video, it happens all the time in real life.
The core difference between an ARG and the videos described in the USA Today article is the treatment of the IP. In the videos, the IP does not exist beyond the video. There is a story-line, written for the specific purpose of a story arc, cut into 10 minute segments. If people like it, more will be made. The ARG approach is something people like Heroes' Jesse Alexander and MIT's Henry Jenkins refer to as "transmedia." While the Hollywood folks are building a single circle, growing in circumference to reach audiences in all media, transmedia folks build a venn diagram of media exploitation, overlapping on the the IP.
The IP exists independent of all media. Each media exploitation is tailor-made for the extant media. Rather than a Coen brothers video releasing on the Web and then being stitched together to show up on television. The Coen brothers IP would be interpreted by an ARG creator and turned into an line experience, the Coen brothers would direct a film or television show, a novelist would write a book, a graphic novelist does a Manga or graphic novel, People magazine covers the production and more. Each element is unique and stands on its own, telling a different story. The consumer need not touch the property anywhere other than the media they love best, but if they so choose, they can enjoy a rich experience by consuming them all. Moreover, each audience segment feels invested.
I went off a bit on ARGs but they are certainly not the only way to wrap your arms around the new opportunity. Social network applications, or widgets are another significant draw from traditional media. As the founders of Social Gaming Network and Zynga reported in the videos in this post millions of people are getting together and playing games inside Facebook, Myspace, bebo and other networks. Sure you say, everyone under 30 loves this shit. Not really, they are on line, but they are playing Scrabulous with their grandparents back home. When someone finds a new game they enjoy, they are able to invite their friends into the game with a simple click, no phone calls, no emails, not even an IM required. As these trusted agents make their referrals, they build out the game companies network. I did not use the last word by accident. SGN and Zynga are not just encouraging word of mouth marketing to point people to a tv show, theater or webisode, their consumers are doing the heavy lifting in the construction of the networks. Unlike the unidirectional video sites, each consumer registers to play the games, and potentially expands the network to each of their peers. The game company serves the game requested to the registrant, but can also apply Amazon-like CRM to introduce new games and advertising through the network, as well as the videos created by the Hollywood folks. Our friends at the agency may argue their ability to use this model in the unidirectional world of their content, but their argument would be tenuous at best.
Funny or Die's viewers may be in the tens of millions in the aggregate, but those are one shot views, disconnected views across the site. SGN claims to have 50 million applications installed, and each one of those is connected. A cable operator would refer say 50 million home are available. It is truly a network, but unlike any network we've seen before. As a consumer if I want to see Ratboy and Stinky Girl, or some other Holywood created video, I find it and click through to their site. If I want to play Scrabulous, I go to MY site. Big difference. The agents can rest assured their unidirectional content will be more entertaining than content created anywhere else, but they can be just as assured they will be delivering through networks owned by other people. They are painting themselves into the same corner they stand in today. All the content, none of the access. If they controlled the channels, we would not have had strikes last year.
Our agency friends further exacerbate their problems with a continued reliance on a dying model, ad supported television. The sites are sponsor supported. If cable fragmentation hurt network sales and cable is not worthwhile from a revenue standpoint, what do you think web fragmentation will do? Yet, even though none of these applications have shown a significant return, they still rely on sponsors. The widget guys show a myriad of additional revenue streams. They are able to sell digital objects, upgrades, added utility and a ton more things of value to the community. Oh yeah, and eventually, access to their channels to the Hollywood guys.
If the agencies want to profit from the new opportunities, they have to stop thinking evolution and more revolution. Television is a solo experience. A show can build an audience, but it does not build a connected community, and with very few exceptions, the community has no impact on the show. The audience watches, and then shares around the water cooler the next day. The web is about community. Real time community. I can feel impotent in real life, I don't need my computer tell me I have to sit and listen to what someone else has to say. My computer empowers me and let's me join in, my entertainment should as well.
The guys given short shrift at the end of the article see it, we should too:
To the UTA crew the clip is funny — and a source of frustration. Fatal Farm, the L.A.-based duo that produced the video, has resisted UTA's overtures to sign a deal.
"We're working on something right now, and prefer to talk later rather than get distracted," says Fatal Farm's Zach Johnson, 25.
That attitude might seem foolish to some. But it's a sign of confidence that springs from taking a look around at Hollywood's changing landscape.
Just ask the Handsome Donkey gang, whose group meeting places have gone from coffee shops and living rooms to offices within the Disney empire.
"When we first started getting attention, people would say, 'Hey, you've got a great steppingstone into the world of real entertainment,' " Greenberg says. "But from Day 1, we never felt the Internet was some sort of proving ground.
"It's a new platform, period."