King Content

Apr 04, 2012 No Comments by

Interesting article in The Sunday Times on 1st April (that wasn’t an April Fool) suggesting that content creators/producers such as Matthew Weiner, who brought us Mad Men, will come to rule the televisual landscape.  Because a broadband connection, as opposed to an aerial or satellite dish, is increasingly becoming the medium by which consumers watch ‘TV’, platforms such as YouTube, Yahoo and even Netflix are beginning to create original programming.  By making their own stuff they get to keep more of the cash when they flog it.

This is mostly good news.  Mad Men may well win clutches of Emmy awards but hardly anyone watches it – fewer than 100,000 in the UK saw the opening episodes of season five on Sky Atlantic and in the US only 3.5 million viewers regularly tune in.  Advertising revenue depends on viewing figures and 3.5 million viewers for a show that costs AMC, the US channel that shows it, $3 million per episode is pitiful.  AMC gets its money back by selling the show outside the US but, given the subject matter and the era in which it’s set, you have to wonder whether Mad Men would have the same appeal for viewers in, say, India or China as it sort-of-does in the US.

It may be that the perceived social status of Mad Men’s viewers makes them more valuable to advertisers – upmarket magazines such as GQ and Vogue don’t sell millions of copies but the orthodoxy is that those who do buy such titles have plenty of disposable cash to spend on high ticket items.

The very nature of the Internet persuades users to target content.  The sheer volume of content dictates having to know what you want or like and then either finding it, or allowing it to find you (via preferences you might have set during previous searches).  Unless your TV is animated wallpaper, chances are you’re quite selective about what you watch, although your licence fee or subscription still pays for all the stuff you don’t watch.  Pretty soon that will change.

Broadcast TV is about as open a platform as you can get.  One consequence, though, is that it’s very easy for TV programmes to be recorded and uploaded to various websites that let others download those programmes for nothing; which is piracy, file-sharing and illegal.  Trying to stop it is like trying to curb the drugs industry.  If, however, you have a TV series that isn’t broadcast in the traditional sense but made available on a closed platform such as Netflix or You Tube, it would be easier to control what subsequently happened to that content.  Music and movie companies routinely add a code to CDs or DVDs that they send in advance to reviews journalists.  It makes the source of any pirated copies of that material easier to identify.

In the past couple of years two TV series were cancelled mid-way through runs because of poor viewing figures.  Remember Flash Forward or The Event?  If you do, you’ll know that each disappeared just before Christmas with a promise that they’d return in the New Year.  Neither did.  Flash Forward was getting 6.5 million viewers in the US and The Event went from 11 million to 5 million before the plug was pulled.  Either way, these figures make Mad Men’s seem even more puny and it has been picked up for at least one more 13-episode season.  So it can’t just be about the numbers.

Perhaps it’s a mild form of intellectual snobbery.  Mad Men is high-brow, Million Pound Drop is mindless schedule filler.  Ads for Audi with Mad Men; ads for Iceland with MPD.  It’s easy to feel good about yourself if you’re associated in any way with a TV series that, AA Gill aside, gets uniformly ecstatic reviews and is so achingly cool it might be freeze-dried.  That’s Mad Men, by the way, not MPD Live.

Netflix has made Lillyhammer, a series starring Steve Van Zandt (yes, Little Steven/ ‘Miami’ Steve Van Zandt from Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band and Silvio from The Sopranos) about an American Mafioso running away from men with guns in Norway.  Netflix has also hired Kevin Spacey and director David Fincher for a remake of David Nobbs’ House of Cards (although TF thinks trying to outdo Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart borders on sacrilege).  Apparently there was no big fanfare for Lillyhammer – it just went out there, like letting go a balloon.  But that’s the way on-demand works.  The show is set free and you, the viewer, can rein it in and watch whenever you like, so long as you subscribe to Netflix.  Because it was previously unusual for content providers to become big-time content creators, at least in Internet terms, there has been plenty of media coverage for Lillyhammer and its ilk.  Why bother with a marketing plan when the media will do the work for you?  Maybe that’s part of the plan; do nothing.  TF likes plans like that.

There are factors related to such programming that alter the viewing dynamic.  Unlike scheduled TV and its Holy Grail, the ‘appointment to view’ where the nation sat down together at the same time, the ‘whatever, whenever, where-ever’ model of Internet-based video-on-demand (VoD) would mitigate against a shared experience were it not for social networking and Twitter.  Now anyone who has seen or done something they enjoyed can tell the world via Facebook or Tweeting.  Most websites report subjects that are trending – being written about online, and today’s Grail is to be on that top ten list.  The human side of ‘liking’ can also be evident in terms of viewers claiming to like programmes they think they should like – the opposite of a guilty pleasure.

At the heart of all this is the end of the era of the editor.  We, the consumers, are supposed to know what we want and how and where to find it online.  We’ve supposedly demanded unlimited choice and so now we have to make our selections and pick out our personal nuggets from the colossal heap of audio-visual spoil.  Or we can rely on a third party algorithm to make that selection for us, which will have been formulated not only to give us what we supposedly want, but also to give us what the content provider who created the algorithm wants us to see.  So there will be more choice and you, the viewer will have more control but ultimately all we’re doing is transferring our trust from broadcasters such as the BBC or HBO, to content providers such as Google, Amazon and Netflix.  Same game, different players.