Will the Networks learn faster than politicos?

Cross-posted on Social Engineer

All this talk about YouTube, google’s purchase of it, and the success stories that CBS is having with syndicating content on the site (something Comedy Central has known for a while), the blogging media seems to have ignored the efforts of the majors (and other studios like TBS) in getting on board the “Internet bandwagon”. And now, with the news of a conversation rumbling about building their own YouTube, they seem to be missing out on what they have done successfully. The trouble is – they are potentially going down the wrong path – thinking from a point of fear rather than a point of plenty. If they focus solely on their revenue line, as the major music studios did in the late 90s, they could find their revenue taken by the companies who better understand the engagement of communities.

Updated: with commentary by Jeff Jarvis and Steve Yelvington, the idea seems to reek of the NCN fiasco of the 90s. (Thanks Rafat)

What are they protecting?
Trolling the web, I learned that at present 8-12% of TV households currently have some form of DVR – and by 2007, these numbers will jump to 12-24% (Nielsen). In an article on Friday, I learned that the CEO of Nielsen reported that time-shifting advertising losses could cost the networks something on the order of $600M. Consider that the magic fast-forward button (as in avoiding the commercials) will severely dent the ad revenue of the networks; what would you do if you were suddenly told you could lose 1/4th of your viewing audience? How to combat it: leave the shows up on the web.

ABC, CBS and NBC (along with TBS) are offering their major shows on the view for viewing, often the day after regular airing. Recently, NBC has taken to hosting the entire season of some of their shows (in particular, Heroes and Friday Night Lights) and all are ensuring that their viewing is incorporating advertisements at the start of every break. Each of the viewing experiences have their ups-and-downs, and I provide a quick and dirty evaluation below:

  • CBS – cluttered mechanism, similar to CNN Pipeline, which seems to show the News Team influence on the Entertainment Division. Using a product called innertube which seems to be based on Real Player. Challenge when goes to full screen (harsh pixelation) and streaming can get held up.
  • ABC – beautifully designed player (someone in ABC’s Design Shop must love the iChat Video Client), and incredibly rich streaming experience (almost like watching a hi-def screen). Challenge is, screen is cluttered with all of the other shows below and as your mouse drives over, the other choices are energized and distract from the experience. And there is only “big” option, no full-screen option – which could be driven by the same pixelation issues I mentioned before.
  • NBC – player is minimalistic, and the design seems to have been driven by “Standards and Practice”. As with every NBC affiliate, the template is tight and the content is constrained within. The full-screen viewing is marred (in my Firefox) by the banner ad which (I am assuming the web tech team placed) takes the space in the video stream and leaves a banner-shaped object that refreshes the content in the banner region only every 30 frames or so.
  • TBS – this is my favorite space (The Laugh Lab is quite an idea) and they are doing more with innovative ideas and comedy than any of the other players. Unfortunately, they are stuck with Windows Media Player – and the enlarge feature does not work for me (I get the nice pop-up, but no joy).

In my estimation, this tactic should help stem the pirating – since, much like how iTunes has reduced the number of illegal downloads by providing an easy way to get legal content for a reasonable cost, the networks have provided an alternative to downloading pirated content from the file-swapping networks by leaving the shows on the web which can be watched (with commercials) at our convenience anywhere we wish. But with their concerns of pirated content showing up on places like YouTube seems to be driving them to do what companies did last bubble (create corporate versions of nimble startups). Rather, they shoudl focus on what they know best – engage the viewer.

Interactive Laptop Viewing
All four of these networks seem to be missing out on the opportunity that people like G4 TV have caught onto. On G4 TV, we get to see Star Trek 2.0 – where you go to the G4 website, sign in, and engage with others regarding the episode that is airing at the time. Not only are you playing on the web, you are also part of the broadcast – where viewer comments are scrolled on the screen. While this has limited “cool” factor, it seems to drive a significant number of viewers to the site at the time of broadcast – reinforcing adverts and branding both on site and on the screen.

Not trying to teach something you already know, but the audience that are watching the videos on the web are doing so in front of a computer keyboard. Now, viewers are not simply sitting on the couch with remote in hand – they are sitting in front of the flat-screen monitor or laptop where a keyboard is handily available. With broadband, they are watching the video in one browser window while IMing or emailing in another. Here is where the audience and the networks can learn from what we leveraged in politics; use the web as a commons – and create a community from your viewers.

Communities Are Attracted to Engagement and Content
Jack Myers Media Village is a step in the right direction – with a community of watchers engaging in the discussion of the plot lines and the experiences within the shows. Contests are run, polls are taken – all of the standard practices – but it is just shy of making a change/difference in the shows themselves. Jack runs a successful private “insiders mag” called the Media Business Report which provides strategic insights into television and his take on the industry. I would not be surprised if Jack does not get direct research direct from his own “focus group” – his community.

Advice to networks: combat the coming ad loss by building the relationships with the show’s communities – and provide an “official” space that are supported with additional content that engages these viewers. Using the concepts that FOX did with 24 – not only did it provide a “community commons” for the fans, but it also generated additional content for the viewer to research and engage with the show.

For all the shows on the air today, I would suggest the networks look at what is happening at NBC.com and their show Heroes. Not the design effort (that is a cramped experience); what I found refreshing was the attempted effort behind Hiro’s Blog and 9thWonders.com (I especially loved lasvegasniki.com redirecting to 9thwonders.com). The team at NBC seems to allowing enthusiasts to connect to each other on the blog as well as on the forum, which is generating a tremendous amount of content. My guess is that they are discovering what Dean (and we at Kerry) discovered with the success of their blog – lots and lots of content, but very difficult to engage the users. It is one thing to have a few people “entertaining themselves” – it is quite another when over 300 posts show up on the comments per post. I would assume that the “web team” is having a challenge keeping up with the flow. But they are on the edge – and can take this learning to truly engage the audience by giving them a space to interact.

Networks should take from this experience (like we did in politics) is to work with the viewers and allow them to engage with each other. There are many techniques that can be implemented to truly engage the users above and beyond their initial interest. Build the relationship – and continue the conversation. Do not rest on your laurels – and be sure to allow fans and enthusiasts to join in the discussion of the shows – and ensure that the markets (as discussed in the ClueTrain Manifesto) will be favorable – and create loyalty that will ensure revenue in the long-term.

Tags: CBS, NBC, ABC, TBS, viewer communities

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