Scott Kirsner

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Amateur Online Videos Give Way to Big Media

San Jose Mercury News, December 3, 2006

- Scott Kirsner

Whenever a new technology makes personal expression easier, denizens of Silicon Valley leap to the same conclusion: finally, amateurs will triumph over those self-satisfied professionals, kicking the bigwigs of the publishing industry/music industry/movie industry/TV industry to the curb. But while technological breakthroughs, from desktop publishing in the 1980s to video-sharing in 2006, have helped democratize the process of making and distributing media, ultimately they don't change our media consumption all that much.

The latest wave of innovation involves sites that simplify the process of editing and uploading video, making it globally accessible. Suddenly, anyone can become a broadcaster for free - and no FCC license is required. The site at the forefront of this wave has been YouTube, which shows 100 million videos a day, and was recently acquired by Google for $1.65 billion. But there are dozens of others, most of them headquartered in the Bay Area, and most of them less than two years old. (YouTube was founded in February 2005, but the site didn't launch until May 2005.)

Since the video publishing revolution began in 2005, much of what has been published and viewed on the Internet has been amateur content: Chinese teens lip-syncing to the Backstreet Boys, the motivational speaker Judson Laipply dancing to a medley of pop songs, an angry senior citizen scolding a fellow passenger on a Hong Kong bus, skateboard tricks gone awry, and kitties doing adorable things - like prancing across a piano keyboard. Lately, however, as movie studios, advertisers, and television networks have been making more of their content available online, viewers' habits may be starting to shift. If Web video was dominated by citizens with camcorders in 2005 and 2006, in 2007 the pendulum will likely swing toward professional content producers and big media companies.

Already, we're seeing some signs that viewers' video predilections are changing. CBS announced last month that short clips the network had posted on YouTube from shows like "The Late Show With David Letterman" had become some of the YouTube's most popular content, generating nearly 900,000 views a day. (CBS accomplished that feat with plenty of front-page promotion from YouTube.) By September 2006, Apple's iTunes Store was selling a million TV episodes a week, and less than a month after making full-length movies available on the service this fall, Disney CEO Bob Iger announced that his company had sold almost 500,000 of them, priced at $9.99 and up. In less than three months this fall, ABC.com showed about 25 million television episodes, supported by advertising. And experienced TV and movie producers like Steven Bochco ("Hill Street Blues") and John Landis ("Trading Places") are starting to partner with Web video sites to dial up the quality level.

(Unfortunately, Web measurement services like comScore Networks and Nielsen/NetRatings have only recently begun issuing statistics about Internet video viewership, so it's hard to point to year-over-year trend data to illustrate what I think of as "pendulum effect.")

Initially, media companies regarded the Web as a wretched hive of scum and villainy, to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars." While movie studios were quick to make promotional trailers for upcoming movies available online, they used lawsuits to battle the illegal sharing of full-length films, without offering a compelling legal alternative. Television networks put almost none of their shows on the Internet until the second half of 2005, when Comedy Central began making clips from "South Park" and "The Daily Show" available, Nickelodeon began playing full-length shows interrupted by ads, and Disney began selling its programs through iTunes.

"Pirated content and user-generated content was all that was available on the Web [for a long time]," says Albert Cheng, executive vice president of digital media for the Disney-ABC Television Group. "Once you see media companies such as ours putting more content online, I think there will be a shift in what people choose, back toward professionally-produced content."

Some argue that viewers on the Internet simply prefer the wacky, unpredictable, and more informal quality of amateur-made videos, comparing the genre to reality TV shows that have become increasingly popular in the past five years.

But every new medium goes through an early period of playful, sometimes aimless, experimentation. In 1895, when the Lumi¸re brothers, August and Louis, assembled a paying audience in Paris for the first movie show, the short films on the program included "Workers Leaving the Lumi¸re Factory" and "The Sprinkler Sprinkled," in which a prankster gets a gardener all wet. (YouTube contains dozens of videos that echo "The Sprinkler Sprinkled," many starring giggling, hose-wielding toddlers.)

In the early days of the Web, we all visited home-made sites offering photos of people's cute pets, lists of other interesting Web sites to visit, and information about whether the coffee was fresh on the fifth floor of the university science center. And because there wasn't much else to do on the Web, lots of people stopped by.

Some of those early sites (including Yahoo, Amazon, and eBay) are still listed among the Top 20 most popular Web sites, according to comScore Networks. But many of the spots on that Top 20 list are occupied by media companies that were already established businesses in 1995: Time Warner, Microsoft, the New York Times, Verizon, The Weather Channel, and Viacom.

A similar pattern played out again with podcasting. The original promise was that suddenly, with a microphone and a Net connection, anyone could become Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, or Howard Stern. Most of the early podcasts were homegrown affairs, like "The Dawn and Drew Show" (a Wisconsin couple shooting the breeze in their kitchen) or "Coverville" (a music fan in Colorado playing his favorite cover versions of songs from well-known artists). There are still a few amateur podcasts in the Top 20, according to Yahoo and iTunes, but they've been joined by podcasts produced by NPR, HBO, investing guru Jim Cramer, Scientific American, and ESPN. All of those were well-known media brands before the iPod and podcasting came along.

There are four major forces that cause the pendulum to swing from amateur to professional. A vacuum of professionally-produced, high-quality content in the new medium is eventually filled by media companies. Consumers start to gravitate to brands that they recognize; rather than spending two minutes watching a purportedly hilarious video that proves unfunny, they feel that watching a two minute segment from "Letterman" is a better bet. Big media companies have extensive resources to market and advertise their content; a would-be bedroom Coppola has to hope that her viral e-mail marketing campaign will somehow catch fire. Finally, while amateurs may have a one-off hit video or a particularly thoughtful blog posting, media companies tend to be better at sustaining a consistent, lasting relationship with an audience, whether they're cranking out a series like ABC's "Lost" or publishing a magazine.

At this point, steam may be starting to vent from the ears of Silicon Valley's tech populists. To them, MSM (mainstream media) is a dinosaur stuck in a tar pit, and "the long tail," a phrase popularized by Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson, is a rallying cry. ("The long tail" refers to the extensive catalog of niche products that Web sites like Netflix and Amazon.com can make available, which collectively can generate significant sales.) But, as entrepreneur Jeremy Allaire explains, "long tail economics isn't an argument that niche content will win over mainstream content; it's an economic theory that suggests that it is efficient for micro-markets to flourish." Allaire is the founder of Brightcove, a Cambridge, Mass.-based company that supports the distribution of video content on the Internet.

"I don't think it'll be an 80-20 split between mainstream stuff and niche stuff," Allaire says. "More like 50-50, or 60-40, with 60 percent being the hit stuff that everyone wants to see." At the recent Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, Mary Meeker, an Internet analyst at the investment bank Morgan Stanley, defined three different categories of video content on the Internet: amateur, semi-professional, and professional. She hazarded a guess that viewers might split their attention equally between those three categories. (An example of semi-professional content might be a series of yoga videos made by a local studio, or a low-budget feature film that is well-made, but never got shown in theaters.)

"People's tastes are evolving," says Paul Palumbo, research director at AccuStream iMedia Research. "Pretty soon, it's not going to be good enough to have a video of a guy holding onto a pole in a gale storm."

One key to success will be what Palumbo calls "programming consistency" - the ability that networks have to create content that people come back to. But some amateur and semi-professional content producers have already developed continuing series that have devoted followings, like "Red vs. Blue," "Tiki Bar TV," or "Ask a Ninja."

Established media companies will face their own challenges, like learning how to produce more quality content at lower budgets, and crafting clips - not half-hour shows - that appeal to the Internet's shorter attention spans.

I don't think that the pendulum effect means that there will no longer be opportunities for talented amateurs to have their work seen, make money, and potentially develop into semi-professional or professional producers of video. (A growing number of Web sites, including Brightcove and Revver, now make it possible for video producers to earn money by having advertising shown before, during, or after their clips, or allowing them to sell content as a paid download.)

While the brick-and-mortar Schwab's Drugstore is no more, the Internet has become a global Schwab's that's open 24/7: a powerful place where new creative talents have been discovered. The pioneering videoblogger Amanda Congdon, the original host of the wry news show "Rocketboom," recently signed deals with ABCNews.com and HBO. Gregg and Evan Spiridellis, the brothers who made two of the most-watched viral videos of all time, the musical political satires "This Land" and "Good to Be in D.C.", now have venture capital funding, and a partnership with the director John Landis. Judson Laipply, who made the "Evolution of Dance" video, YouTube's most-watched clip of all time, got an invite to the Montreal Comedy Festival.

But the pendulum effect will force amateurs and semi-pros to work harder to get noticed and build an audience.

"Viewers are looking for quality now," says Jason Holloway, chief executive of Dovetail.tv, a San Francisco site geared to professional and semi-professional producers of independent films and videos. "As it becomes increasingly available, they will watch more of it, and the pendulum will swing."

For the culture, it's a positive thing that new technologies are making personal expression easier, offering free global distribution, and opening the door for people with talent. But new technologies don't guarantee amateurs an audience forever.

SCOTT KIRSNER edits the blog CinemaTech, and is the author of the recent book "The Future of Web Video." He wrote this article for Perspective.