Monthly Archives: November 2006

TV execs want safe docs while their audience goes YouTube

Michael Graef, British documentary filmmaker gave his thoughts on the impact of the web and sites like YouTube on filmmaking in this weeks Media Guardian(registration required). Graef seems to a loss as to why large numbers of viewers are choosing to watch grainy amateur footage on YouTube over TV. He reckons independent documentary makers have on the one hand lots of opportunities, but laments the conservatism of broadcast commisioning.

Much of the current improvised style goes back to the 60s, when lightweight equipment provided mobility undreamt of by previous documentary-makers. Portable cameras were able to follow action as it happened, rather than stage it as so many of the masters did. Smaller cameras made possible both the best and worst of observational film-making.This also changed the language: once controversial grainy handheld images are now commonplace to convey action and immediacy. Big Brother draws millions. It is descended from innovative film-makers such as Dziga Vertov and Andy Warhol setting up a fixed camera on the street. Now we can peer into bedrooms and sitting rooms or watch streets all over the world. Surprising numbers choose this over whatever is on telly. Go figure.

The launch of Channel 4, Five and the opening of the BBC to independent producers have created scores of opportunties for independent producers he says. And today there are even more digital channels and another window of opportunity at the BBC offering a further 25% of their output to indies. But Roger ain’t happy:

Because the speed of change has caused a shift in commissioning policy and audience targets, pulling programme-makers in conflicting directions. Even as channels ask for innovation, they are retreating to safer, more controllable formats. TV executives exhort the creative community to “think big”, “out of the box”, to come up with “landmark ideas that will punch through the schedules”. They want to be surprised. But they want surprise in predictable forms.Although reality shows are history, they want “constructed documentaries” on lighter subjects, fronted by a celebrity or at least a presenter. They should be fast-moving, appealing to younger viewers. And whatever anyone says to Ofcom, success is still measured by ratings. So too is the decision to commission.

Just as the audiences fragment or leaves Telly for YouTube, broadcasters want to play it safe.

But creative film-making requires the opposite ethos: no formulas, no guaranteed number of viewers, and no imitation of other successful programmes. It needs a willingness to take risks, to fund and stay with projects that may not bear fruit for years. We set out on each journey without knowing how it will end – the opposite of the current requirement for a full outline of the film to be part of the initial contract.

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Both Smosh and BLAME SOCIETY made it on YouTube

The BBC has conducted interviews with two of Web TV’s early stars, Smosh and Blame society (creators of Chad Vader). And both reveal they got noticed and big once they put their content on YouTube.

BBC study shows Online video ‘eroding TV viewing’

More news to send a chill down the spine of TV stations. The online video boom is starting to eat into TV viewing time, an ICM survey of 2,070 people for the BBC suggests.

Some 43% of Britons who watch video from the internet or on a mobile device at least once a week said they watched less normal TV as a result.

And online and mobile viewing is rising – three quarters of users said they now watched more than they did a year ago.

But online video viewers are still in the minority, with just 9% of the population saying they do it regularly.

Another 13% said they watched occasionally, while a further 10% said they expected to start in the coming year.

YouTube moves to the small screen

The BBC reports on a deal between YouTube and US mobile firm Verizon Wireless. It will see the popular video-sharing website extended to mobile phones.Users who subscribe to the paid for Verizon’s Vcast service will be able to view content on the YouTube website via their mobiles.The trial, which wil begin in December, will also allow users to post video clips from their phones more easily.

But check this out.

Google video is already available on mobile phones.
An enteprising developer have used Google’s API’s and built a search engine (SRobin Mobile video) that queries Google video and displays the results and plays the video on certain mobiles for free (Bar your network data costs of course).

Internet portals are out of the step with the web

Morpheus : You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake upand believe…whatever you want to believe. You take the redpill…..you stay in wonderland…and I show you just how

deep the rabbit hole goes. The Matrix

Does the portal concept still make sense on the Internet? Nope, read on, stay in wonderland and I’ll tell you why.

Lets restate what a portal is supposed to be: A website that offered structured pathways into the web, offering a range of services and content (many their own, while others would be covered by partners). These portals would be the gateway through which most internet users would pass to the rest of the web. And when companies like Yahoo! and Lycos had their IPO’s the market agreed.

For companies like Yahoo!, Lycos and MSN being internet portals have caused endless problems. They have been at sixes and sevens, trying to be all things to all people, fighting with their own internal subdivions over the use of an overarching brand, style, and even navigation. All a direct result of being portals.

They have been heamoraging users and not growing their reach except in key services like instant messaging and email where they got an early head start. But they are loosing ground to the MySpace’s and Google’s of this world. In fact, most of their organisational and strategic problems are related to them being portals.

Portals are tied to an old fashioned view of the media. A view that did not get that with the internet power shifts away from large top down media companies. Companies that were set up to produce fairly general content to be consumed by large groups of consumers.

In reality we are moving deeper into a world where every person can become a producer and not just a user of media. This is a concept that companies like Google got from the start.

If you accept this vision of the changing media world – a world where it becomes easier and easier for anyone to create a website, post a comment, and upload a video – it follows that on the Internet there will be a great variation of websites, and opinions, and also lots of competition for people’s attention.

In this world entry points to the web are very valuable. If you control these entry points you become the gatekeeper to this fragmented media landscape. Which is exactly why Netscape – the company that blasted the first hot air into the first net bubble – was thought to be so valuable. It was thought that through control of an internet browser, one could become the gatekeeper to the web’s content. Following the same logic, the concept of the internet portal at that time did make sense.

And today, with mobile phone portals this arguments still holds, but just. Mobile operators have a huge captive audience, its cumbersome to type on the mobile interface and therefore to search for services or information is difficult to do.

Yes, until search engines evolved and especially when they evolved to rank listings according to quality, the links on a portal was significant. But search ranked by quality, introduced by Google’s Pagerank system changed the landscape dramatically. (Google ranks a page according to how many pages link to it. Thus if web users link to your page, Google reckons it merits a higher value.)

An even earlier way of how search engines rank websites were the building blocks for this change. By analyzing how popular a site is for a certain set of keywords the trend towards focused and simplyfied pages became significant. If your website does lots of things – like most portals do – and list them all on your home page, the home page ranking will be diluted.

Pagerank will be diminished on a jack-of-all-trades page, because the homepage will give no clear indication of what it’s about, and the web users won’t recommend it by linking to it.

This is because it will feature many different keywords. This coupled with the fact that websites are unlikely to link to a page which is just a collection of different services, is deadly. No single Portal could possibly list all the websites a user likes to use. Users’ needs are too specific and various. And thus the websites run by users tend to link to services directly.

Another way to understand systems like Pagerank is how they value the links outward from a page. A link from a high value page will transfer high Pagerank value to the page it links to. But the value to be transferred is shared, so by having three links from a page, the value would also be split three ways.

Thus with a traditional portal’s home page with lots of links to various of its services, the result will be that its links’ power to transfer value will be diluted. The more links they have the more true it will be. The value transfered from a link on the home page of Yahoo! to its email service will be shared with its links to its other many services.

Search engines’ indexing hierachy favour and therefore create a web where there are lots of specialised “champion” websites. Often the characteristics of an internet service further enhances this “champion” effect because of so called economies of scale (Ebay) or a critical mass of users (think IM, MySpace).

The result of all this is that search engines have become quality selection engines. Users have come to know that used well, a search engine gives them access to the best of breed web content and services. Once you follow this logic you can see how the old style portal concept is really dead. A concept for those that won’t experience wonderland.

What compounds this problem for the portals even more is that users are increasingly becoming so used to the mechanics of search, and are increasingly using it as a way of navigation. (I for instance, when I want to look up information on Uganda’s dictator Idi Amin on Wikipedia, just search for “wikipedia idi amin” via Google and click on the first link Google serves up. I’m there. Why bother entering the Wikipedia address into the browser and then searching for Idi?)

Search as navigation is becoming an unstoppable force.

The portals are squeezed on two sides. They are not specialist sites – the sites that tend to be recommended by search engines – and users don’t need portals to point them to these sites.

Time for a bit of futurerology: Users will navigate the web in two ways. By searching via keywords and by searching via brands (or rather sub-brands and sub-sub-brands). In other words when searching for something and you don’t have a brand to mind – that you know will address your need – you will just do a normal keyword search.

Otherwise you will Google/ navigate directly to the sub-brand you know and trust to work well. (I for instance use Yahoo! Mail and I Google “mail yahoo” to directly go to mail.yahoo.com.)

And its already happening. The majority of Yahoo! mail users do exactly that and never see the Yahoo! front page. Even though Yahoo! tries to persuade us all the time to go and have a look and circulate its traffic.

Yahoo! is arguably the most successful portal in that unlike MSN – they actually have one or two channels (Yahoo! travel – as opposed to the large staple portal services: search, email, IM) that are a relative success.

But even Yahoo! has been realizing that users come to it for specific good products and not primarily because they are a portal. That’s is why Yahoo has bought a huge one act pony Flickr (a photo sharing community site) but wont be changing Flickr’s name. Nor have they been adding links from the Yahoo! home page to Flickr. It does not need to. Flickr is a top ranked website already thank you very much. It would be stupid to change its name because a recongnisable brand is paramount if you want users to find (search for) a service.

The so-called Yahoo! home page is actually just a glorified site map. Their users increasingly go directly to the services Yahoo! offer bypassing the front page.The successful Yahoo! channels and services are a success because they are good, not because they are on the Yahoo! homepage.

People have been wondering why Google does not link to its other products from its home page. It’s exactly this reason. They don’t need to, and if they did it would reduce the simplicity and usability of the Google.com page, making it less popular with users.

So what are portals to do? (To be continued.)

Flickr deletes user accounts without warning

Recently I posted on my other blog, about Flickr’s draconian booting out of members who transgress.

Mhambi would like to register his displeasure. His favorite Flickr members Tetheredtothesun have disappeared, including hundreds of gorgeous (and titillating) photos and all from Flickr. But Mhambi expects he knows what happened. See Flickr is owned by Yahoo!

Now Rose and Olive certainly did not get the boot because their pictures were too risque. Nope, there are many pictures on Flickr far more revealing and with less artistic merit, than these two delicious gals’ pics.

Nope, one suspects that some manager (with an MBA no doubt) read on their flickr pages that Olive and Rose were starting a paid for site at Nerve, thus soliciting business to a rival! How can they! The outrage!!

Now only an old style manager with no conception of how new media works would try and keep his audience from wondering to other websites, and destroy good content and allot of good will to boot. Yahoo! will always play catch-up while their new media savvy staff have to play second fiddle too a bunch of managers that still don’t get the net.

My speculation proved correct, when Rose answered my email:

Good morning, Mhambi. Yes, flickr deleted us without even a moment’s notice, throwing away everything we’d posted, including the writing, which went unsaved unfortunately. But when the pieces fall apart, you put them back together in a new way, a stronger way, a more interesting way hopefully.

How could Flickr not warn their users before deleting content? This is no way to treat the all powerful web users without whom Flickr would be a hollow shell.

News media – To write hard news or opinion?

The Media Guardian speculated this week how traditional news media organisations like newspapers should react to the hordes of citizen reporters stalking the streets. The BBC, perhaps not unexpectedly, reckons that news media providers can make themselves felt by providing hard news. Blogs can out opinion the best of the papers op-ed pages they said. But they would say that – The BBC is uniquely resourced to do hard news and because of its public service remit, not big on opinionated pieces.

The BBC may only partially be right. Blogs will increasingly break hard news that institutions – even the mighty Beep – will not have the resources to cover. Or they simply just won’t be at the right place at the right time.

Ah, but you might say, no single blog will have those resources either. They might through serendipity get one great scoop, and that’s it. But do remember, its immaterial that the fractured blogosphere don’t belong to a single media entity. They work on a collective level and can be found through one or two interfaces.

Technology like Digg‘s link recommendation engine (user generated editing in effect), Technorati and Google’s time and Pageranked based blog search, will increasingly encourage bloggers to publish information nobody has access to and do so first. Take this review of Gmail’s mobile application for instance. All of these engines try to give users the best postings on the web, within a certain time frame. So the links they present are weighted for quality and news-worthiness.

But here is another reason why the BBC is wrong. There’s the so-called long tail and the workings of Google’s Pagerank to take into account. If your item on a particular subject is very incisive, funny, informative and gets voted for via links from blogs and sites across the web, Pagerank will like it too. And then you are pretty much guaranteed traffic long after the item’s published date. The links presented by Google search are weighted for quality as judged by other web users. This favours well written opinion pieces whose content transcends time.