Is the time right for a new distribution model for top quality broadcast content?

AMC needs Mad Men more than Mad Men needs AMC

The velocity and degree of change in the media sector the last 15 years is almost beyond comprehension. From print publications to video distribution, music sales to book delivery systems, just about every medium and media has seen upheaval.  Of course the catalyst for all this has been the Digital Revolution. Now we see Digital Rev 2.0 taking shape as mobile – from phones to tablets – and social reshape the landscape further.

Jim Louderback, the CEO of Revision3 Internet Television, recently wrote in Ad Age about how the Digital Revolution – the scourge of traditional media – may actually be the salvation for dying cable channels in a piece called, Zombie Cable Channels Poised for Second Life Online. Louderback, a longtime veteran of media content plays, sees a future where niche cable channels jump to online as a distribution channel.

I think Jim is on the right track here. But maybe rather than full networks shifting online, the model of the future for video content will be closer to what we are seeing with music. Is the time right for someone to do with video content what Radiohead, Trent Reznor and other music acts are doing – self-distribution. This model, on a small scale, is already starting to happen, and with top talent involved, like the Joss Whedon – Neill Patrick Harris vehicle, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

The concept of the “Network,” whether the broadcast stalwarts like NBC, CBS and ABC or more recent upstart cable operations like Fx or Starz, is really an outmoded one.  People today have no allegiance to particular channels, they just watch content, and often when they want and now on the platform they want. So, why does a guy like Matthew Weiner, the man behind Mad Men, need AMC?  Why couldn’t he simply distribute his property via iTunes, for say $2.99 an episode? The other revenue streams – product placement, Season DVDs, books, licensed merchandise, integrated marketing tie-ins and yes, even commercials, all could still be in place. And all those options would be critical as putting on a production the quality of Mad Men or Lost is a costly one indeed. I’ll be honest, I haven’t done the math so maybe the business model doesn’t hold up right now. But I find it hard to envision a future in which this doesn’t happen.

And the big winner in all this could be Apple. Once you get off the TV and look at other distribution models, Apple is in a pretty good position. Though Google or Amazon could easily get in the game as well. A consumer buys a season pass for a show for $30 and downloads to the device of their choice (set top, iPad, Android mobile device…) as new episodes become available.

Joss Whedon - Distribution Revolutionary with Dr. Horrible.

Then perhaps a new type of network comes to life. Perhaps a brand – Nike or Coca-Cola or Starbucks – starts to aggregate these independent shows around themes that are relevant to the brand and the people who are fans of the brand. These brands would help promote these shows or perhaps subsidize and host the shows on their online or mobile hubs, allowing people to download the shows for free.

Let’s call this “The Nextwork.” A model where independent production companies produce content for channels (mobile, laptop, set-top) sponsored by brands. NBC, CBS, USA, TNT? Time to meet your friends print newspapers and music CDs in the House for Obsolete Media Empires.

Zombies and Vampires and Ninjas and Pirates

edward twilight new moon ecilpse

It's tough to kill the vampire...genre

I was noodling on Vampires the other day, but also lumped Zombies, Pirates and Ninjas in the mix. These archetypes seem different to me than other ‘trends’. Surely the Vampire was dead after the spoof, “Love at First Bite” in 1979. But then the Anne Rice-led revival brought it back (technically the 1st  book, Interview with the Vampire,  was published in 1976, but didn’t gain widespread popularity until later). Then it jumped the shark with the Tom Cruise-Brad Pitt movie (based on the Anne Rice novel) in 1994. But bubbling below the surface was Blade and other genre flicks, then Twilight hit and now vampires are hot.

Surely Ninjas were done with horrible movies like American Ninja (1985) or with comedies starring Chris Farley (Beverly Hills Ninja, 1997), and yet Ninja has become a replacement word for ‘expert’ to the point where it’s almost accepted parlance: A twellow search for ‘ninja’ turned up more than 7,000 Twitter accounts using the term in their profiles.  Ninja Warrior is one of the most popular shows on G4.
We can put Pirates away now after the 3rd Pirates of the Caribbean flick, right? No, actually, if we’ve learned anything it’s that

g4 ninja warrior american ninja warrior

What do IT experts and Japanese game show contestants have in common? They both want to be ninjas.

genre memes just go back underground (Pirates for adults [NSFW]You get the point0. These characters are like Zombies (pun intended), they just keep coming back to life.

So it’s not just a matter of knowing when to jump off the Vampire merry-go-round, it’s knowing when (and where) to jump back on. If you jumped off Vampires would you have known to jump back on in time to publish Twilight? Fourteen literary agents rejected it before Stephenie Meyer got a deal.  If you were off Zombies would you have gotten back on it time to publish NY Times bestseller Pride & Prejudice and Zombies?
I don’t think you can “get off” any of these, you have to triangulate your decision across several nodes of popular culture, a triangulation that has to revolve around the audience (young adult – Twilght. mature – True Blood) and sub-genre (comedy, horror, sci-fi…) and then the actual quality of the content. So what sort of matrix board do you have to create to know that a NC-17 comedy horror Zombie video game will work, but a PG-13 young adult time-travelling Vampire TV show won’t? You can’t.  All you can do is hope you bat .300 and that when you fail, you fail fast.
pride prejudice zombies jane austen

Ahh, the classics.

If you broaden your scope a bit, I think it would be difficult to find a time over the last 40 years or so when any of these four archetypes didn’t have a level of bubbling popularity via books, comic books, tv, movies, video games, music. If all you’re looking at is 1 or 2 content categories maybe it looks like they’re dead, but they may be flourishing elsewhere, and like a virus they’re just waiting for a new host to carry them to the mainstream.

Publishers, producers, editors, TV execs, they all have to calibrate their decisions based on so many factors, and yet even with access to sophisticated data it often comes down to human factors. A gut instinct that something is going to work. Somebody at AMC is greenlighting The Walking Dead based partly on historical evidence that says people like Zombies, but also partly on the notion that this particular iteration will have a new twist that will bring new people into the (zombie and AMC) tent.

Personally, I’m waiting for someone to make Pirate Zombies v. Ninja Vampires. Hey, if they can make Aliens and Cowboys, anything is possible.

This post was inspired by a recent post by Grant McCracken. Make sure you read that one too.