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The TV producers in search of digital hits

Blog
12 June 2013

Talk to most independent TV producers about what they are up to in the digital arena, and the phrase: “It’s like the Wild West out there,” will likely crop up.

Traditional TV indies – for so long focused on pitching and winning business from a handful of broadcaster clients – are now starting to range more widely in search of business opportunities in the digital world. Broadcast TV, of course, remains the bedrock of their business, the source of most revenues. But, faced with an explosion of viewing online – on tablets, on mobiles, on connected TVs, on YouTube, via apps, through games – more and more indies are seeking to harness their storytelling and production skills to see if they can apply them to the digital world.

The problem is, though, that there is so much potential to create new digital content –  for uncertain and often limited rewards – that many producers are confused about which way to turn.

In such a fast moving digital climate, the big question is: should an indie launch a YouTube channel, produce an app, move into games or develop multiplatform projects? Or do nothing?

There’s a world of chatter, for example, about producing content for YouTube. But, at a time when an incredible 72 hours of content is being uploaded to the site every minute, it’s hardly surprising that only very few people are making content that can stand out and earn good money from the ad funded service.

In search of opportunities
“Indies are seeing the opportunities in this market much more clearly than they have before,” says David Flynn, co-chair of Endemol’s digital board, who created hit interactive show The Million Pound Drop Live and is leading a digital drive at Endemol that’s seen the indie hire three digital interns to help create new digital opportunities. “But it remains a challenge to find projects that are properly commercially viable.”

What’s notable, of course, is that few have abandoned TV altogether in favour of digital. In fact most indies tie their digital projects into TV, seeking to harness the mass audience and revenues that television can deliver.

The era is over of the digital evangelists who loudly proclaimed the death of television, says Richard Davidson-Houston, head of Channel 4 Online. “In the mid to late 2000s, all the broadcasters shipped in people from the radical end of the digital industry. While engaging and intelligent, for many their schtick was “TV is dead”. It made for an antagonistic relationship with their hosts,” he says.

This has given way to a more sober viewpoint that the changes being unleashed in the digital world will not destroy the TV industry as we know it – but rather can be harnessed to drive innovation.

Indie pioneers
Maverick Television, the producer of shows such as Embarrassing Bodies, is acknowledged as one of the leading indie lights in the digital world. Maverick’s digital creative director Dan Jones explains that the indie is active across a range of digital fronts, creating YouTube channels and video, producing digital content for brands as well as big multi-platform projects for broadcasters and other indies.

He says the big growth area for the indie is in producing TV formats which wouldn’t exist without an integral digital element. He cites upcoming C4 panel show Was It Something I Said?, hosted by David Mitchell. The show pits two teams against one another in a battle of word play, answering questions based on quotes, tweets, literature, TV and film dialogue. In a world first, viewers will be able to play along with the show via Twitter and receive bonus content as they watch. Was It Something I Said? is also factual and features specialist Maverick’s first entertainment TV commission. “It’s a show that came from an online idea. And it’s helped us grow into entertainment TV,” says Jones.

Channel 4 is regarded as the leading broadcaster in the multiplatform commissioning space. Indeed, this year’s Bafta Craft Awards confirmed as much with C4 dominating the digital creative category with nominations for the Paralympics, Foxes Live: Wild in the City, The Great British Property Scandal and Embarrassing Bodies: Live from the Clinic.

C4’s Davidson-Houston says the most successful multiplatform shows are ones where the digital element helps the programme to be innovative through interactivity. “They are not all about digital, they are about using digital to innovate with form,” he says. And producers are getting better at making them too, he believes, pointing to an emerging maturity in the sector. “The odds are shortening on success, a consequence of experience and learning what works,” he adds. This year’s Easter Eggs Live, for example, could build on the success of last year’s Foxes Live which in turn built on the lessons learnt in 2011’s Hippo: Nature’s Wild Feast.

Davidson-Houston cites a number of upcoming examples of shows that are using digital to drive innovation in programme-making, such as D-Day: As It Happens, First Dates, Was It Something I Said and the next evolution of Embarrassing Bodies.

First Dates, for example, is an interactive documentary series made by Twenty Twenty. Using a fixed rig in a restaurant, the six part series follows first time couples to show what it is really like to meet potential partners and is cast via the C4 web site. If the dates don’t work out, the unsuccessful daters can appeal to viewers to put themselves forward via channel4.com – and could find themselves sitting next to a viewer the following week. “It’s a very simple proposition, highly innovative in form and we’re not mucking around trying to create a superfluous dating site,” says Davidson-Houston.

He explains that one of the key lessons learnt by C4 in the digital space is “being self-disciplined about what we should do rather than indulging in all the things we could do.” There are few barriers in the digital world, he notes. The trick is to identify the right thing to do; to hone projects to the correct - the perfect – size and form.

Rival broadcasters seem to be doing little to create truly multiplatform shows. The BBC is focused on video on demand instead, building on the success of iPlayer. The corporation disbanded its multiplatform team back in 2011 and only produces a few shows – like The Voice – that have an interactive, multiplatform element. Likewise ITV and Sky. Their big Saturday night shows like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent and Got to Dance have integral interactive elements.

In search of consumers
Meanwhile, indies are also seeking to bypass traditional TV broadcasters altogether to strike up their own relationship with viewers. Whether producing for YouTube or creating apps and games, indies no longer need to remorselessly focus on winning business from a handful of TV commissioning editor clients.

For many it is a liberating experience. Patrick Uden, who’s involved in the scripting of high profile TV shows like The Apprentice and ran his own indie Uden Associates, is now a partner in Heuristic Media, which creates high quality apps for tablet devices such as Cyclepedia and London: A City Through Time (see box). He says: “It’s like the Wild West out there. There are no channels and no commissioning editors. If you launch something and the public like it, they buy it.”

And, he believes, it’s a world that TV creatives are inherently suited to, where skills such as visual storytelling are highly prized. “There are no meetings, no commissioning editors. Culturally it is very different – TV is very constrictive and hierarchical. It’s much more fun – and the fun seems to be going out of TV, which is smothered with bureaucracy and fear.”

YouTube

However, more indies are looking to embrace YouTube than apps. Few claim to be making serious money out of the service, but many are keen to learn what works and to build early expertise in YouTube as it begins to move from the computer onto connected TVs in the heart of the living room.

One executive at the forefront of working with YouTube in the UK is Andy Taylor, the former digital media director of All3Media who recently launched Little Dot Studios. Taylor was among those that won funding from YouTube last year when the online video behemoth rolled out its original channels initiative in Europe.

Little Dot Studios comprises a team of nine people and runs All3’s YouTube originals initiative, including its two existing channels – Daily Mix and Body Talk – as well as launching more. The firm also runs All3’s 50 programme-related YouTube channels including Skins, Embarrassing Bodies and The Real Hustle, which feature clips from the existing shows.

For a 50% cut of revenues, Little Dot will contract out its services to other indies, creating YouTube channels for their shows. “It’s a good way to dip your toe into YouTube without great expense,” says Taylor.

As for the original channels that Little Dot runs, Taylor believes they will lose money for the next three years and describes them as an investment.

The Daily Mix, a beauty and makeover channel, is the most successful of its services. To date it has 194,000 subscribers and has had 10m video views.

“Our focus has been on getting subscribers and eyeballs,” explains Taylor. “It’s a bit like when C4 launched E4 or ITV launched ITV2 – they expected the model to lose money for three to four years. But they wanted an early foothold in digital TV.”

For now, though, YouTube is not really suitable for large scale indie producers. It’s difficult to work out exactly how much producers can earn from YouTube content as it depends on many factors – but one guesstimate is that a million views might earn $6,000. Given how difficult it is to achieve a million views, it’s not surprising that the YouTube production model is cheap, fast and young – suitable for bedroom bloggers, but not for large companies with big overheads. For now, it’s easy to see why many are sticking with what they know best – television.

Case Study 1: The digital show - D-Day: As It Happens

Windfall Films is making D-Day: As It Happens, a 24-hour history event that plays out across TV, web, mobile devices and social media on C4 this month. Digit, Windfall’s digital partner on the project, will deliver the website build.

The project will enable viewers and users to experience D-Day in real time. They’ll be able to track – moment by moment – what happened to seven people who were there on the day: each of them a real participant in the 1944 invasion. Through archive film, photographs, radio reports and other records of D-Day, the programme will trace the progress of the ‘D-Day 7’ (among them a paratrooper, a midget submariner, a nurse and a military cameraman) via the footage.

An hour-long TV programme on June 5 will tell the backstories of the seven and set out their missions over the 24 hours to come, and another programme on June 6 will recap the day and reveal what happened to each. In between, users will be able to keep up with their progress online, via Twitter, and through short-form updates on the channel. The television coverage will be presented by Peter Snow.

Case Study 2: The app maker - Heuristic Media


Heuristic Media, run by four colleagues including TV executive Patrick Uden (The Apprentice), started making apps for tablet devices in 2010. Their three key projects to date include Cyclepedia, London: A City Through Time and Python Bytes. All are made with extremely high production values, and have won acclaim for their design and depth of content. 

The app market is tough to operate in, acknowledges Uden, but the advantage is that you are producing for a global market. The four colleagues each invested £50k in the business, and expect to break even in three years. London: A City Through Time, for example, was launched in time for the Olympics and has sold over 50,000 units at £10 a piece.

Uden gives the following advice to wannabe app producers: build a portfolio of products and cross-fertilise and cross-promote; produce a world class app (“there’s no point in producing junk – if your app has people in it, they’ve got to be world class – Hollywood stars or people at the top of their field”). The big coming market for apps is education, adds Uden.

Case Study 3: The video stars - Jack and Finn Harries


Tales abound of young YouTube stars making it big thanks to videos shot in their bedroom. Two such stars are Jack and Finn Harries, twin 19-year-old brothers (and the sons of Andy Harries, the founder of drama producer Left Bank). Their YouTube channel Jack’s Gap has racked up an impressive 1.8m subscribers and 79million views.

A collection of quirky, humourous vlogs that look homegrown but clearly are produced with care and verve, JackGap was initially intended as video diary of Jack’s gap year. But when he introduced his twin Finn into the videos, the views suddenly shot up. The twin factor clearly appeals to the site’s avid young female fan base. Described by one TV exec as “the One Direction of YouTube”, the pair have since been picked up by talent agency Avalon and are reported to have been offered a Sky TV series and Capital Radio show. 

They are making money too. When Jack’s Gap hit 10,000 subscribers, the twins received an email from YouTube. Jack told The Daily Telegraph: “They gave us a username and password to log in to Google AdSense, and there’s an account balance where you can see your money go up and up.”


Case Study 4: The digital play - Animal Vegetable Mineral


Bafta winning producer Rupert Harris is good example of a television executive who’s moved decidedly into the interactive world.

He helped set up cross platform production company Animal Vegetable Mineral in 2011 and has since attracted backing from the Technology Strategy Board and venture capital funding from Korea and the UK to develop cross-platform game driven entertainment concepts. These include CR3ATOR, a half hour TV entertainment format billed as Robot Wars for the connected generation. It’s a combination of game and TV show, where gamers fight each other in virtual robot battles. Those that make it to the top of the game’s leader board are invited to take part in a live action studio show where their robots battle it out on the big screen.

“We haven’t moved from TV into gaming. TV has moved from a linear to a more interactive medium and we’ve just adapted and moved with it,” says Harris, who says that AMV is monetising projects through commissions, sponsorship, game revenues and advertising.  Harris adds: “You no longer need a broadcaster to air your ideas.  Digital mobile platforms have offered the opportunity to have a direct relationship with the consumer – we crave this and what’s more we have the skills and tools to build and develop this relationship. It means we can optimise the games and the shows with highly detailed user feedback and responses.”


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