|01 June 2012
Tim Dams finds out how producers are rising to the challenges of the multiplatform world
An online penis gallery; a lung functionality app; live online footage from a foxes den; a digital storybook adaptation of The 39 Steps; a social network for allotment seekers. These are just some of the digital projects created by independent TV production companies in the past year. Indeed, TV producers are creating more projects that straddle TV, online and mobile than ever before.
What’s different compared to previous years is that the incessant hype around digital has dissipated. Most indies display a healthy dose of realism when they discuss the business of creating content especially for digital platforms. It’s no longer viewed as a route to great riches – in fact, far from it. Most say it is a very difficult business to operate in.
But the indies most active in creating multi-platform content – such has Maverick, Keo, Tern, Endemol and Windfall – say that it can be an integral, even critical part, of the way their company now operates. “If anyone is thinking of moving into multi-platform, I always say they shouldn’t do it for profit motives, but for creative and strategic reasons,” says Maverick TV’s head of new media Dan Jones, who won a Bafta for his work on Embarrassing Bodies Online.
Over the following pages, Televisual investigates how a handful of indies are tackling the challenge of creating digital content for multiple platforms – looking at their business models, their projects, their partners and their clients.
The digital departments of most indies usually began life as seedlings, and have slowly grown over time. Many were set up on the promise of work to come, which has not necessarily materialised as broadcasters – particularly the BBC – have cut back on commissioning multiplatform content since the economic downturn.
The vogue for digital departments was probably at its peak three years ago, and has since receeded. Indeed there are now a range of business models: some indies are investing in standalone digital teams, some outsource to other companies and others hire in freelancers to do their digital work.
For example, Windfall, the producer of Foxes Live and Surgery Live, used to have its own dedicated Windfall Digital arm. But, says Windfall’s David Dugan, it couldn’t be sustained and was abandoned. Windfall’s digital activities are now fully integrated within its TV production department.
One of the UK’s most successful digital outfits is at Maverick Television, which has 25 full time staff as well as freelancers who work on TV as well as non-TV digital contracts, including a major one for the NHS. Fifteen of those staff are completely integrated with the TV team, sharing development.
Keo Films, another indie with acclaimed digital output including the Hugh’s Fish Fight multiplatform project, has a digital team of 10.
Endemol, meanwhile has a digital team that works on its high profile projects, including Million Pound Drop, Bank Job and Big Brother.
But the indie likes to bring in specialists from outside to help it deliver its projects, says David Flynn, co-chair of Endemol’s Digital Board. “What works best is getting the best creative people to develop ideas and the best digital people to deliver the ideas. You can have inhouse teams, but one of the challenges is that each of the projects has different demands and potentially different skill bases.”
So Endemol likes to work closely with third parties to deliver its digital projects. For example, it worked with Monterosa on The Million Pound Drop and The Bank Job. Windfall, meanwhile, contracted the building of its Foxes Live site to Numiko. Endemol’s Flynn adds that it is key to have executive producers who work specifically in digital at the indie who can ‘live and breathe’ projects, managing quality control and delivery.
Channel 4 is regarded as by far the most important and influential client in the multiplatform world, with commissions including The Million Pound Drop’s playalong game and the Embarrassing Bodies website. Its online department has a budget of £12m and its budgets for multiplatform projects usually range from £20,000 to £300,000, although very few projects are at that top end. However, C4 says that only a small number of its TV shows – less than 10% – will get a full multiplatform commission.
The BBC, by contrast, is described as “missing in action” and “only focused on making shows available through iPlayer’. Big brands like Dr Who are supported, but many indies say it has pulled back significantly from multiplatform since the licence fee freeze in 2010.
ITV, similarly, will support big shiny floor shows and brands like The Only Way is Essex with online activity, but is not regarded as a major multiplatform player. Neither is Sky.
Few indies think it is possible for their digital departments to survive on the production fees from TV work alone, such is the hesitancy of traditional broadcasters to invest in multiplatform.
Also, unlike TV production, there is no secondary market for multiplatform content. “There aren’t great examples of interactive elements of shows being licensed overseas,” says All3Media’s head of new media Andy Taylor. “Nothing else flows back, there’s no IP in it.”
Moreover, it’s incredibly difficult to make money from apps. “The vast majority don’t even break even,” cautions Simon Meek, head of Tern Television’s digital arm, who reckons the average app makes £5k a year.
Meek says indies would need around four or five reasonably sized digital commissions from broadcasters worth £20-80k each to sustain a department. And that is a major challenge given the paucity of TV clients right now.
So digital divisions have diversified in the search for business. Maverick, for example, has used its expertise from Embarrassing Bodies to win a ground-breaking digital project with the NHS in the West Midlands, worth a reported £15m over five years. It also runs film4.com for Channel 4, and creates digital content for other indies’ shows, including Objective Productions’ The Real Hustle.
Tern’s digital arm, meanwhile, was set up five years ago and has survived by diversifying into new areas, in particular gaming. In fact, Tern has just spun off its digital arm as a standalone outfit called The Story Mechanics. It’s now looking for funding and is transferring its skills in film and TV into the world of interactive games. For example, it’s creating a digital adaptation of John Buchan’s classic spy adventure The Thirty-Nine Steps for a games publisher.
Likewise, television is only part of Keo Digital’s focus, says md Nick Underhill. Keo Digital is a standalone division that creates content for Keo projects, but also creates digital projects for other indies, brands and organisations.
Keo’s digital division was set up after the success in 2009 of the Chicken Out website that accompanied Hugh’s Chicken Run series. It also ran the award winning Fish Fight digital campaign (see below), is responsible for the River Cottage website and launched allotment project Landshare (which it has licenced to Australia and Canada) and a renewable energy site Energyshare, which was sponsored by British Gas.
Underhill says that digital now accounts for 23% of Keo’s turnover, with money coming from brands via sponsorship or from broadcast production fees.He adds that there are funds available for digital projects from institutions like Nesta, the Technology Strategy Board and Creative England. Keo is also talking to county councils about “large scale, long term projects”. The digital arms of TV companies, he reasons, are experienced in ‘making stuff famous’ and drawing in audiences, in a way that councils might not be.
And, of course, YouTube and Amazon, are now commissioning original content in the UK. “All of the top 10 indies are talking to YouTube,” says one indie, pointing out that producers will need strong digital expertise – or to partner with digital experts – to win a share of the £10m that the video site is spending on UK commissions. Indeed, YouTube director of TV Ben McOwen Wilson said earlier this month: “Indies must realise they are not just delivering a show. On YouTube, it’s as much about engaging, finding, embracing and reacting to your audience as about the strength of the video.”
Few indies say that their digital activities deliver direct profits back to their company. Each company that has a digital arm, however, agrees that they play a crucial role in enhancing their creative reputation and helping to win television commissions as well as business from non-TV sources.
Endemol’s David Flynn says that digital can be a revenue generator. “But, for us, the most important thing about it is creative as it is commercial.”
Maverick’s Embarrassing Bodies, for example, is a classic example of a well integrated multiplatform proposition. Indeed, as Televisual went to press, its My HealthChecker iPhone app was at the top of the free chart on iTunes App Store with over 300,000 downloads, following the start of Embarrassing Bodies: Live from the Clinic on Channel 4.
Maverick’s Dan Jones says the indie tries to develop ideas from the very start to work across different platforms, while acknowledging that not every show suits multiplatform or that every broadcaster wants digital support for a show. But he and several of his colleagues in the digital department will sit in with TV execs during early brainstorms, in particular for C4 shows.
Embarassing Bodies, he thinks, works well across different platforms for different reasons. TV is very much a ‘sit back medium’ for audiences that creates ‘watercooler’ moments the next day. Social media is part of this watercooler chat about the show.
But if viewers can identify with any of the illnesses in the show, they will then go online to the Embarrassing Bodies website to find out more and carry out deeper research.
The show’s smartphone app takes this one stage further. The app features tools such as a breast checker that allows viewers to take the phone into a private space, often the bathroom, to examine themselves in more detail.
Crucially, the data that Maverick receives from the show’s digital plaforms feed directly into the editorial of future shows. For example, viewers can go online or onto the app to take Embarrassing Bodies’s NHS approved health check, which involves them inputing basic data about their lifestyle. 750,000 have so far taken this test, says Jones. It means that Maverick knows a great deal about the viewers who are watching the show, and can tailor editorial accordingly. Trends can be extracted from the data, which can tell Maverick, for example, which profession has a high risk of diabetes or which age group is most likely to suffer from OCD. All of which enhances the show’s relationship with viewers and with Maverick partners, like the NHS. Indeed, All3Media’s Andy Taylor thinks the strong multiplatform angle of the show has resulted in it winning more TV commissions. He traces a direct line between commissions for Embarrassing Bodies to Embarrassing Bodies Live and then on to last month’s Live From the Clinic. Which goes to prove that digital can be a sound investment for indies.
What indies are up to
Confusingly, the terms ‘multiplatform’ and ‘digital’ are often deployed in the TV industry to cover a whole variety of initiatives that take content beyond the television. But it’s helpful to break the digital and multiplatform activities of indie TV producers into three distinct areas, says Andy Taylor, All3Media’s head of new media.
1. Multiplatform content: creating apps, games, social media and online sites that support TV shows. All3Media-owned Maverick Television’s Embarrassing Illnesses is a good example, with a host of digital applications to support it. “It’s a small market and not every TV idea needs it,” acknowledges Taylor. “But we believe that multiplatform can be key for making a show bigger, bolder and noisier than without it.”
2. Digital distribution: making clips and TV content available online via services likes Lovefilm and Netflix. “For us, this is a really big business and makes money,” he says.
3. Digital licencing: licencing online, game or mobile spin-offs from successful TV brands, such as The Cube, which is produced by All3Media-owned Objective. The rights to the show are owned by the producer, and the spin-offs were not necessarily part of a pitch to or funded by the broadcaster.
Multiplatform case study:
Foxes Live: Wild in the City
Foxes Live: Wild in the City, which aired on Channel 4 in May, was developed as a multiplatform project by Windfall Films for C4 from the very beginning.
With four shows on C4, three on More4 and 24/7 live streaming from two dens, it used the web to allow viewers to follow the movements of tagged foxes in the UK.
The project was created in just 10 weeks, and incorporated a questionnaire and the opportunity for people to send in sightings. Windfall’s David Dugan says the data gathered fed right back into the show and directly influenced the editorial, describing it as a form of “citizen science.” When one of the foxes, Chico, was released back in Manchester, the site crashed as more than 1,000 people a second tried to follow him online.The next day, C4 hugely increased the site’s capacity so it could cope. Windfall worked with Leeds-based digital agency Numiko to create the site.
Hits: Over 2m page views and 300k visits following the first broadcast on TV
Average page views per visit: 7
Video streaming: close to 100,000 plays
Viewers who took part in online Foxes Live survey: 18,000
Number of sightings from viewers: 19,000
Multiplatform case study: Hugh’s Fish Fight
Keo Films and Keo Digital launched the Fish Fight campaign on C4 and online in January 2011. The idea was to raise public awareness about problems in the fishing industry, in particular to end the practice of discards.
Over 750,000 have now signed the Fish Fight petition on the show’s website, www.fishfight.net. It has over 230,000 friends on Facebook and 25,000 followers on twitter. The website has had almost 2m visits from over 201 countries/territories
The TV show won a BAFTA in May 2011, but the impact on government policy seems to have been the campaign’s most significant victory.
The Fish Fight EU campaign launched outside the European Parliament in May 2011, with EU Fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki joining Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to unveil an interactive statue which shows how many people in Europe have signed the petition. The campaign’s main website has been joined by 11 more microsites in 11 countries in Europe, including Poland, Greece, Spain, Germany and Portugal.
In July 2011, Damanaki revealed the draft Common Fisheries Policy reform in Brussels, which specifically includes measures to end discards.
“The impact of the TV show wouldn’t have been half as good without the digital element,” says Keo Digital md Nick Underhill. “The impact on people and politicians has been astounding.”