Monday, December 04, 2006

Digital Hollywood conference

I spent an afternoon at the Digital Hollywood conference in London last week and it was interesting to see how the terms of discussion about new media and broadcasting have changed in the last year or two.

As the last conference I went to on a similar theme, back in 2004, speeches were full of questions. Would TV on mobile phones ever take off? Could video on demand actually be made to work? Would the fear of piracy mean that producers and broadcasters resist all attempts to sell their wares online?

Now, all these questions have appear to have been answered. The take-up of broadband and the expansion of bandwith means that everyone seems to believe that the computer, in some form or another, will become the main access point to programming. Efforts to educate people away from piracy will still be made but fear of illegal copying won’t stop paid-for content going online. Mobile programming remains in its infancy, but for short form shows, trailers and clips it will become increasingly important.

Speakers at Digital Hollywood still expressed some caution. For example, it is predicted that in 2010 hard copy DVD rentals (mostly by post) will still outnumber online DVD delivery by 10:1. Consumers still have a lot of concerns about downloading feature films and the industry has important questions to address – for example, regarding the reluctance to allow people to download-to-own.

None of this will come as any surprise to anyone who pays any attention to the press. What is more interesting, perhaps, is what it might mean for the people who actually make the content. Like writers, for example.

The first concern is getting paid – and the Writers’ Guild in this country and America have made sure that writers’ rights are properly protected just as they were when the DVD market began to take off.

But, it seems to me, the development of digital distribution could have greater implications. Virtually every speaker I heard at Digital Hollywood spoke about “the studios”. The sign of success for any new project, be it video on demand or mobile TV, was that one or more of “the studios” had endorsed it. These studios are, of course, the big six players in Hollywood: Time Warner, Universal, Paramount, Fox, Disney and Sony. In this country you could add the BBC as a major player.

The question is whether, as online distribution of programming increases, content creators will need to rely on these media monoliths. It’s already possible to distribute content via YouTube or other similar sites and it seems only a matter of time before other sites, where content creators are paid, start to take off.

At Digital Hollywood one of the speakers provided an interesting model. Tim Sparke is managing director of Mercury Media, a company that, along with Aggregator TV, is setting up a new broadband documentary channel called He told the conference that he felt people had become bored with mainstream media and were looking to broadband for an alternative. When they launch next year, he hopes to attract around 15,000 subscribers. Not only will they be able to get a wide range of documentaries online, they will also be able to invest in programmes that have not yet been made – what Sparke calls “the democratisation of finance”.

No doubt similar sites for drama and comedy programming already exist somewhere on the web. Might they represent the real, revolutionary future of TV?

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