Metrics and the Future of Television

24 01 2013

I kind of think of Phil Hodgetts as the “Maestro of Metadata” – that practice of attaching as much data directly to our media as possible so we can more easily use and find those images, audio files, and video later.

Metadata has been getting a lot of play in the last year or two among those of us who create content. It will assist those of us involved in that task in making our lives easier, so we can concentrate on the creative tasks instead of the bookkeeping part of it.

But I want to speak about another kind of data that we don’t talk about enough – metrics – and how it might make the way in which we connect with our audiences easier.  Along the way it will also show just how tone-deaf old media companies are to the new world.

To my mind, metrics collection is the process of collating as much data as possible about the people who watch and listen to our media as possible as well as how they watch it.  This helps us to create programs that attract more people and, therefore, more advertisers — if that is how we want to pay for those programs. On the web those metrics are called “analytics” because why should New Media use Old Terms, right? Companies like comScore (their comScore Data Mine site usually present some interesting high level statistics), Nielsen (some of their reports are fascinating), and Experian’s Hitwise (their weekly online trends page is hilarious sometime; do you know that the number three search term this week is “pawn stars wedding” — more on that later) have developed sophisticated tools to gather those analytics and to sell them. Google Analytics does that as well.

For those of us who work in more traditional broadcast — like television — Nielsen has long been the top company for the gathering of television viewer data. There is all kinds of urban folklore about people who have those infamous “Nielsen boxes” or fill out “Nielsen diaries” which report viewing data to the company.

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Do We Really Want To OWN Our Media?

7 04 2012
I spent some time, this morning, at the TRANSMEDIA:HOLLYWOOD conference, which is a joint conference between USC and UCLA now in its third year.

Transmedia (which you can read about on Henry Jenkins’ blog or on Wikipedia — since Jenkins is the man who came up with the term you might want to start there) is basically the idea that you can create a world with many different stories coming from it — and that those stories can exist in all sorts of media.  Films and television are only two of them, but if you think about having the characters in those works also tweeting as if they were real, or exploring other characters from those worlds in a graphic novel or short story, or any of a dozen other forms of media (think songs, think fan fiction, and then keep thinking).  I have been telling anyone who will listen that transmedia storytelling is the way that we’re going to survive in the future media/content creation world.  Wouldn’t it be cool if we could present ourselves, not as editors of films, but as editors of the XYZ franchise?  Yep, I know the world and the characters in XYZ world so well, that you want to hire me for all of the manifestations of that world.  The same with writers, directors, actors, etc.

So the conference was interesting. But something that one of the participants said really piqued my interest. Jennifer Holt, who was the sole academic on the panel and who runs the Media Industries Project at UC Santa Barbara, said the following fascinating thing. “People don’t want to own media anymore.” People, she said, want to view (and, I assume, rent), not own.

This flies in the face of the prevailing wisdom of only two years ago, which said that people wanted to hold onto their media, that they would rather download music and films than stream them. But that is clearly no longer the case.  I prefer to listen to music on Spotify, rather than download it to my iTunes library. I prefer to watch movies on Netflix rather than buy the DVD or download. So it’s not only physical media that is dying, but bits and bytes on my drives.  Yeah, I like to download things on occasion, or for my classroom use, but I confess that I’m an outlier. The DVD of Matrix that I lent my daughter is still sitting in her internal DVD drive.  Not only does that mean that I don’t need it to watch, but it also means that she doesn’t have the need of her DVD drive. Mix CDs are gone.  Playlists are in.

And, old industry distribution models — buh bye.

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3D Finally Catches A Break

21 02 2012

And So Do The Studios

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the United States government (thank you Joe Biden) and the Chinese government (thank you Xi Jinping) have signed an agreement that allows more American/Hollywood made films to enter the Chinese distribution market.

And makers of big, stereoscopic blockbusters are to thrilled that I can hear their cheers all the way up at my house (which isn’t far from the studios, but still….).

So, what do I mean by this.

I’d be hard pressed to name more than three people over the age of 23 who really care enough about 3D to actually pay the extra money to go see a movie in stereoscopic. Hell, I don’t even think most of my students care that much about it.

Sure, it’s really cool to watch Jar Jar Binks coming straight at you but, honestly, do you know anyone who wasn’t a STAR WARS fan who went to see the re-release of Episode 1?  The second weekend boxoffice dropped off almost 65% from the first weekend.  Hell, it couldn’t even beat the Journey sequel in it’s second week. 3D probably didn’t bring in any more people than a 2D release of it would have.

Ultimately, 3D isn’t that big a selling point here in the U.S., especially when you add in the surcharges, and popcorn, and all of the red wine you’ll need to drink to get through it. And you may soon be charged extra for those fantastic 3D glasses!

In fact, I know more people who will avoid a movie in 3D (not just my wife, though she’s pretty vocal on this topic) because they don’t like the whole experience.  The glasses aren’t comfortable.  It hurts when I move my head around. I get tired more quickly.

Etcetera and etcetera.

So, it’s getting harder to justify the additional expense that a 3D movie costs in production and post production (a flawed white paper, from White Creek Productions, claims an increase of 18%, but fails to take into account the almost doubling of costs in the Digital Intermediate and VFX creation processes).  When COWBOYS & ALIENS investigated the additional costs, additional shooting and re-lensing time, and compared those costs to any added benefits in the storytelling they decided to shoot in 2D.

Now, I don’t want to add any noise to the pointless argument about whether 3D is a fad, or whether it is here to stay.  But I think that it’s fair to say that it’s worrying the hell out of the studios, which was just settling into the idea that they had the next new technology box office enticement, and one that was very difficult to pirate.

And then they got hit with the train that is box office reality.

Which gets me back to the news about China.

I’ve been to China several times.  The last time, in Beijing, I hung out for a few hours at one of the new facilities for posting stereoscopic films.  We chatted about all of the same things that I would chat about at a post facility here in Los Angeles.

In other words, they are just as forward tech savvy as we are here.  And they are doing some really cool things with 3D.  But they are expanding their 3D theaters rapidly — for major theatrical distribution as well as government and other uses. In fact, they’ve got more screens than they’ve got content.

Which is where the major studios come in.

We’d love to get deeper into the Chinese market, but they’ve got this pesky rule that they only take 20 non-Chinese films per year.  20 for the whole world.  That doesn’t leave much room for Mission Impossible, Transformers, Star Wars, and all of those pesky European films that most citizens of the world like to see. And China definitely would like to see their own industry expand.  That isn’t going to happen if Mission Impossible, Transformers, Star Wars, and all of those pesky European films that most citizens of the world like to see, are clogging up the cinemas.

So, they’re sticking to the 20 film limit.

Now, American movie companies have started to expand into the Chinese market by creating co-productions with Chinese companies.  Those films become Chinese films, and don’t fall under the 20 film rule. But American companies can only take 13% of the box office receipts out of China.

That’s a problem too.

So, the awesome news for American companies is that this new deal creates a separate category of films that are less prevalent in China right now — Imax and 3D films — and allows 14 more of them per year. Considering that most 3D films are from the major studios right now, this is a huge boon for them.  And, since the deal also raises the amount of money that the studios can take out of the country to 25%, there is now a huge incentive for American companies to create 3D films.

Only 3D films.

Considering that, according to that article in the New York Times, Chinese box office is now $2.1 billion and expected to more than double that by 2015, this is a great deal for the studios. 25% of a potential boxoffice of $300 or $400 million is $100 million dollars.  And they’ve got the territory sewn up. No pesky Weinstein Company films tripping over their release dates.

So the pressure to make a film in 3D just went up five-fold. If you’re looking at an additional $15 million to make a film in 3D, with an upside of $100 million, that’s pretty much a no brainer.  Take THAT Jon Favreau! Take that Chris Nolan!  We’re talking stereoscopic for your next films — at least if the studio that’s releasing them wants to get into the Chinese market. And, who doesn’t nowadays?

The New York Times says this is a boon for the makers of big budget sci-fi spectaculars.  They’re right, of course (can’t wait to see Baz Luhrman’s GREAT GATSBY in 3D, though.  No wait, I’m lying about that.), but the biggest winners in this are the major studios making those big budget spectaculars.  The mid-level and indie filmmakers are going to have to cede the Chinese market for now.

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Why Jobs’ Intro of the new Apple TV is Bull

8 09 2010

Sue Huang USC Presentation conclusion

I’m not saying that the Apple TV is bull, mind you. I’m talking about one or two of the points in the presentation.

But let me backtrack for a second. You’re going to have to bear with me for several paragraphs here, as I meander to my point.

It all started earlier tonight when I was down at USC (the University of Southern  California, for those of you who aren’t sure) watching a fascinating presentation by artist Sue Huang of the collective knifeandfork, which is doing some really fascinating interactive installation pieces which are site and audience specific.

Huang was showing samples of her work and discussing her influences using a PowerPoint (nope, not Keynote, but what are you going  to do?) presentation.  At the end, running out of time, she quickly put up a number of slides which discussed the various roles that different factors played in their work. One of them, at the left, was the “Role of the Audience” which was fascinating and very dense.  I reached for my iPhone (I was taking notes on it) and snapped the picture you see.

Now that I’m back home I can check out what I didn’t have time to read then.

Pretty obvious, right?  Pretty easy, right?

Well, then, why was the woman four people to my left frantically typing away on her iPad, taking the notes so she could read them at home?  My guess is because the freakin’ iPad doesn’t have a camera in it! I’m sure that some day that God-like device will have a camera in it — and then I’ll buy one — but for now, it’s one of the many things that it doesn’t have. Why? Because Apple decided that the public didn’t want a camera on this sleek, incredible, God-given device.

Uh, right. It would  look stupid, holding an iPad up to take pictures of Mom, Dad and your dog. Correct?

So, let’s leap back a few days. Last week, Steve Jobs introduced the new Apple TV (see this MacRumors report, one of about eight zillion stories written about it) by saying that they had listened to what their customers had said they wanted and they didn’t want. They wanted “Hollywood movies and TV shows whenever they want them.” – check!  Makes sense. They wanted “everything in HD” — uh,  okay.  Check, maybe.  My Mom still can’t tell the difference between SD and HD, but let’s give this one to Steve since given a choice, everyone wants something better quality, so long as they don’t have to pay for it.

What else?  “They like to pay lower prices for content.” - check!  Makes sense.  Cheap is better than expensive.  So, score another one for the Steverino.

Next two? “They don’t want a computer on their TV.” and “They don’t want to manage storage.” — check.  We don’t like things that are complex. I get that. (though one could argue that people do rather well managing their music storage on something called iTunes, which Jobs managed to introduce a new version of just twenty minutes earlier). So what did Apple do?  They took out the hard drive and made the device completely streaming. Check!  Makes sense .. uh no. Wait a minute.

Wait a minute.

I get the “no hard drive” part. It makes it too much like a computer. And people don’t want that, right?

Maybe. But let’s phrase the question differently. Would you like to watch anything that you have on your hard drive, whenever you want to? I’ll bet you do. And you’d  like to watch things that might not be available from the few partners that Apple has lined up for the Apple TV, right?  You might like to watch something from the Net that isn’t on YouTube or Netflix, wouldn’t you? I bet you would.  But Steve Jobs doesn’t think so. If it ain’t on Netflix, YouTube, your MobileMe account (hah!) or Flickr, then you’d better stream it over their own proprietary Airplay connection from your computer.

Wait a minute!  Your computer!?  The one with a hard drive in it? Doesn’t that make it hard?

So, what’s my point here?  It’s easy to knock any shipping product for what it doesn’t have.  Almost every product has things missing that would be on your “Must Have” list.  That’s  simply a reality of the design process. You need to compromise. But the desire to dress up these missing items in a ball gown and call them God’s gift to Prince Charming is  laughable.

In fact, it’s almost as laughable as filmmakers that I’ve seen look out at an audience that fails to laugh at a joke that has been planted in a film, and chalk it up to audience stupidity. Just as it’s easy to tell everybody that they should run out and see CATS AND DOGS IV because it’s in 3D!! Because you really really want 3D, don’t you?

It’s very easy in our business (as well as technology, I suppose) to get caught up in our thoughts, reactions and desires and ascribe them to everybody. If we feel that something is necessary, than everybody must feel that way, right?

One of the greatest talents that a filmmaker can possess is the ability to step outside of his or her own reality and question themselves. It’s hard, and it’s rare as a result.

“They don’t want to sync to a computer.”

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Just What Can Movie Theaters Charge? And how that’s good for indies.

6 08 2010

A recent article on THE WRAP discusses the very obvious downturn in box office for 3D films. This (they say) doesn’t prove that 3D is a fad but that “not every movie should be in 3D.”

While it’s easy to make broad generalizations based on very little evidence (hell, that’s what I do here, right?), it’s actually much more nuanced than that.

We’ll see what happens to STEP UP 3D this weekend, but we are clearly in the early stages of 3D adoption. I’m inherently skeptical that 3D is ever going to take over the film, tv and web content world, but I’m also waiting to see what will happen to movie 3D if television 3D becomes more popular. Once we become used to 3D on TV, will that make it a requirement in theaters, or will it simply cheapen the concept?

But it was a different sentence entirely that woke me up from this ongoing, every-present, 3D/2D discussion.

Speaking of Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, the article says:

He also thinks exhibitors will have to move away from its age-old, one-size-fits-all pricing model.

“For the first time in a long time, I think you’re going to see some adjustment on that,” he added.

One of the things that may be damaging 3D admissions right now is the three to five dollar admission price premium that theaters are tacking onto their normal ticket prices. While that’s fine for a cool event film, it’s probably going to mean the difference between a Yea or a Nay for a family of five deciding whether to see a film on a weekend. Think about it — with three kids, you’re already laying out over 50 bucks for tickets and another 30 or 40 for food. That’s about $100 before you even think about 3D. Add another 15 to 20 bucks for that incredible stereoscopic experience in CATS AND DOGS and you’ll probably get as many people saying “Nah, I heard that the film wasn’t so good” as say “It’s worth it just to shut the kids up for two hours.”

But Katzenberg’s point is well-taken. We expect that first class air flight is going to cost more than economy. We know that putting premium gas in our tanks will cost us more than regular. Don’t we? Why should we expect that every seat, in every theater in a multiplex, for every movie, will cost the same amount. It’s long been accepted that people going to see the less popular matinee performances of a film will pay less.  Isn’t that just another way of saying that people going to evening films will pay more? If that’s the case, why shouldn’t people who decide not to put on the 3D glasses pay less than those who do?

The key here would be to create a sliding scale for films that better reflects the demand for that experience. Would you pay 15 bucks to see the next HARRY POTTER film?  Perhaps, if you can guarantee me that I won’t have to pay anything more than 9 or 10 bucks to see the latest Nicole Holofcener film. I’m not saying this because PLEASE GIVE isn’t as good a film as the 58th film about Hogwarts School of Magic, but because fewer people want to see it. Think about it — this could be great for small indie films. Incentivise people to see indie films in a theater. Make it cheap to see them on a Wednesday night in a smaller theater without 3D. Make it a great alternative on Saturday night to the 3D/super Dolby-ized, VFX-heavy/big theater Potter and Snape. Then give me the opportunity to upgrade my indie ticket with comfier seats, reserved seats and better placement in the theater.  I’m there for you baby!

I’m not talking about ghetto-izing these films. The success of the Laemmle or Arclight style experience (with comfortable seats, good food and advanced seat reservations) proves that people will pay for value. But your definition of value is almost certainly different than mine. And the next person’s. If lower ticket prices are more important to you than comfy seats, then you should be given the opportunity to act on that. But once you leave behind the idea of one ticket price for every seat in a theater, then you’ve really freed yourself up for some great opportunities to bring people into the theaters, as opposed to driving them away.

The tricky thing here will be to avoid having theater owners gouge their patrons, and to avoid having film distributors gouging theater owners. One valuable service that the defunct, though not lamented, Hollywood Stock Exchange gave was a number which roughly correlated with people’s desire to see a film. AOL’s Moviefone provides similar data. This doesn’t mean that those numbers are always right, but they do lead the way to a pricing model that studios would have to take into account in order for theaters to price their tickets on a sliding scale.

In a world where theaters are competing with the Net for viewers, taking a cue from the web and letting viewers pay for content that they want might not be such a bad idea.

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A Great Example of Crowd Sourcing

24 08 2009

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s a great example of a crowd sourced music video which popped up on the web at the beginning of the summer. I meant to mention it then but… I don’t know… life intervened.

Shot for the Japanese band Sour’s song “Hibi no Neiro” (which means something like “Everyday Tone”) this is a great example of how you can make something incredibly creative with very little money and involve your fans in the process. Their fans are much more likely to be involved and support Sour after something like this.

SOUR ‘日々の音色 (Hibi no neiro)’

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How to Make a Bad Thing Even Badder — The Oscars and Transformers

24 06 2009

I just had a conversation with someone last night about going to awards shows. Though I AM a member of AMPAS — the Academy of Motion  Picture Arts and Sciences that hands out the Oscars, I can think of nothing that would be so boring as to actually attend the Oscar awards. Frankly, if I can’t be shouting at the screen at how stupid the result is, or how ugly a dress is, or how moronic a dance produciton number is — well, then, what’s the point of watching the show as opposed to simply reading about it on the web?

Not all shows are like that, of course. When I look at the Golden Globes, where people are drinking wine before, during and after the ceremony, that looks like a damned fine awards show. The A.C.E. Eddie Awards isn’t as free-flowing with the vino, but comes equipped with food and desserts.

But the Oscars are you father’s awards show. And they wear that tedium proudly (and I say that as a proud and happy member of AMPAS, who has attended many events there and serves on a committee or two when asked).

Now, with a set of cojones that staggers me, the Academy has announced that the Oscars will expand the best picture race to 10 films. Citing history (apparently that category “usually spanned 10 films” back between 1932 and 1943, according to Daily Variety), President Sid Ganis was quoted:

“After more than six decades, the Academy is returning to some of its earlier roots, when a wider field competed for the top award of the year,” said academy President Sid Ganis. “The final outcome, of course, will be the same – one Best Picture winner – but the race to the finish line will feature 10, not just five, great movies from 2009.”

Wow. Now we get to have our own Top Ten List. And fewer surprises, of course. And a larger pool of people spending money on “For Your Consideration” ads.  And more screenings and screeners.

And, I’m sure, a few more pictures by major studios in the list.  Which is, I’m sure, what is largely driving this change. After all, it is the major studios who most actively support the Academy during the year, and it must sorta kinda suck that they get so few movies nominated for Best Picture. It always seems to be those pesky indies who are stealing the nominations. Wouldn’t it be great, they must have thought, if we could make sure that we get some more of our movies into the nomination list.

But then they took at look at the films that they want to release and realized that the films that they do best are those that are guaranteed NOT to be liked by us (take a look at today’s major opening — TRANSFORMERS — if you’re looking for validation of that claim). “Hmmmm,” they must have said to their collective imaginary selves. “How can we beat that reality?

“I KNOW!!! Let’s have more films in the nomination list!!  And then, even if a few more indies sneak in there — at least we can get our usually horrible Oscar fodder in there as well.”

Voila, today’s announcement was born.

The biggest question that I have, of course, is whether that, with the clips and speeches, means that the Oscar show is going to be six hours long.

Or just feel that way.

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Brighter hopes for Digital Theaters

22 06 2009

The recent news that Sony and Regal Theaters reached an agreement to install 4K projectors at Regal Theaters, combined with Friday’s item that the German Federal Film Board (FFA) agreed to provide 40 million Euros (that’s over 55 million US type dollars) to help the digitization of German theaters, shows that the feature film world is finally beginning to get its digital film houses in order.

Of course, there is plenty of desperation in these measures, as well as a large dollop of politics (the FFA co-produces films, and Sony is one of the majors and mini-majors that is still standing). But as the panicked move into 3-D and IMAX shows, the distributors and exhibitors — who are often on opposite ends of the interest continuum when it comes to showing films — are both smelling the snapping dog of internet distribution behind them.

It’s not that 4K makes the films look much better than a typical HD projector. Of course, there are those who see the differences, but most filmgoers couldn’t tell the difference if the words “This Is Better” were flashed on screen during the 4K projection. But it’s that 4K fits into the present filmmaking workflow so much better when you start to look at the very gimmicks that could keep recalcitrant filmgoers in theater seats. The high-powered digital effects of Big Tentpole monstrosities like TRANSFORMERS are created in that high res.  Digital Intermediates are increasingly being done in 4K. 3-D begs for higher resolution in order to create lower cost distribution.

In short, 4K finally makes sense as a differentiator between the theater experience and your living room (even if you’ve got a nerdlike sound system and huge-screen television there). If you don’t have the story to bring them in, at least get the high-priced splash and, for now, that looks way better on a big screen with great sound and incredible effects of things blowing up. All things that the smaller-budgeted indie films and web-based projects can’t really deliver.

I’m not sure where this leaves a film like Woody Allen’s latest WHATEVER WORKS, which had a visual effects component that could barely fill up one screen’s worth in the end credits. But, after years of pooh-poohing 4K as a real possibility in theaters, I must say that I’m thinking that it could really happen. In this case, it’s not the audience that is clamoring for it. And it’s not solely the distributors, finally. It’s the entire chain — all the way to the exhibitors.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. Will it make the filmgoing experience more awesome? I doubt it. Will it make the filmmaking experience easier? I doubt it. Will it make the transition of films to all sorts of ancillary markets easier? Probably, by a hair’s breadth. I’m waiting to see if it does what the industry clearly wants it to — to bring more butts into the seats, and to make the entire process a little cheaper.

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Waiting for the Blu-Ray deluge

15 06 2009

I’ve been down this road before, but a recent announcement by Bruce Nazarian on Larry Jordan’s Digital Production Buzz perked my interest again.

Here’s the set-up:

  1. More than a year ago, Blu-Ray finally (after much payment of money to the various film distributors) triumphed over HD-DVD in the HD Format Wars. However the rush to adopt the format has been conspicuously slow.  We were told at first that this was because people had been holding up on buying players because of the war.
  2. Then the war was over and very few people ran to buy.
  3. Then we were told that it was because of the high price of the players and when they came down, in time for the 2008 Holiday Season, then all would be well.
  4. Then the player prices went down and sales went up — but not ferociously. (As of May 31, Blu-Ray accounts for only 12% of all DVD sales according to the most optimistic figures).  Accoring to the web site Blu-raystats, sales of Blu-Ray disks are up 81% from last year, which seems impressive on the face of it.  But when you consider that the number of Blu-Ray release is up 210%, that figure doesn’t look quite as good.
  5. At the same time, we were told that a huge impediment to adoption of Blu-Ray in the independent market was the high licensing fees for replicatable disks. Once those were licked, that group of content creators would leap onto the bandwagon.

Now the good news is that through Bruce’s (and the International Digital Media Alliance‘s) incredibly hard and diligent work, it appears that the most expensive of the two licensing organization for Blu-Ray — AACS — may finally be relenting. And that is great news for independent producers.  But I’m still not convinced that anyone cares enough to make this the straw that breaks the Standard Def DVD’s back. Even with the growth of large screen TVs.

Ask yourself this question. I’m going to assume that most of you reading this blog are interested in Content Creation in some way — either as filmmakers or film watchers. That puts you in a group of people who are Interested In Content. Now, out of this group, how many of you own a Blu-Ray player and regularaly purchase Blu-Ray disks.

Hell, let’s make the question even broader.  Out of all of you people, how many of you even know of someone who regularly purchases Blu-Ray content?

If that percentage doesn’t approach 50%, then Blu-Ray is dead.  If we can’t even get those of us interested i films to watch them on Blu-Ray, how are we going to convince the rest of the world.

This goes beyond the Current State of the Economy. As I’ve said before, the leap from VHS to DVD made a huge difference in terms of the visual and audio quality.  In fact, it made a big enough difference so that it passed the Mom Test — that is, even My Mom would notice. That, and market factors, eventually drove VHS out the window.

But, even with great big wall televisions, the difference between SD-DVDs and Hi Def Blu-Ray DVDs is just not that huge that my Mom would ever care or notice. Hell, my Mom hasn’t even bothered to use the component video outputs from her DVD player.  (“Nothin’ wrong with those cute red and white plugs, right?”) And it’s a pretty steep curve to get her to upgrade — both the hardware box and all of the movies that she’s accumulated over the years.

In short, the drive to move to Blu-Ray, with my strongest apologies to Bruce, is completely led by the studios — who are looking to give consumers a reason to re-purchase all of their already purchased content. This isn’t coming from the consumers (except for HD sports on television most of us couldn’t give a damn) at all.  It’s not even coming from the producers, directors, and cinematographers of the world. Nope, this is almost completely market driven.

Which means that, for now, those of us who love HD content would rather download it over the Internet then go through the upgrade path. The Future of Blu-Ray may be Broadband.

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Internet Meming — It’s Chilly Out There

10 06 2009

Heads in Freezers and In The Internet

If you do a search on the word “memes” over in the search box over to the right, you’ll see that I’ve spent more than a few postings talking about how memes spread on the web, including this absolutely hilarious South Park episode which had all of the Net Celebs in a fight to the death with each other. Now you can watch one evolve before your eyes with the tag 241543903.

This is a consciously created attempt to create a viral web moment, something which has been eluding marketeers for several years. People are asked to take a picture of themselves with their head in their freezer and tag it with the number 241543903 when they post it to the web.  There are over 300 of these pictures on flickr alone. There is also a web page devoted to the phenomenon of these pictures, which have moved onto YouTube as well.

Now, how cool is that?

Except, it may not be cool at all.  The web site owners, and starters of this meme, are so conscious of the viral nature of what they hoping to achieve that they’ve even been taking polls on when readers think the phenomenon will hit the mainstream media and which major network will break it first (Fox beats CNN more than 2 to 1 and no one mentions print media at all).

The point for me is this. For years, mems like “the Star Wars kid” and the “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” sprung up on their own and attempts by the people like the Numa Numa Guy or the “Leave Brittney Alone” weirdo to duplicate their success have been death-defyingly unsuccessful. No one has been able to package a formula for success (though you might argue that the “You Suck At Photoshop” guys came close) though everyone’s been trying. Even the second iteration of “Where In The Hell Is Matt?” failed to catch the Web Consciousness in the same way.

Now, the company behind 241543903, Toscana Enterprises Corporation (a “traditional business consulting outfit” which does “strategy and branding consulting”) has decided to try out this approach — which involves coming up with a silly idea and seeding it in a lot of places. Then they stoke the fires by providing polls (read “even more user-generated content”), as well as a central location to make things easier. It remains to be seen if this is any more replicatable than the other engineered attempts.

The key to viral mems is that they are unexpected. Part of the joy is discovering something, deep in the recesses of the web, and spreading it around to your friends – in much the same way that water cooler talk worked pre-Internet. Marketing companies tried mightily to influenced what people talked about on their coffee breaks then, and it had varying levels of success. The fantastic thing about public perception of marketing is that it resents being manipuated. Of course, we (in the media) are all about manipulating the audience — it’s how we get them to laugh or cry at our projects. But manipulation only works if the audience doesn’t feel the overt hand doing it.

Now here’s a poll for you — how many of you have even heard of 241543903?  How many of you were interested in it?  And how many of you changed your level of interest after I told you who was behind it?

And that’s what I’m talking about, when I talk about viral.

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