Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Nerdout: My Thoughts on Digital Convergence

Do we fancy a nerdy post? Good. This one is about...

YouTube vs the Traditional Broadcaster Model

I spend more time on YT than any other website at the moment because my day job is currently working in digital video for a big fashion brand. Previously I worked in high-end drama production for UK broadcasters and I never thought digital video was a side of the industry I'd experience. It wasn't that I'd ever ruled it out, it just simply hadn't occurred to me. I wanted to work in TV - not online.

Except that boundary is now blurred almost to the point of non-existence. Confession: I don't even own a television. I watch everything via my laptop on catch-up services and I expect this is now the case for most people. Why? Because living life according to the TV schedule is inconvenient and we want more choice over what we view.

YT is the extension of this - you can view clips from your favourite TV shows without having to endure the whole episode. Whether you're looking for that epic Friends quote, that particularly funny Jimmy Fallon sketch or the moment Ryan Gosling is topless in Crazy Stupid Love, YT provides.

To younger generations, YT is to them what after-school television was to us. They go home and catch up with their favourite vloggers; Zoella and Jim Chapman are their Fearne Cotton and Reggie Yates (feeling old yet?).

To others, YT is a handy distraction from our desks, the place for breaking news, where we find the weirdest and most mind-boggling video content and where we can laugh at freaks who think they can sing. It is all at once a music channel, a sketch show, a talent show, a makeover show, drama, documentary and uber reality.

YT would be great just for this but what makes it even better is the control it gives its viewers. Imagine having the power to upload a video to BBC 1 or Comedy Central? YT gives its audience the platform and tools to create their own audiences. The result (and the reason I love and consume so much there) is a great reproduction and transformation of culture. Game of Thrones honest trailer? Nikki Minage Anaconda farting remix? Yes please.

Nothing in the media is safe from a YT dissection and re-assembly by the masses. It's wonderful.

And then of course there are the those who create wholly original content just for YT. I can appreciate what a lot of vloggers do and while I have never been one to subscribe, I do watch their evolution with curiosity. There was recently an article criticising queen of YT Zoella for being a bad role-model for children and anti-feminist; I would argue in her defense - if a successful young businesswoman is making money without twerking or taking her clothes off, I think that's the kind of girl I'd want my daughters watching. 

But aside from the vloggers, YT is a platform for filmmakers like myself who want to share their work. The more professional version of this is Vimeo, where you can watch quality animations, documentaries, dramas (and endless showreels). How, I then wondered, is Vimeo really that different from Netflix? Apart from budget, the only thing separating the two is commissioners and how much control they exude over their content. 

If we think about online viewing, all websites can be placed on a scale of regulation:

  1. YouTube - almost no regulation (a good and a bad thing)
  2. Vimeo - regulated more by its reputation and niche appeal than by its controllers
  3. Amazon Studios - invites pitches to be voted for by the public, for a chance at commission
  4. Netflix - acquisition-based and original commissions only, but seeking more content by independents
  5. ITV Player - all shows commissioned by ITV and funded by advertisers, regulated by Ofcom
  6. BBC iPlayer - PBS (public service broadcaster) funded by the television license. All content is commissioned and heavily regulated in accordance with Ofcom and the government's guidelines, as well as the public's expectations/sensibilities

It is strange to place YouTube and iPlayer on the same scale because my brain had previously put them in two separate compartments - like the fortress that is the Friend-Zone, these mental compartment walls are hard to bring down. But as a filmmaker, it's quite encouraging to view them as one and the same; after all, you can get more hits on a YT video than a large percentage of the stuff on iPlayer will achieve. The internet has reduced the hold over audiences and given the choice back to us. If there's nothing catching my eye on iPlayer (sadly a frequent occurrence at the moment) I can go to YouTube and find an outrageous documentary on the worst prisons in the world. 

Another YT phenomena I'm watching with interest is Vice. Described as “exploring hard truths and going to places we don’t belong” they are setting themselves up as the new braver, bolder news channel, and very cleverly. If you watch their news you aren't being read to by middle-class people (of carefully ratio'd race and gender) in suits, you’re brought out into the middle of it. Their daily update video is titled “Beyond the Headlines”, an effective "grass is blacker on the other side" promise. This coupled with YT’s lack of regulation makes you feel like you are watching more authentic, less sensationalised and politically skewed news (how true this impression is remains to be seen). 

Has anyone caught Vices TV spot (and Zoella's for that matter)? How weird is it that YT channels are being advertised on television? It's about as odd as Channel 4 showing an Eastenders teaser. I wonder how many millenials (a new word Ive learnt, to describe
those born and brought up in the 21st Century, with no memory of life before the internet) are choosing YT over television? Are the traditional broadcasters worried?

BBC 3 is moving permanently online due to poor viewing figures; at the time this was announced I hung my head in resignation - Just get some better content, you numpties! But the more I look at it the more I think its a good move and a bold one (for the old fogies at the Beeb, at least). Whats more, BBC3s commissioner is looking for new content to fill this online channel and this may, fingers crossed, result in some fresh ideas.

So anyway readers, if theres any of you left by this point, I began writing this because I was thinking of ways of applying what Ive learnt about YT and digital content to my career. I have been converted to the idea that online video platforms are the future and its not something to be scared of – I embrace it. Because what it means is further breaking down of boundaries between us - the producers/writers/directors - and our audiences.

Television has become too predictable; in the broadcasters determination to filter and show only high quality, they have built their walls too high for originality to break through. The result, by beautiful irony, is a loss of quality content from our TV screens. While there are TV shows I remain very loyal to and the occasional gem of a new drama or beloved comedy series, the majority of things broadcasters are trying to force into my eyeballs is fact-ent-scripted-reality-hybrid bollocks. Im tired of seeing it and Im tired of the job market being dominated by them.

At the other end of the scale, YT is a completely free space where talent has grown like bacteria (some good and some bad), unhindered by rules, budgets and stuffy execs. Whats more, the savvy millennial audience sees past the gloss of the telebox and is searching more relatable, attainable and authentic viewing. So maybe its time I jumped ship completely? Because the way things are going television, YouTube and online viewing will all become one big monster eventually anyway.