Saturday, August 21, 2010

Lather, rinse, repeat...the right model for webcasting?

Continuing with my webcasting theme for this weekend, there are many different ways to do webcasting (and, for that matter, video on the web in general.) One approach is the talk show, done over and over with different hosts and different subject matter. One of the first people who pursued this model successfully is Leo Laporte. Laporte, a TechTV alumnus, started a podcast called "This Week in Technology", or TWiT. Eventually, he produced additional podcasts, and then started webcasting them. At first, he did occasional video versions, but he subsequently turned his Petaluma, CA ("Home of the World Wrist Wrestling Championship") farm into a video production center where he produces around 15 webcasts, most on a weekly basis. His TWiT Webcast Network is funded by advertising and contributions; Laporte pays his own salary from the contributions (he also hosts radio and television shows for commercial broadcasters and cable networks), and uses the advertising revenue to pay for everything else.

Following TWiT came Revision3, founded by Kevin Rose, Jay Adelson and David Prager in 2005. Rose, another TechTV alumnus, cofounded the digg website with Adelson, and on the side, Rose and Alex Albrecht (yet another TechTV refugee) started a podcast and webcast about digg called Diggnation. The success of that show led Rose, Adelson and David Prager (he worked at TechTV as well) to found Revision3. The company has close to 20 shows, most of which are produced weekly in Revision3's studios in San Francisco. Like TWiT, Revision3 is funded by advertising, and it also sells branded merchandise.

The latest entry into this field is "This Week In...", owned and run by Jason Calacanis. If "This Week In..." sounds familiar, it should. Calacanis, a frequent guest on TWiT Network shows, purchased the "thisweekin.com" domain name and set up a very similar webcasting network to TWiT, which caused confusion on the part of the audience and a good deal of animosity between Laporte and Calacanis. This Week In produces 19 webcasts, the most popular of which is "Kevin Pollock's Chat Show," a weekly talk show hosted by actor and comedian Kevin Pollock. This Week In is advertising-funded.

All three networks have a number of things in common:
  • While all three networks have shows with female hosts and shows targeting women, most of their shows are male- and technology-focused (which makes sense, given that the founders of two of the three networks came from TechTV, a strongly male- and technology-focused cable network.)
  • Their production values are very much on the basic side: TWiT's shows are shot in Laporte's combination studio/control room, and This Week In's shows look like they're all shot on Charlie Rose's set when Rose isn't around. Revision3 uses a TV news set metaphor, and goes for a little more color and outside-the-studio production than the other two.
  • The shows tend to be overly long, meandering and often light on content. Webcasts have no schedule and no time limits, but schedules and time limits force producers to tighten shows and get to the point. It's asking a lot to expect viewers to watch these shows for more than an hour (or even more than two hours, as a "Kevin Pollock's Chat Show" with Seth MacFarlane ran earlier this year.)

The business model behind these networks is quantity over quality: TWiT, Revision3 and This Week In know that most of their shows will get small audiences at best. They plan on a few of their shows getting large audiences (at least for webcasting), and that the appeal of those shows will allow them to sell advertising across their entire schedule of webcasts, generating more revenues, even at a lower CPM. With a large schedule of webcasts, they also hope to have the option of selling out to a bigger media company, as Calacanis did when he sold Weblogs, Inc, a service that published Engadget, Autoblog and several other blogs, to AOL.

I question whether this is really a viable long-term strategy. It's similar to the 24-hour cable news networks, whose audiences pale in comparison with those of entertainment-oriented cable networks, even though they have distribution into tens of millions of U.S. homes. They have to put something on the air 24 hours a day, but very few people are watching most of the time.

I'd like to see someone do fewer but better, more tightly produced shows that are a better use of the audience's time. Could a webcasting network build a viable business with just a few good, well-produced shows? Would really compelling shows increase audiences and eliminate the need for a bunch of "filler" shows? It seems like a reasonable alternative.
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