Once again the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival provides an opportunity to see how the tectonic plates are shifting as old and new media rub up against each other. Are there fractures along the fault lines or have things stabilised? Kevin Spacey, the first actor to give the annual MacTaggart Lecture, was there to talk about his experience with Netflix. This annual television institution may still be sponsored by The Guardian, but as Brent MacGregor reports, beneath the headline is the telling strapline: ‘Powered by YouTube’.
The now familiar new media strand, a kind of fringe within the festival, started early on the first morning. ‘Engaging with Fans: YouTube and the Television Sector’ came direct from the newer of the sponsors. A quick poll of audience at the session showed that virtually all were YouTube users and there was certainly none of prejudice or hostility sometimes seen in the past when the new kids on the block are invited to strut their stuff.
It began with an old fashioned pitch for Content ID, the system that allows YouTube to identify uploaded media including copyright content and apply policies specified by rights holders.
Reassured that YouTube had rights management issues sorted, delegates were shown examples of programme makers using YouTube to grow their audience. Ellen De Generis’ talk show was able to improve its demographic by the simple expedient of inviting edgy young YouTube stars to be on the programme, while late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel’s producers invite viewers to post videos which are then incorporated in the programme. Some of Kimmel’s YouTube challenges have had up to 27 million views and, crucially, the audience for the network programme is up 24%.
Given that 70% of YouTube users are outside the United States, formats can get a worldwide showcase simply by fans posting clips. Delgates were told that there is clear evidence of international sales as a result of fan postings and the resulting viral buzz leading to overseas purchases of formats.
As well as the ability to cross promote and extend brands of traditional output, YouTube has its own homegrown phenomena. Actress and self-styled geek Felicia Day, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and several Hollywood films, has her own premium channel Geeks and Sundry. While her subscribers number in the hundreds of thousands rather the millions, they are ‘the lost boys’, a hard to find young male demographic who have deserted traditional media.
King of them all, however, is Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, a 23 year-old Swede, better known as PewDiePie whose YouTube channel is the most viewed of all with over 12.3 subscribers. Only time will tell if any of these YouTube stars will cross over. Indeed there is traffic in the other direction. YouTube has advanced revenue (not quite the same as commissioning they say) to set up Jamie Oliver’s Food Tube with its own potential new star, DJ BBQ.
The BBC Academy offered a truly public service session entitled ‘Online and Social Media in TV,’ without mentioning any specific brands. Here the lesson for programme makers was that social media and online presence need to be ‘baked into the format’ of a programme and to speak in its voice. Downton Abbey was given as a model, as was Dr Who, which maintains fan attention even when the series is off the air. The advice was to avoid expensive bespoke apps or silly games and to rely on Facebook and Twitter as a default. Small indies who might struggle were advised to seek partners in reaching the 24 million users a day of Facebook in the United Kingdom.
At the television festival the previous year, a Netflix executive told delegates how his company used “taste based algorithms” to develop original programming for online subscription viewing. Ted Shandros tipped their forthcoming House of Cards as a new hit built on a new model. This year its star was fêted and its example universally admired.
Kevin Spacey’s MacTaggart Lecture avoided the warnings of the last two years. Instead of the admonitions we had from both Eric Schmidt and Elisabeth Murdoch, Spacey was accepting and approving:
“If you are watching a film on your television, is it no longer a film because you’re not watching it in the theatre? If you watch a TV show on your iPad is it no longer a TV show? The device and length are irrelevant,” he said. “The labels are useless — except perhaps to agents and managers and lawyers who use these labels to conduct business deals. For kids growing up now there’s no difference watching Avatar on an iPad or watching YouTube on a TV and watching Game of Thrones on their computer. It’s all content. It’s all story.”
Let the talent flourish and all else follows was the line of the first actor to speak from the McTaggart podium. Television is in a new golden age, aided, not hindered, by the new distribution possibilities.
Recounting his experience of pitching the remake of House of Cards he said all the American television networks wanted a pilot. “Netflix was the only network that said: ‘We believe in you. We’ve run our data and it tells us our audience would watch this series. We don’t need you to do a pilot. How many episodes do you want to do?'”
By comparison, he said, last year 113 pilots were made, 35 of those went to air, 13 were renewed and there are not many of those left. This year, 146 pilots were shot, 56 have gone to series and we do not know the outcome of those yet. The cost of these pilots is around 300-400 million dollars a year.
He said the Netflix model of releasing the entire season of House of Cards at once has proved one thing — the audience wants control. “The challenge is can we create an environment where executives, those who live in data and numbers, are emboldened and empowered to take risks, experiment and be prepared to fail by aiming higher rather than playing safe?”
The morning after the opening party, bad tempers were on display at the session on Big Data. More than a little scepticism came from television folk: What was it? How was it different from BARB panel data? What were examples of using it to make editorial or creative decisions? To be fair, aside from some generalisations about the shopping habits of Tesco Club Card holders, there was no meat. It might have been interesting to hear from Netflix what data it used to decide to recommission Hemlock Grove when conventional wisdom would have killed it off, or to hear what precise data they used to decide to green light House of Cards.
Certainly it was good to see what is happening around the edges of traditional broadcast television, to celebrate a headline success from the new world in House of Cards which broadcasters could understand and relate to. It was important to be reminded that whatever the delivery technology, talent is crucial. Television can be easily promoted using social media and content developed, researched and distributed online but good ideas and raw talent will always be needed.
Highlights of the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, including Kevin Spacey’s speech, are available on YouTube.