Follow the Leader
Has Austin's ON Networks found the golden formula for the new media age?
In this occasional series on the subject, local media makers who are working the new media landscape – even as they help define it – will be profiled, showing how they are making their mark and what they provide and perhaps along the way offering a glimpse of how the new media landscape may operate, Austin-style.
No one can deny that the media climate is changing: from old media to new media, from traditional to nontraditional, from content viewed on static, stand-alone hardware to content accessible on portable devices. For media consumers, it's an exciting, if somewhat bewildering, time. More so if you're trying to stay on top of things and explain it to others because honestly, it's easier to sit back and watch the media mosaic shift and spin and bloom and wait for that moment when it finally settles. But it doesn't look like that's going to happen any time soon.
When it comes to old media vs. new media, making distinctions and especially trying to predict when the divide will blur, a follower of TVWeek columnist Daisy Whitney may have said it best when he wrote, "As long as there's a distinction between analog dollars and digital pennies, there's going to be a divide." Another reader weighed in, saying: "It's all media. Their differences may be in financial models and accessibility, but those lines are converging. We have seen new media content distributed via old media and old media moving into new-media territory. Ideally, both adopt the best of the other and we move forward into 21st century media." When you add to that consumer appetite for content and what they will (and will not) do to get it – spending money on hardware, yes; spending money on content (except for some high-profile computer games), not so much – the changes in the media world are more agitated than ever before.
For media producers, it's something of a brave new world – get your camera, make your content, put it out there, and become a media sensation! Sure, it's all fun and cool, but when there's no return on your investment (save for a few "thumbs up" responses on Facebook, a couple hundred hits on YouTube, or maybe a mention in someone's blog), it soon becomes clear that the ability to "monetize" – i.e., make some money or at least compensate for the time spent – is still the one thing that everyone, from the old-media moguls to the new-media mavens, is still trying to discover. So what exactly is the golden formula for making new media pay?
Launched in 2006 with venture capital from Accel Partners, Austin Ventures, AT&T, and S3 Ventures, Austin-based ON Networks has quickly risen to the top of many media watchers' lists as a company that is building the bridge to the new-media world while using some tools from the old. Co-founded by Jen Grogono and Kip McClanahan, ON Networks has created a distribution model that keeps in mind that viewers are not stationary, devices (as of yet) do not talk to one another, and viewers are bombarded with content, or as Grogono likes to say, "Viewers have a wealth of choices and a poverty of attention." It only takes a few seconds to know if something is going to hold a viewer's interest before he or she clicks off (and on to something else). And most importantly, at least from the media industry standpoint, ON Networks can monitor viewer response and engagement much more directly and discretely than, say, the standard Nielsen Ratings.
"Much of our thinking is centered on matching content with the lean-forward, active behavior of an on-demand, digital video viewer. We refer to TV couch viewing as a more lean-backward, passive experience, though with the DVR even that's changing," says Grogono.
This is important information for those who want to sink dollars into content development. Think all that content you're streaming is free? Think again. Someone is paying for it – whether it's that budding auteur who thinks that if you put it out there, so to speak, "they will come" or anything you find directly at ON Networks or carried through their distribution partners (Crackle, Hulu, iTunes, Verizon, AT&T, etc.). And for ON Networks, it's the sponsor who foots the bill.
"There is no such thing as free content," Grogono says. "Yet consumers don't expect to pay for their content. To make money, you have to be smarter to determine what the consumer wants. They are in control. Our job is to bring production teams and creatives to the table with the right advertisers to create content that appeals to the consumer."
Now if that sounds a little like the tail wagging the dog or worse – some evil plot at consumer mind control, perhaps? – relax. From the consumer perspective, what ON Networks has done is virtually invisible, which puts them at the vanguard of the media landscape. First off, they have created what they call an "AllScreen video distribution network." In lay terms, this means that after two years of diligent development, their stable of content is viewable on a wide variety of platforms by some 200 million viewers around the world. Secondly, they work very hard not to bludgeon viewers with the "brought to you by" message, the most obvious throwback to the old way of sponsorship.
"We want to engage viewers in subjects they care about," Grogono says. "It should be a consumer experience, not a brand experience."
For example, when one of ON Networks' most popular programs, Smart Girls at the Party (starring Amy Poehler of NBC's Parks and Recreation) first premiered last year (see "TV Eye," Nov. 21, 2008), the sponsorship by Barbie was hard to miss. In fact, it was so intrusive as to be annoying. Viewer feedback – direct comments from viewers on the site as well as research that took note when viewers clicked away – let ON Networks know it needed to make some changes so as not to repel viewers. (Barbie is no longer a sponsor but may return to support a second season, according to Grogono.)
Today, ON Networks has about 35 different programs, most no longer than 20 minutes. Most are lifestyle "infotainment"-type programs (see "Highlights From the ON Networks Show Reel," right), and four ON Networks programs were recognized as Best New Video Podcasts in 2008 by iTunes among the hundreds carried.
So has ON Networks discovered the golden formula for the new media age? Maybe yes, for the time being; of course, in the new media landscape, "the time being" can expire in the blink of an eye. As a leader among new-media mavens, ON Networks is keeping watch on what's happening around it, online and off. Grogono points out that paying for content may not be out of the question in the future. It depends on the circumstances and, again, what consumers need and want. Whichever way the trend bends, ON Networks is sure to know, follow, and more than likely lead the way.
Highlights From the ON Networks Show Reel:
Backpack Picnic: Sketch comedies that run the gamut from silly to absurd, with influences from Monty Python, The Kids in the Hall, and Mr. Show. Must-sees include "Meet the Rickies" and "Good News, Bad News." (See "Don't Everybody Panic, but Online Sketch Troupe Backpack Picnic Has Definitely Gone What They Call 'Viral' and Is Also About to Contaminate the Alamo Drafthouse," May 2, 2008.)
Comedy Insider: What does it take to make it in stand-up comedy? New York-based comedian Christian Thom takes viewers on a tour of the stand-up comedy scene from backstage. Comedy 101, producing shows, and who gets paid what are a few of the subjects covered. Strangely engaging even for those who prefer to be in the audience.
Sheltered: Every dog (and cat) has his day in this Central Texas-based series. Various shelter animals are featured, each with a story, each hoping for that one, perfect family, shared from the animal's point of view. Simply charming.
Dinner With the Band: Recently picked up by the Independent Film Channel cable network, this series features chef Sam Mason as he chats it up with his favorite indie bands over quick-fix meals made with flair. IFC will air all original episodes in addition to six new programs as part of its Automat block on Tuesday evenings starting this fall.
David Lynch: Consciousness and Creativity: Currently in production. Based on his book Catching the Big Fish, this show features award-winning director David Lynch speaking about the relationship between art and meditation and discussing his creative process along the way. Launch date TBA.
For a full list of ON Networks offerings, go to www.onnetworks.com.