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Flashback for Flash Forward Specialty Video Channels
As I listened to the pitch from FilmFresh during this month’s Consumer Electronics Show, I flashed back to start-up network hype from cable shows circa 1980. Although the company offers a video streaming service that includes some recent box office hits, its emphasis is on specialty programming, especially independent and international titles plus a kidvid line-up.
As such, FilmFresh strikingly resembles the hopeful content aggregators and packagers of the early cable network era and the dreams of similar specialists at the start of the digital cable period, albeit with a focus on over-the-top subscriptions and á là carte delivery. The company also promotes its “Film Finder” feature, a content discovery tool that is common across a variety of alternative program services.
FilmFresh was one of dozens of programming hopefuls seeking a place on the new virtual dial - my term for today’s roster of content sources. Whether it survives or succeeds depends on so many financial, marketing and technology variables that it’s barely worth handicapping its chances at this point. (Anyone who attended a cable convention in the ’80s has memories of networks that seemed like a good idea at that time.)
The more significant message about the program aggregating wannabes at CES is the distribution possibilities available to them that linear cable simply cannot offer.
“There’s an audience for almost everything,” observed Michael Arrieta, CEO of Big Air Studios, young Hollywood production company developing cross-platform content. He spoke at a CES session about creating and distributing new content.
Robert Kyncl, Google’s vice president for global content partnerships, in his CES keynote was even more emphatic. As he pushed the YouTube $100 million program creation fund, Kyncl predicted that within 10 years, 75% of all channels will start their lives online. His self-serving outlook obviously puts the emphasis on the Web as the primary avenue for entertainment distribution. Kyncl rubbed it in with his pronouncement that “the top five YouTube channels would rank in the top-20 cable channels” today.
The on-going onslaught of Web programming initiatives is another flashback to the early cable content era. Tom Hanks’ deal with Yahoo for an online sci-fi series “Electric City,” CSI creator/producer Anthony Zuiker’s recent tablet-focused digi-novels and his upcoming “Cybergeddon” online crime series plus the highly-hyped Hulu original series “Battleground” all epitomize Hollywood’s fascination with a way to bypass traditional media.
They remind me of Premiere, the short-lived studio-backed alternative to HBO, which had a brief life in the early 1980s. (That venture faced some severe antitrust challenges even before it reached the marketplace.) The enthusiasm of the promoters resembles the hopeful (wishful?) thinking of early ’80s producers who suddenly found dozens of new outlets for their shows beyond the ABC-CBS-NBC troika of an earlier era.
Today’s projects are opportunistic approaches to the far more open technologies and platforms. The hurdles they face largely stem from the ever-increasing competition for viewers’ attention.
As these new creators/aggregators emerge, there’s a notable complacency among traditional media companies, some believing that viewers will stick with the linear experience. We know that more viewers are turning to alternatives. Deloitte’s recent sixth annual “State of the Media Demo-cracy” noted that 42% of respondents had streamed a film in the past six months, up 14% from 2009.
So I’ll be keeping an eye on the new wave of content aggregators and creators, seeing if they find a small or big niche in the evolving digital eco-system, delivering the specialty programs that cable once promised.
Or if they simply get lost in the content avalanche of the digital era.
Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC in Bethesda, Md., and a long-time interactive TV enthusiast. Reach him at GArlen@ArlenCom.com