Power to the People
A televised revolution? Networks search for tie-ups with user-generated content
User-generated content is not new to TV networks: TV programming visionary Brandon Tartikoff saw it coming.
Back in the early 1990s, Tartikoff spoke at a meeting of the National Association of Television Program Executives about how consumers would be in control, on a personal level, of entertainment in the future.
"He predicted it would move this way because of the video camera," says Tim Duncan, a principal at Boston Media Consultants, who heard the Tartikoff speech. "The video camera was going to empower the little guy because you'll get it right from the source."
What came of it? Not a revolution, exactly. But ABC did get a long-running show out of it, something called "America's Funniest Home Videos," which has been on the air for 16 years.
Now some networks are looking at other ways of monetizing user-generated content. The biggest move came from News Corp. when it purchased the massive, hip, and of-the-moment social networking site, MySpace. But apart from News Corp. and other efforts by traditional TV networks, there hasn't been a rush to market. One concern is how user-generated content fits into a network's brand identity.
One effort that solved this dilemma came recently from USA Network. The network created a user-generated site called ShowUsYourCharacter.com, which riffs off its ongoing new "Characters Welcome" branded marketing campaign.
On the site, consumers are invited to display their unusual characters: a guy with 18 snakes coming out of his mouth, for instance, or a woman who can balance almost anything on her face. The site also has program-specific areas for USA's shows, including "Monk," where people can exchange information, play games, and offer up tribute videos for "Monk."
In conjunction, USA is doing a road show where viewers can make their own videos at portable kiosks. There is also a contest to show the most unique character. The winner gets an exclusive Web series, as well as the chance to be part of a national on-air USA Network campaign. "It's part and parcel of our brand message," says Chris McCumber, senior vice president of marketing for USA. General Motors, Monster, and Vanilla Fields, a fragrance company, are sponsors of the site. USA says they are more to come.
While this has all the marks of a quick-hit cable TV promotion, it is nothing of the kind. McCumber says that after the contest, the site will continue to help drive the network's overall brand image. "If there wasn't the 'Characters Welcome' brand, I'd be hard-pressed to do a social networking site," says McCumber. "Each network has to do what fits their brand."
But media futurists believe this is somewhat short-term thinking: the idea that all TV networks need to find a way to get user-generated content integrated into their network presences, and quickly.
"Social networking is here to stay," says Tim Hanlon, senior vice president of content at Denuo, a unit of Publicis Groupe. "It'll be a liberating equalizer. For marketers, it is the ultimate consumer focus group." This is an important corrective, Hanlon says. "It has been a top-down model, disseminated artificially through TV stations. It now becomes more circular. Top-down is only half of it; the other half is the voice of the consumer."
Hanlon believes the initial focus of user-generated content by the big media players will be with established TV shows. "That's the ultimate tribute," he says. "Why wouldn't you want to celebrate TV shows? Viewers would be your advocates; it's word-of-mouth marketing."
And big media companies believe it's a good approach. But there are major hurdles, considering their traditional operating processes in distributing content. "Entertainment generally requires talent," says Tim Duncan. "Quality will win out." Another problem: "With blogs, people lie," he adds. "There needs to be accountability." That is a major reason why, analysts say, companies such as the Walt Disney Co., NBC Universal, and CBS haven't rushed into the space.
Here's another: Marketers aren't all convinced. A recent survey conducted by MediaPost/Deutsche Bank showed just 9 percent of the media buyers and planners polled said they are currently buying ads on News Corp.'s MySpace or other social networking sites. They cited concerns over the unpredictability of user-generated material. MySpace, with 77 million users, says it has addressed some of these problems, including the underage safety issue, by hiring a safety executive who will monitor the site and put dedicated initiatives in place.
Regarding quality, Shawn Gold, senior vice president of marketing for MySpace, says that out of all its users, about 25,000 are filmmakers and 5,000 are professional comedians. "You have to make great product," says Gold. "That is the only real defensible strategy. Then you get people to evangelize your brands."
MySpace has a general roster of 100 advertisers or more in any given period, says Gold. And that number is growing. Currently, many ads are placed not specifically in or near its user-generated content, but around the periphery. For instance, MySpace created "walled gardens" which are maintained by MySpace employees, not its users. The areas are designed to be a safe place for advertisers to promote their brands and messages.
MySpace is also working on ways to share its content with TV network shows, which in turn would integrate the content with national TV advertisers. Gold says this would extend a marketer's advertising reach from a mere "30-second [spot] to three months" worth of brand traction.
To be sure, cable networks are starting to get with the program. Michael Hirschorn, an executive producer for vh1's "Web Junk 20," as well as executive vice president, programming and production at vh1, says, "Six or nine months down the road, virtually everything we do will have a viewer-generated component to it."
MTV Networks' Comedy Central recently announced Comedy Central's "Test Pilots," an online competition with iFilm, in which wannabe show creators get the chance to offer up comedy pilots. Contestants submit 1- to 5-minute video pieces online, and the winner gets a development deal to produce an episodic series on Comedy's broadband channel, MotherLoad.
Comedy Central is monetizing the effort with a single sponsor, says Lou Wallach, senior vice president of programming and development for Comedy Central, though he declined to specify the advertiser. Comedy Central could also cash in by putting the funniest user-generated content on a DVD compilation. Though Comedy Central's efforts are currently limited to the Test Pilot promotion, there's enthusiasm for the medium.
"As the technology gets better it'll get to be much more of a common practice," Wallach says. "It's only a matter of time."
What would big media and its traditional TV network model look like with more user-generated content? A glimpse can be found with Current TV, the upstart, youth-skewing cable news network backed by former Vice President Al Gore. A majority of Current's programming, its news and features, originates from consumers producing 1- to 4-minute stories. But it's not a completely user-generated cable TV network. Current producers craft news stories as well.
"Some people believe they haven't gone far enough," says Denuo's Hanlon. "They didn't start like a Web site. They think more like a TV network. But Current has been a pioneering effort. I told Gore that if they did this right, it could become the capstone for user-generated content, an aspirational place for people using television."