Pointed View: Multiplatforms and the Independents

6 mins read

Years ago, at the dawning of the new millennium, an activist friend said to me, “If I have to hear the term Digital Revolution one more time I’m gonna puke.” Her beef was that this ‘revolution’ wasn’t about global peace or marching against the institution. It was about how everything was going to be possible on the web: the end of snail mail, paper and regular commerce, or how cool everything was on slashdot.org or salon.com.

The term that once offended my friend morphed into one word: convergence. And while everyone had a different idea of what that meant, it didn’t stop anyone from newspaper editors to broadcast executives and even the Canadian Radio- Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) from using it, and plentifully, for just about anything. Not too long after, the dot-com bust made the term most unfashionable. Telecom executives were actually banned from using it.

In the interim years, the Internet industry quietly, and some would say stealthily, finished its shakedown and rose back to prosperity, largely thanks to a few household names with gargantuan profits, notably eBay, iTunes and Google. All of a sudden, the online advertising world is not only viable, but thriving. Reports for 2005 indicate profits of somewhere around $520 million, a 40 percent increase in just one year. Recently, The Globe and Mail mused about the idea of another Internet gold rush, pointing out that there has been a spate of start-up companies which have sold for $250 million plus in the past few months.
This year at Prime Time, the Canadian Film & Television Production Association’s (CFTPA) conference on broadcasting in Ottawa, much time was dedicated to the discussion of multiplatform licencing which was often mentioned in the same sentence as the future of broadcasting. Perhaps it’s the smell of money that has woken broadcast executives up out of their Internet slumber to sound the battle cry of 2006: MULTIPLATFORM LICENCES, PLEASE. In a panel, one broadcaster even said “We are coming to the end of the era of single-platform licences.” Whatever the root cause, it’s hard to dismiss the democratizing potential of this, especially for the independents.

The take-home message was clear: great potential rests here, and the documentary world needs to focus more attention on this issue. Richard Stursberg, the head of CBC’s English television division, said that the national broadcaster doesn’t know the costs or the potential of multiplatform licencing, but he wants to “talk about how to move together with the independent production sector, and share the risks.” Meaning, sharing the costs. This can be viewed as a threat, but it can also been seen as an opportunity.

The Broadcast Policy Monitoring Report 2005 has one page dedicated to the “Effect of Internet Use on Broadcast Media,” which is all graphs and no analysis. The CFTPA’s Profile 2006 opened their report by discussing the need to develop stronger policy around new media, but then it is almost completely absent from the rest of the data in the report. It’s the new Goliath in the room. Our business practices will have to adjust to its presence.

The model for selling television episodes on iTunes at US$1.99 is as follows: 55 cents to iTunes, $1.44 to the rights holder. Imagine a 70/30 distribution deal that tips towards the rights holder. There is promise in the idea of multiplatform licencing. “Revenue models are starting to emerge with potential and we need to watch them closely,” reports Andra Sheffer of the Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund. The technology is ready, the public wants it and the broadcasters are willing to play ball.

Is this going to be another convergence balloon all over again? Will we laugh about this in another five years? One thing is clear, technology is definitely on our side this time; the saturation of broadband across Canada and the insatiable appetite for iPods, podcasts and blogging indicates that the public is poised to accept new media distribution.

Where it will all end up is unknown at the time, but sleeping through this blip of broadcast history could cost the independent sector dearly. There is a choice to be made here. The broadcasters can scoop up everything possible with blanket rights agreements, which will shut the indies out. Or the independent sector can take charge and demand fair contracts, use its naturally clever nature to develop partnerships and collaborations that make sense and push for a business model that includes revenue sharing. Imagine that.

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