This new semester has presented me with new ideas of how web television works. After my successful research presentation at BEA in April, my research has been guided towards the pedagogical sense of web television. Not just in how to teach web television production, but also how to make our students media literate about television’s co-existence on the Internet. The week that just passed offered events that have opened great teaching examples.

I always predictably start the story the same way: several years ago, a group of very talented and creative guys made a web tv show called We Need Girlfriends. After the completion of their series, CBS and Sony were curious as to how the show would do on traditional television. Without going into to many repeat details, the guys are still rewriting the pilot for CBS. Anyway, in the time since, thousands of web television shows have been produced by hundreds of creators ranging from small independent production companies to major corporations. Shows like The Guild and Dorm Life encouraged the small creator to create independent content and web channels like Crackle showed how big corporations like Sony were beginning to understand the frontier. Interesting hybrid shows and one-off specials like Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog became fun projects for creatives during times of industry unrest (in Dr. Horrible’s case, it was the writer’s strike). YouTube and Blip.tv started offering easy advertising plans to their creators for money to be made.

But what about companies that are still trying to grasp the new territory of web television? What of them? Some television channels and their content are helplessly attached to the traditional medium and are exclusive to television only. This week showed an interesting development of monetizing content in an online world. It all started at 9:50pm on Sunday night.

Sunday night is when Kanye West grabbed the mic from Taylor Swift at the VMAs. That’s MTV’s Video Music Awards, the show that no one has talked about in years was the most talked about show all week. A show helplessly attached to the television broadcast. Between Kanye’s rudeness, Lady Gaga’s wierdness, Pink’s trapezeness, there was much to talk about, but only Kanye’s act became viral. Within one hour of Kanye’s video-bomb of Taylor Swift’s award, there was nearly 300,000 tweets and thousands Facebook status updates about it. At 10:08pm, MTV.com had a copy of the clip online and at 10:10, so did YouTube and AOL. But who had the clips the next day? Only MTV. Exclusively.

One of my students in my Intro to New Media course asked me who regulates the internet if the government doesn’t. I asked it back to the class and they were able to parse through the information and realize that corporations had control over the content online. The bigger the corporation, the more control. When it comes to YouTube (Google owned) and MTV (Viacom owned) you’re looking at a pretty big control system.

I push my students to ask questions about the content they are watching and reading. I encourage them to be skeptics with a dash of cynicism in hopes they will become media literate by the end of the semester. I began the questioning of this event with a question on how shows generate revenue. The class discussed three types of television programs encouraging a type of modern revenue system. The first is the traditional type of television show that intends on keeping the show on traditional broadcast and cablecast outlets; how do they make money? The answer easily found was product placement and shows like The Apprentice and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition are basically 44 minute entertainment commercials (entermercials?). Also, shows like 30 Rock and the dearly missed Arrested Development [take note of where AD lives now] would insert product placement in a very smart way to make the show even more enjoyable.

Then there are shows that encourage viewers to explore online (or even online at the same time as the show’s broadcast on television) additional content. Television shows like Scrubs and The Office offer additional programming online in both supplemental and original form. And the third type of television is exclusive web-based television. [I’ll be leaving hybrid shows like Tosh.0 for another discussion.] I’ve discussed (and created a course) based on this type of television. The web-television product of the independent is easily studied and in many cases, you can even contact the creator and ask them what their intentions were for monetizing their content. Figuring out how web-television is monetized within a bigger corporation is tougher to figure out and in many cases we are left to speculate on our own.

When I asked the class what they felt about Kanye’s outburst and greedy mic grab, more than half the students already felt the notion that it may have been staged. MTV stage an event? What would give anyone that idea? Maybe we should ask Eminem. Remember, this is a channel that perfected the “Scripted Reality” show. What was different about the West/Swift event on Sunday and Bruno’s butt in Eminem’s face from a few months ago was that Taylor Swift was most definitely not in on this event even if Kanye could have been. And no one is talking either way.

What becomes interesting is the forceful removal of the clip from ANY other outlet. If you want to see the video, you must see it at MTV.com. And you MUST endure an advertisement to see it. What we are potentially looking at is a potential future plan for MTV Networks: create “most talked-about moments” and restrict those “moments” to your site and add an unavoidable advertisement to the clip. The question is there to be asked. And I asked Shelly Palmer of MediaBytes who opened a dialogue about whether it matters if MTV keeps the clip off YouTube and owns the exclusive viewing. I asked him if my skeptical thought is plausible and his response was:

My sources at Viacom say their strategy worked perfectly. Traffic to MTV.com is huge and bloggers are taking down dead links to YT content and linking to the clip on mtv.com. The question people are asking is, “Why doesn’t Viacom get it?” Wow, is that the wrong question. The question should be, “In 2009, can you make money with exclusive content that is highly sought after by conveniently packaging it with appropriate metadata and attempting to control access?” If the answer is yes, then Viacom really “gets it.” If the answer is no, well, you know the rest.

I think the answer is yes. I think Viacom does get it. MTV since its birth almost 30 years ago has always understood culture and audiences and formed how the audience receives television. This might just be their plan. We won’t really know until the next event when suspiciously another “talked-about moment” causes 300,000 tweets and Viacom funnels the viewers once again. If that happens, the next question will be: How many times can they pull that off without losing the trust of the audience?

I asked the students about the idea of staged moments and monetizing after the fact online and they gave me a very interesting response: As long as it is good and entertaining and enjoyable, they will still watch it no matter how unreal it may be.

That’s a strategy to explore.

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