As the semester is about to start, punctuated by my trip to BEA to speak about web television, a few thoughts on the new theories of pedagogy of the new field of Web Television.

I was asked the other day from a colleague a hypothetical question about college television programs. If I could be recruited to reconstruct a university tv program, what would I include in the plans? My answer was not to buy new switchers or monitors, but adding writing courses and adding newer digital cameras with tapeless workflow. Also, a television art/research course should be put into place. He wondered what brought me to these conclusions.

Today’s students are entering the University in the TV program expecting more from their education than they used to. In the past, students came to college with a limited knowledge of TV and Film production. (This is especially true for film because actually exposing film rarely, if ever, happens on the high school level.) In television, our school and many other Schools of Comm across the country employ a broadcast network television mentality. The schools are sold on the studio size and the ability of the studio cameras and the broadcast equipment. The students today come in already doing forms of shooting and post production in high school. (My first TV class was in 11th grade as part of the math department [utilizing Adobe Premiere].)

These new students are, as my colleague calls them, “platform agnostic”.

First we have to discuss how new television is different than old television. Web TV is not THE TEEVEE as we know it. Television, in the practical sense, is storytelling in a form that is captured by cameras then the light is converted to electricity to be sent to an electronic box to be converted from electricity back to light to be watched on many size television screens. Web TV is a visual medium, not so much television. It is ‘based’ on the look of television with its players in traditional aspect ratios of 4×3 and 16×9, albeit arbitrary. Web Television isn’t video, it is 1s and 0s. It just “looks” like video. This opens the door to almost limitless creativity.

Mike Hudack of blip.tv spoke of an emerging ‘middle class’ producer. But what is a ‘middle class’ producer? This type of content producer is a storyteller to the core. The form the content takes is a second thought to the story that is being told. They are platform agnostic because of how arbitrary the medium is in comparison to the need of a good story.

This thought is EXTREMELY frightening to conservative professors. Academics feel that the medium is just strong as the story. I understand their sentiments, but my mind is open.

The thought of the platform agnostic middle class producer must be taught correctly though. In order to be MIDDLE class, one must know the low class producer (ya know, the one who taped the little boy biting the other little boy) and the high class producer (well, pretty much everything that is paid to be produced for major company distribution). We currently teach our students to be HIGH class producers. We take them from little or no knowledge of television technologies and bring them to advanced levels of television production. Their senior thesis project is a broadcast ready pilot. This year though, the students have the choice to produce a web-series as their senior thesis.

Our students are becoming much more aware of web television and are increasingly interested in the production of it. Through htvinteractive, our web television channel, students are producing web tv on their own, but they should be taught not only the theory of new television, but the technology. Students want to learn how to tell stories. They don’t see television as ‘not’ art nor do they see film as snooty, they just see different ways of distributing their story.

It’s time our students learned more about storytelling. They should also be taught the methods to be on the higher end of the middle class of producers. They should be taught codecs like H.264, distribution outlets, acquisition methods in order for them to have the highest quality necessary for their particular story and production.

Thinking outside the ‘box’ of television will offer our students incredibly high levels of creativity. As Jamison Tilsner said, “craft follows concept” or in the terms of the academics, “form follows substance”. These are thoughts to the new storytellers, the new type of television producers. They should think about the story and maybe the fact that web tv doesn’t have to be 4×3 or 16×9, but maybe 9×16 or other vertical shapes or thinner horizontal shapes. It is up to the storyteller!

The computer is not furniture yet we can watch a form of television on it. A form of television that must hold a great story for the audience because there is ALWAYS something else on….

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Last week I met with Jamison Tilsner of Tilzy.tv. Tilzy.tv is site to review and critique the wonderful world of Web Television. Jamison, along with Josh Cohen and several others, review Web TV and meet with web content creators of all types of online media.

Tilzy.tv

Tilzy.tv

I picked Jamison’s brain for some more knowledge of the new industry for the BEA panel in April. Jamison had some great things to say about the future of the industry and the possibilities in store for web creatives. 2009 is going to be an excellent year for this type of content and a “call to arms” for web creators is being established.

Here’s what we spoke about:

One of the things I found really interesting how much the Tilzy guys like the We Need Girlfriends show made by Ragtag Productions. The model that I teach for web television is based on their path of media creation. The model that the Ragtag guys created is not a standard model, but is a model that is teachable. Jamison said that the only standard to appear is the fact there is no standard. That’s not an easy answer for an academic when trying to pitch a curriculum to many different schools.

There are many misconceptions that not only professors may have about Web TV, but also the content creators that are out there just beginning to produce or have been producing. Jamison said:

Some misconceptions by many people is that Web TV is just TV repurposed for the web. It is an entire realm for new original content. Once people get over that idea, another misconception is that web content is only short form.

As we’ve seen from Dr Horribles and Diggnation, Web TV shows can be longer form like traditional television.

A huge part of our conversation was the changes being made in Web TV in order to make it a viable outlet to television producers. This means completing the thoughts of those producing television and that means explaining to content creators that you can have “fame” and you can make money in this industry just as any other content creator would.

Right now, many Web TV producers are in the mindset that “success” in Web TV is the ability to be purchased by a major company and repurposed “upwards” to traditional TV. (a la We Need Girlfriends.) That model is not the only option any more. Creators are keeping track of their views in many ways, but they are also keeping track of their brand. This is done with the CPM model, or impressions, of their brand. The more people that see it gets them closer to being entered in culture. Companies like TubeMogul are keeping excellent analytics on views of a show. This notion is EXTREMELY important to those who might be interested in utilizing the creators content for other such means as product placement or cross promotions.

Michael Eisner’s company, Vuguru, has hired storytellers to produce Web TV shows. This services the idea that a corporate mentality can accept new media television and afford to pay the producers. That is… if it is a good story.

To me, it proves that Teaching Web Television is ABSOLUTELY neccessary! If the field is growing, students should be trained in this field. If taught correctly, the teaching of Web TV should not offend any traditional Television professor. Like I’ve said before, this is actually a television renaissance: The stories have to be strong, the content tighter, the screens a bit smaller, but STILL made in the methods of filmmaking and consideration of quality.

Lastly, Jamison and I spoke about what advice he would give up and comers to the new industry.

Experiment! This is a new field without standard. Don’t hesistate to put up your content. Find out if it works online and let your audience help you with your stories. This is an entirely new way of looking at TV where the content creator can speak with the fans about the show and the fans can feel as if they have influenced it. Take advantage of this medium!

And remember, craftsmanship is very important, but the craft follows the concept. Your story is what you are telling, not the equipment.

Jamison is an amazingly insightful eye on this industry and I’m glad we’ve met and spoke. In the coming year we are going to see A LOT of new Web-based Television and the academics have got to embrace the coexistance of the new medium. I will most likely be keeping in contact with Jamison and I will post out meeting results here.

During a recent discussion with Dr Gershon, these points about the pedagogy of television production came across. Dr G and I were discussing the ideas of teaching the process of production as an extremely important matter to the students. There really are no absolutely wrong ways of producing television, but there are inefficient ways of producing. We as educators have to keep this in mind while we are teaching students as the students are here in a higher education scenario to gain our knowledge. The biggest way to make sure we keep this in mind is to continually think about the audience. While teaching process, the outcome is also extremely important.

For example, while writing a novel, the dozens of rewrites are never known to the reader. While sculpting, the multiple additions of clay are never known to viewer. While making television, the corrections and reframing of shots are never obvious to the audience. We have to guide our students, but not crush their unique creativity.

(When I’m teaching the television bootcamp course here, if the student makes an error because they did not follow the director’s command, I judge whether the audience realized the mistake. If the audience could not tell because the student recovered, a smaller amount of points are taken off.)

This is an excellent time to teach this subject. Over on the left, in the links, you can see the article that states that people are watching more tv than ever. With dozens of new channels on broadcast and hundreds of new web shows, our students have a wide world to choose from.

When it comes to short form production, we are listening to our students and getting advice from them. To quote my personal hero on the subject, Kirk Mastin from University of Washington on his website:

Todays’ media consumers value authenticity, brevity and excellent storytelling over extravagant production values and special effects.

The rise of YouTube, viral videos, and video podcasts are a testament to the rise of a new type of consumer: The Digital Native.

The students know we know the most important parts of television production and the fundamentals based on Zettl and McLuhan, but now, in this new world where the “Digital Native” is our student, we have the responsibility of listening to our students more than ever. While they may have the knowledge of the new trends, we have to know we are coming across most likely the biggest Renaissance of the field. Television, a close-up medium, was originally made for the small screen. It required high quality production and authenticity. Now, the screen is smaller and the distraction larger.

Let’s listen AND teach. Higher education is still necessary for learning the crafts of quality. To quote my friend George Nicholas, a cinematographer:

New technology is not an excuse for poor craftsmanship.

But the embrace of new tools and outlets and knowledge and trust that all mediums will co-exist, will continue to strengthen not only ourselves, the educator, but our students.

One of the biggest problems with web television is that no one has yet written the guide to how to make it work. That is what I am trying to do. We are presented with dozens, if not hundreds of different types of web shows and webisodes fictional and non-fiction. Although We Need Girlfriends is a successful model, Quarterlife was highly unsuccessful. So how does one figure it out?

The first thing to think about before even shooting is writing. How can YOU make your content hold up with the audience? For a small example, please read the article on the left called “The Sitcom Digresses” which is about how broadcast shows like 30 Rock and Family Guy have begun to realize the need for quick wit and attention grabbing writing styles. (And so has SNL, but they do have Andy Samberg and he wrote the first rules of web television, so that’s kinda cheating.)

When I pitched RTVF 65i, Television for the Web, I simply said this: “How often are you watching television and you think, ‘Nothing is on’? How often are you on the web and you think that nothing is on?” Think about that for a sec.

Broadcast TV has much more going for its form. You have about 30 secs to a minute to gain and KEEP an audiences attention. On the internet… you have anywhere between 7 and 11 seconds. (!) Why you ask? Well… because of the content creator’s worst enemy of course:

StumbleUpon

StumbleUpon

Also, shows can’t be as long either. Broadcast is used to a 30 minute (22 minutes) or an hour long show (44 minutes), but the web is free game! Though that doesn’t mean make epic 40 minute shows.. focus groups with college age students have shown that episodes ranging from 3 to 11 minutes are the most watchable. (This does not include the ultra successful Dr Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog.)

So. These are thoughts that will come out of my head as we move forward with this research. There is a lot of thought going into this and I hope it helps not only the academy of television, the university’s that teach television and the content creators, but I hope it helps everyone looking to have their content seen by the world.

Hi! My name is Jamie Cohen and I am leading the research on teaching television production for the web. Just a short intro for everyone so you can get the gist of what myself and my collegue, Dr Peter Gershon, will be researching in the coming months. Dr Gershon and myself are both television professors at Hofstra University’s School of Communication in the Radio/Television/Film Department. More about the two of us later.

Twebivision is my term referring to the atmosphere of our current culture of television production.

This April, at the Broadcast Education Association Convention in Las Vegas, Dr Gershon and myself will be presenting a panel called “Teaching Television Production in the Age of YouTube.”

We are creating a curriculum to be taught not only at Hofstra University, (the school that held the last presidential debate) but at any university studying the new course of the methods of television producing. What we have that no other university has is the close connection to the working model for this type of production, our alums Brian Amyot, ’04, Angel Acevedo, ’04 and Steve Tsapelas,’03. These three guys founded Hofstra Filmmaker’s Club at Hofstra and later went on to create Ragtag Productions. They created a web series called We Need Girlfriends that aired on YouTube and MySpace. Through ingenuity, hard work and very creative marketing, their webisode series got noticed by Sex and the City’s Darren Star. The show is now in production for a pilot for CBS. (link)

We are studying their process and also following our knowledge of television production in the classical sense, that television is a close-up medium. What we are looking at is a possible renaissance of television production. Originally, television was produced for a very small screen (in comparison to the film screen) and in the recent years, as television sizes increased, the formalities of production have been treated with less respect. Now, with television on a very very small screen (inside a screen), the formal techniques MUST be adhered to.

What Dr Gershon and I are discussing is also the new fact that television production for the web is actually only about 25-50% production… the other 50-75% is branding, creative advertising and self promotion. To quote Benjamin Palmer, CEO of the Barbarian Group, in The Screens Issue of the New York Times Magazine (Multiscreen Mad-Men, November 21, 2008):

Because what TV offers that the Internet doesn’t offer is a guarantee of fame. You know that millions of people saw that bit of you on television.

When producing for the internet, the content creator is on their own. What we are trying to prove is that formal higher education is just as necessary for web television production as it is for television production. It takes more than access to editing software and a camera to create successful content for the web.

We are teaching originality, authenticity and creativity as well as the understanding of the internet’s use of the word democracy (more on that another time).

Even more than the creation of material is the research we are doing with the subject of creator to viewer connection. This new world of web television allows the fans of the show access to the creator in a way never before seen in the field of television.

Please check back for updates on this study. The links on the left are my delicious links that I have been using for RTVF 65i, Television for the Web, the class I created and teach. Also, check my personal delicious site for additional research. In the coming months I will be posting our new findings and our outcomes of the RTVF Department’s curricular (For Your Island, RTVF 164 with the Webshow) and extra-curricular (HTVinteractive) work in the world of Twebivision.

Research Links

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