Jeff DeChambeau recently proposed an interesting alternative to Hollywood-style TV show production: why not have a Kickstarter for television? Proposed shows would be funded by the public, and funding for specific aspects of the show (its story, actors, props, etc.) could be bumped up if enough people chipped in.
Funders can support the project in up to two ways: they can pour money in to get the entire show to a minimum viable budget, or they can spend money on parts of the project that they care about most. If I want special effects, I can kick some money into the VFX budget. If I really care about the actors, I can kick in some money so that the project can afford Hugh Laurie.
Marketing would be handled by the supporters themselves (who want more people to chip in), and people could donate props or talent to the production to lower its cost. There’s a bit more to the idea, so check out Jeff’s site for all the details.
It’s a pretty neat idea, but there’s one really important piece of this idea (critical to its success) that immediately jumped out at me:
Since whatever is produced is released online, distribution costs are very very low.
Hmm. So these will be YouTube videos? Vimeo videos? Louis CK-style DRM-less video downloads? I see a big problem here, and although a lot of people have already kinda/sorta acknowledged it I think we’re approaching the time to think about it more completely. Let’s call it the “Online Video Distribution Problem”.
The Online Video Distribution Problem
If Kickstarter-like producers go the YouTube/Vimeo route, these new shows will be available on the web for anyone to view for free. That means that for every person who chips in $1 to fund the show, there could be 30+ others who don’t pay a dime but still consume the same content. Applying what I’ve learned from my Social Psychology and Economics classes, to put it simply; this ain’t gonna work.
Economists would deem TV shows in this situation to be examples of “public goods”. What’s a “public good”? Think about the water that comes out of your faucet. Pretty clean right? That water isn’t clean because 10 people in your town choose to pay $5,000/month to pay for a water treatment plant: it’s clean because everyone in town chips in a few cents (in the form of taxes) to keep the plants working. Nobody in their right mind would pay $5,000/month to get clean tap water and, in turn, give their neighbors clean water for free as well. No way; you’d knock on your neighbor’s door and try to convince them to help pay for the clean water they’re getting.
Because there’s no way to pump clean water only to the people who pay for it, local governments need to step in (and make taxes) to make sure that we don’t just settle for drinking disease-ridden sludge.
In the case of these Kickstarter-backed TV shows, a small number of people (young, internet-savvy TV enthusiasts) would be paying for good, high-quality shows to be produced that everybody could watch for free. As Jeff points out (and as described in our tap water example), there’s an incentive for those backers to encourage other people to chip in, but at some point that mechanism will break down. Assuming that most of these Kickstarter-backed shows are good (an optimistic assumption), people won’t feel obligated to continue paying for good stuff online if they suspect that other people will keep paying for it anyway. In Social Psychology, this is called “Diffusion of Responsibility”.
A hypothetical mental process in this situation:
“If the next show in this series is going to be produced whether I chip in $1 or not, why should I bother chipping in at all? It’s a really good show, so I’m sure it’s got plenty of backers already: my contribution won’t make much of a difference. Other people will take care of it, I can just watch for free and share it with people on Facebook, that’ll be my contribution.”
(Side note: That last bit sounds like the Kony 2012 video doesn’t it?)
The point here is this: a freely available online TV show backed by Kickstarter supporters is a “public good”, and nobody wants to pay for public goods (that’s why we have taxes). Kickstarter as we know it today wouldn’t exist if all of its projects (like this sleek iPhone dock) were available to the public for free after Kickstarter-backers helped them launch. Some things would still get made, sure, but it’s far more difficult to get people to pay for things they could easily get for free. The way many kickstarter projects get people to fund them is by offering backers some sort of discount on the project’s planned market price: getting a discount is the second-best thing to getting something for free, and that’s why the model works.
Freely available online “premium quality” programming is what YouTube’s new initiative is all about. The problem: these shows will have far less visibility than cable television shows (at least for now). YouTube is big, but it’s still not TV-big. You’re also dealing with intrusive ads, and in the case of Kickstarter-backed TV shows you can expect to see a lot of updates like “PLEASE help me get this show made! It’s about vampire teens in Hawaii and i think it’ll be amazing with more funds. Even $1 will help!!! ty in advance” in your Facebook/Twitter streams. That’s really annoying, and if you back a show that turns out to be crappy (a likely occurrence) you’re likely to be soured on the idea of funding another potential failure. This distribution method wouldn’t produce a lot of good programming, but it will produce a lot of frustrated young filmmakers.
The alternative here would be to offer Kickstarter shows for a flat $5-or-so fee, just like Louis CK’s successful experiment. This model has potential, but I get the feeling that it’s not a long-term distribution solution. Louis CK had a great idea and was (I believe) one of the first comedians to implement it, and he made a bunch of money from it. But if 130 other lesser-known comedians did the same thing I don’t think it’d be long before their performances were on 14 different YouTube channels, 6 Vimeo channels, and 3 torrent sites; at which point the free versions would become the first Google hits and it wouldn’t be worth it for the comedian to try to take them down. This distribution model (I think) would make a lot more new content producers fail to profit from their ideas than succeed.
So we have a problem. There are a lot of aspiring young directors, actors, actresses, cameramen, writers, special effects artists (and boom operators?) out there with the potential to change the way we think about film, television, and home entertainment in a big way, but they have no means of doing so. Jeff’s Kickstarter-esque idea is a great one that could help these post-Hollywood content-makers with good ideas succeed, but until the right distribution channel shows up it isn’t going to work.
Re-thinking the Entertainment Distribution Channel
Time for a revolution? Feels like it. The times, they seem to be a changin’. Come 2020, Hollywood and the big networks (NBC, HBO, ABC) might not be the only players in the entertainment industry in the same way Adobe, Apple, and Microsoft no longer dominate the software industry today.
For many years, networks have utilized the cables running to your house to give you content. Hollywood used VHS tapes, DVDs, and now they use Blu-ray discs. The Internet is definitely the means through which the next generation of living room entertainment is going to flow, but nobody has set up the perfect online distribution channel quite yet. As we discussed above, it can’t be a completely free “Wild West” of thousands of ad-supported YouTube videos, and it isn’t going to be a bunch of scattered web links to $5 downloads you store on your hard drive. We need something better. We need something easier. We need something that will give lesser-known content-makers a chance (not a guarantee, but a chance) to make it big.
We need, dare I say it, an App Store distribution model.
Crazy? Sounds crazy. Why would anybody choose to buy/rent a video of Drew Baren’s stand-up comedy routine when they can get James Cameron’s Avatar in the same marketplace? It sounds silly, but it’s been done before.
Think about the App Store we have today. Why would anybody buy OMGPOP’s Draw Something when they can get EA’s Tetris instead? How could the note-taking app Notability by Ginger Labs be better than Microsoft’s OneNote? Who would buy a game called Angry Birds from some unknown dev named Rovio when the long-famous Final Fantasy series from Square Enix is in the same store?
A lot of people. A whole lot of people. A ridiculous number of people.
Nobody expected it, but the App Store distribution model dethroned industry heavyweights like EA, Microsoft, Activision, Nintendo, Square Enix, and Adobe from being the only games in town. Notability is a legitimate Microsoft OneNote alternative. Angry Birds is just as addictive as Tetris. There are countless examples of “indie” developers turning a profit with their software/games in the App Store. There are a lot of failure stories, sure, but I’d challenge you to find 10 careers YouTube/Vimeo’s ad-supported video distribution model has launched. That could change, sure, but right now the App Store distribution model is king: it sparked a new wave of software innovation that changed the world, and it’s putting money into developer’s pockets.
Could an App Store in your living room change home entertainment in the same way it changed personal computing? I’d say it has a better chance than making entertainment a freely available “public good” or a confusing mess of $5 download links on the open web. An App Store for entertainment gives the little guy visibility. It gives him a way to make money. It gives him the chance of competing with Star Wars, Avatar, or Iron Man in ways that nobody can expect.
I’m not saying kill Hollywood, NBC, and HBO and let a new generation of filmmakers and entertainment-makers take over. Those guys are still going to continue making great (and not so great) stuff. I’m also not saying to forget about YouTube/Vimeo; those guys are absolutely essential to creative expression and make perfect sense for some content-makers. I just think there’s another source of quality entertainment out there that hasn’t yet been given the right stage to perform on.
Somebody (Apple, Google, Microsoft) should consider giving content-producers (not just application developers) a profitable way to share their work with the world over the web. Give Drew Baren a worldwide stage to perform on instead of just a local pub and somebody is going to discover him. Let the next James Cameron distribute his first film in your store and maybe his talent won’t go to waste. Let me watch eSports like Starcraft II in my living room, and I may discover a strategic sport more entertaining than football. Give me bonus features. Give me behind-the-scenes looks. Give me live interviews. Give me sneak previews.
Give me a brand new, revolutionary way to be entertained in my living room and on all of my devices. Give creators a way to sell their entertainment via the web, but not through a web browser. Give us an App Store-like marketplace and everyone involved could benefit from it. Who knows? Maybe the entertainment industry can be changed just like the software, PC, and gaming industries before it. We’ll see.