IN the last 18 months the move from a push to a pull model of content delivery has been clipping along at break-neck speed. There’s no need to rehash here how and why this generation of kids is growing up with the expectation that they’ll be able to watch what they want, where and whenever they choose to. However, there’s a new wrinkle in this brave new digital kids entertainment landscape that merits a closer look, user generated content (UGC).
First there was social network myspace.com. A site populated entirely by personal homepages made largely by teens and young adults using little more than their digital cameras and a few clicks of the mouse. Even though it had no established revenue model, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. snatched it up for US$580 million on its promise of delivering the coveted youth demo. Now, the heat has transferred to YouTube.com – a free, all-access site that relies entirely on user-uploaded (and often created) video clips. Unless you have been hanging out in the nether regions of Jupiter, you’re aware the site currently sits at the top of the most trafficked worldwide. Recent stats indicate YouTube receives nearly 100-million unique hits every single day.
YouTube also has no definitive revenue model and arguably most of the content available violates every copyright law on the books. But the UGC on the site – particularly the fan vids featuring clips of a favorite show set to music or the reconfiguration of a show’s original plotlines or settings – betrays an intense connection with the material; the kind of connection most content/IP owners trip over themselves to create. So, right now most are faced with the conundrum: Do you prosecute for loss of potential revenue/copyright violations or do you unlock the vault, so to speak, and actively encourage the production of UGC?
If you’re thinking the kids demo is a little to young to create UGC, think again. A few broadcasters, with the help of series producers, are attempting to get ahead of the curve on this one, realizing that their audiences are as tech-savvy and trend aware as they get. It’s early days yet, but what this first group has come up with is a way to encourage kid creation of UGC that continues to promote the linear channels and uses established ad-based revenue models.
Pubcasters wade into UGC waters
Kim Wilson, creative head for children & youth programming at CBC, is preparing to roll out a whole slew of programming centered on integrating UGC. The Canadian pubcaster is jumping in the UGC pool with both feet and a keen eye to keeping it accessible.
‘I think the timing is right to take things to the next level,’ Wilson says. In November, CBC debuts My Goldfish Is Evil (a copro with Montreal’s Sardine Productions) and The Secret World of Og (a copro with Helix Digital, Longshot Pictures, and Title Entertainment) on air and on its website. What’s different is the site will have a digital tool box kids can use to create bumpers, interstitials, and shorts utilizing the characters and 2-D animation style of the shows. The best entries will be broadcast, and monthly challenges will reward kid creators for their work.
Aiming to make it possible for anyone with access to a computer to create UGC, the juiced-up website will be a one-stop shop. ‘Not everyone has a cell phone, or access to a movie camera, but it doesn’t matter because we have the on-line tool kit,’ Wilson says.
The goal, according to Wilson, is to get the audience involved with creating content around the shows, but at the same time, keep enough control over the assets and content to protect the franchises. Although the resulting UGC will be available through an on-line sharing site, it will still be vetted by CBC staff according to strict guidelines, ensuring undesirable content gets stripped from the site as soon as it appears.
‘We have a clear policy about what kind of things we will do and what kind of things we won’t,’ she says, adding that inapproriate language and violence are two things that will not be accepted.
On the other side of the world, pubcaster ABC Australia is doing something similar. Dan Fill, head of development for new media & digital services at ABC, lists five different UGC initiatives the company has embarked on in the last year. They include the launch of the Unearthed website in August which allows Australia’s unsigned musicians to upload their music to a site where the youth audience then rates and tags its favorites. The bands with the biggest ratings will then be showcased on ABC’s radio station Triple J. According to Fill, 60 bands uploaded their material during the first hour the site went live.
On the television side, ABC just completed its second season of Rollercoaster Video Chat based on the Rollercoaster TV block that targets kids seven years old and up and airs on both ABC TV and ABC2 weekday afternoons, and between 2:30 and 4 p.m. on Sundays. While it’s not typical UGC where kids submit their own videos, they do get to shape the content of the on-air block.The Chat features an on-air host and usually a special guest. The host relates questions from the on-line audience directly to the guest.
Both examples illustrate the use of UGC to bolster traditional broadcast mediums of television or radio.
Fill, like Wilson, says vetting and controlling the content is an essential part of opening this door to the audience.
‘If it is a text-based UGC that creates community engagement you need moderators,’ Fill says. ‘If it is images, video or music, you need extensive business affairs engagement followed by moderation.’
Fill also stresses while UGC might seem like an inexpensive way for established broadcasters to pass the creative buck from professionals to amateurs, the necessary vetting process is, in fact, costly and intensive. Without an over-arching set of standards, Fill says, each case has to be carefully considered on its own merits, meaning ‘lots of time and energy goes into mounting UGC projects.’
‘It is important to try and sort through to find the best or most pertinent content,’ he says, adding that although there is no simple checklist for what the network wants out of the UGC, he is looking for ‘relevant, comprehensive and organized’ content. ‘If this is set up incorrectly, what you end up with is a large collection of amateur-quality content, which is not really interesting to anyone,’ he concludes.
Proven UGC Success
Canada’s CBC and Australia’s ABC have shown necessary caution in entering the UGC arena; both have stringent controls and vetting processes. While ABC prefers to deal with material that is not copyrighted to avoid ownership issues altogether, CBC allows the copyrighted material from its shows to be manipulated, but ultimately controls what goes on the site and reaches the airwaves.
While both pubcasters have just started engaging with UGC to promote their traditional broadcast portals, Canada’s 24/7 animation net Teletoon is blazing the trail with the Zimmer Twins.
Toronto-based production company zincRoe approached the network a couple of years ago with the idea of using animated characters Edgar and Eva in an interactive format. Teletoon jumped at the idea. The result is a zimmertwins.teletoon.com, which launched in March 2005, followed by a second run in July 2006. Visitors are given the opportunity to manipulate the title characters and create endings to shorts already produced by the network. With an eye to accessibility and user-friendliness, the audience can create the endings of the short films by inputting simple directions such as ‘run’, ‘celebrate’, ‘agree’ and ‘disagree’ into the on-line program. The Flash capability makes it possible for the users to manipulate approximately 80 different scenes.
For the first round that ended in the latter half of ’05, the net chose the best clips and readied them for broadcast – turning speech bubbles into voices and crediting the kid creators. The spots, 60 from season one and 120 from season two, are currently used as one-minute interstitials and commercials that serve to promote the network and the production.
According to Teletoon’s numbers, the Zimmer Twins website drew more than 195,000 unique visitors from across Canada in July 2006 alone, hitting the nine- to 12-year-old demo the heaviest. The site has received more than 290,000 separate entries since the launch of season one, even crossing linguistic lines – 39.8% of all entries were created in French.
Although Steve Szigeti, director of online media for Teletoon, deems the project an unqualified success, he says it is difficult to gauge whether the website ended up driving viewers to the linear net or not – ratings for one-minute spots are difficult to track. However, the site is sticky and is most likely engendering viewer loyalty. Creator Jason Krogh of zincRoe points out that a full 30% of visits to the Zimmer Twins site last for more than 10 minutes.
Krogh sees the project as a nice synthesis of UGC with the traditional creative process.’In our project we have animators, and writers, and we brainstorm ideas and then we add kids to that mix.’
Like anything that can be described as a trend there is the possibility that UGC will just flare out, and that the audience will tire of watching their own material and demand more professional productions and something new. However, Jens Bachmen, managing director of London-based media strategy company Digital Outlook, doesn’t see UGC as a traditional trend.
Taking it further, Bachmen believes that the advent of the active audience will change the way producers and broadcasters approach content. ‘The mindset will have to change from ‘I’m pumping stuff out there’ to ‘what kind of choices can I help my audience make’,’ he says.