Dmitri Siegel | Essays

Broadcast vs. Broadband

Remember the early 1990s, when techno-evangelists promised that television as we know it would soon be replaced by a searchable database of streaming video available at any time on your computer? Today, with the near-ubiquity of video-on-demand services (including iTunes) offering video downloads, television networks are scrambling to establish themselves in the online video market. But they're also struggling with the fact that the shift to online video has created a new programming format. Journalists have coined the vaguely menacing term "viral videos" to describe this new genre of short, lo-resolution, often ironic and seemingly authentic clips that are primarily distributed through e-mailed links and blogs. In a cruel twist, viral videos have even made their way onto television via shows like VH1's Web Junk 20 and Bravo's Outrageous and Contagious: Viral Videos, both of them airing videos that have been actively trafficked on the web.

And yet, many questions remain, among them: what impact will this new form of video content have on the medium that gave it life? And what opportunities will it create for designers?

Editorial judgments aside, these cable shows represent noteworthy attempts to translate the buzz to from broadband to broadcast; but it doesn't end there, There is a far greater effort, for instance, to repackage television content for the web. Just about every cable network streams an online supplement to its broadcast schedule and, in what may be a harbinger of things to come, NBC recently pulled the TRIO channel from its cable package altogether and recast it exclusively as a broadband network. NBC is gambling that TRIO's strong editorial take on pop culture and solid branding (wryly conceived by Open) make it a natural for the web, which is essentially a pop culture miasma in need of well-designed filters. But the backwash of content from the web to broadcast is just one indication of how unresolved this odd pairing remains.

The recent decision by NBC to pull the immensely popular Lazy Sunday along with over 500 other clips from YouTube and other video-sharing sites offers further evidence of this uncertainty. Companies with the stature and resources of NBC/Universal aren't, generally speaking, forced to make such dramatic about-faces; but the rapid demise of other internet "phenomena" (like Friendster and flash mobs) make them understandably wary of linking their content too closely with a third-party provider. It is far safer to develop their own outlets (as NBC is doing with Outrageous and Contagious, as well as its recent purchase of iVillage.) If nothing else, Lazy Sunday provides an interesting test case to see whether or not the revenue generated from iTunes download fees is worth giving up the buzz created by letting the clip circulate virally.

Of course, the kind of organic growth implied in the word "viral" is somewhat deceptive. For example, number 6 on Web Junk 20 this week was the alternately hysterical and disturbing Mariko Takahashi's FITNESS VIDEO for Being Appraised as an "EX-FAT GIRL." The piece was created by designer and art director Nagi Noda for Panasonic "to celebrate the spirit of the Olympics;" yet the show makes no mention of this corporate sponsorship. In fact, a full thirty percent of the video clips that have appeared on these shows are in some way promotional. This is a troubling by-product of a medium that is to some degree defined by a lack of disclosure: it's like product placement, but without the product.

And this kind of stealth marketing is on the rise. The agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky has been particularly active on behalf of Burger King. Recently, a series of clips involving a large king mask started circulating on the web. They appeared to be self-initiated pranks by amateurs with a gift for slapstick, but the back-story turns out to be a bit more complicated: the videos were actually the product of a unique partnership between Burger King and the video blog Heavy. Much like myspace and Google Video, Heavy offers space online for users to upload video. But Heavy is far from a dispassionate data warehouse: they monitor the content on their site and identify high volume or otherwise notable users, consequently linking them up with clients like Burger King. (There is, of course, a handsome fee for such matchmaking.) The subsequent spots are posted on Heavy where they begin their inevitable viral spread.

But the increasing popularity of intentionally un-, or under-branded campaigns isn't necessarily bad news, especially for designers. By linking to the videos above I have become a sort of de-facto "brand ambassador" for Saturday Night Live and Panasonic, but I'm also supporting the relative freedom given to their creators. Viral campaigns can be a great venue for directors, animators, and designers because in order to garner the kind of personal endorsement implied in a link, they can't be overly commercial. At the same time, such efforts raise the bar for creatives because the piece has to win viewers over one at a time, and usually with a single viewing. Designers, through some combination of training, humility and plain desperation, are comfortable working within these limitations: to this end, online video has become an unusually accessible outlet to flex one's narrative talents. With motion graphics, video editing and 4-D courses being offered in most design programs, we have reason to be optimistic with regard to a new generation of designers who are primed to blur the line between design and filmmaking.

It is likely that corporations will continue to fund creative video projects that reach a receptive, self-selected audience through personal recommendations, rather than blanketing the airwaves with a heavily branded message that sophisticated audiences frequently dismiss. (Thank you, TiVO.) In this view, viral video could well become the independent cinema of advertising. Of course, there is also the danger that the format will ossify into a formula. If bad lighting and slapstick humor come to define viral video (instead of artistic license and subtle branding) it will have missed its potential as a new medium.

Dmitri Siegel is an associate art director for Sundance Channel as well as creative director of Ante, a journal of visual art, and Anathema, a magazine dedicated to the pursuit of impossible ideas. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Dot Dot Dot, Emigre, Adbusters, and Design Issues. He is currently a visiting lecturer in the graduate program in criticism and theory at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Media, Music

Comments [5]

I'm confused. What's the about-face in NBC having YouTube pull their content? That has little to do with developing outlets and third-party providers. The "we just provide a way for people to share" argument has already been proven not to hold up very well, and as much as everybody likes YouTube at the moment, they're also waiting to see how long it takes for them to be stamped into submission by copyright holders. Like Napster's first incarnation, they're operating just barely this side of flagrant piracy. The question is why they didn't offer their services to the networks et al. in the first place? Their offer of a deal seems little more than a pre-emptive step toward the situation Napster got backed into, now that they've been flagged as "that place that distributes our stuff without permission." Beyond any question of legality, though, there's just quality. While YouTube might be handy for someone to throw out a video for their friends to see, I can't believe that any content provider would want anything of theirs floating around that looks like the stuff I've seen on that site. The compression artifacts are just unacceptable. I don't spend my day trolling the site, but I would think I'd run across even one video that looked decent. The ones from MTV2(who they do have a deal with now) seem a bit better, but are still pretty bad.

Viral marketing, as differentiated from the viral content that gave it inspiration, is a potentially dangerous thing, and people are only tolerant of it within certain parameters. There's disclosure, but intrusion and "integrity" are also factors. Nobody seemed to have a problem with being sent a link to the Subservient Chicken web site[1] which they had to click, but the Raging Cow sponsored(or not) blog debacle spawned boycott efforts, and remains one of the canonical examples of this type of marketing falling on its face, hard. Nobody likes advertorial, especially when it's deceitful. That sort of thing almost always has a certain stink about it, and it amazes me that marketers keep thinking they're going to get away with it.
I'm not so sure the Burger King/Heavy videos were particularly stealthy if there were press releases involved and a special "Have it Your Way" section for iPod-specific downloads at the Heavy site.

Who says flash mobs are dead? My Harper's has been pouting at the bedside for a couple days now, but if it's the author of that article, it's ironic that he wouldn't realize the idea would and has taken on a life of its own. Also, Friendster isn't dead, though it was made irrelevant by (arguably)better such services that actually allowed you to do something more(...?) than amass a list of "friends" larger than your "friends'" lists.

[1] From Burger King who've actually managed to pull off another few viral campaigns. The Chicken site, beyond disclosing, was apparently actually good...in just the right kind of bad way. Or something. I never went, myself.

One reason for pessimism about the future of viral marketing is illustrated by this anecdote from a recent New York Times report on the 2006 media conference of the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

Despite all the talk about staying up-to-speed with consumer behavior, there are still quite a few media executives who do not know the difference between, say, MySpace and YouTube. The proof came on Friday when a speaker polled the audience with this question: "Raise your hand if you've seen the 'Saturday Night Live' viral video 'Lazy Sunday.' "

Out of a group of many hundreds, three or four hands went up.

Jason Hirschhorn, the chief digital officer for MTV Networks, was unimpressed. "I would say that the amount of people who didn't see the 'Saturday Night Live' skit is scary, considering that you guys are responsible for media buying," he said.

This reminds me of meetings during the Web 1.0 era, where executives would talk confidently and with great authority about the transformative power of seemless digital technology, etc. Later it would emerge that they all had their secretaries print out their email so they could read it.

The irony is, as the kids say, crazy delicious.
Michael Bierut

great article. an interesting development will also be how all this relates to video messaging and movies made specifically for wireless cellphone technology. movies are becoming smaller and smaller. another thing this makes me think about is how narrative survives in a world more increasingly modeled on the database.

regarding corporate sponsorship of these 'viral videos', william gibson's latest book, pattern recognition (which came out in 2003) is a great fictionalization of what dmitri's article is talking about. the story is about a woman (who happens to be a "coolhunter") obsessed with a set of videoclips anonymously uploaded to the web. since the videos have gained a worldwide cult following, the woman is hired by a branding agency to track down the makers these videoclips.

Along with Mauel's reference to Pattern Recognition I'd like to add Videodrome to the list of required reading on this subject. The film is vague and the graphics are a bit dopey by today's standards, but there is something so catchy about Cronenberg's plot and the way it implicates our insataible desire for the latest, newst thing to watch. The internet scouring that generates viral videos comes from this desire to unearth something new, before everyone else. This desire to be "in the know" can create a phenomenon but it inevitably destroys it as well.

I'm actually amazed that both shows can get away with showing footage on tv--ROYALTY-FREE. both are ripping off the creators--sometimes creators that work at actual tv networks half-way across the world. I'm all for open sourcing but both shows are backing up their airings on the "fair use" doctrine--which doesn't seem to apply here, since VH1 and bravo are making cash off of these (apparently popular) shows (btw, i work for one of these entities so i know these things are the case). I'm amazed that, for one example, the Morning Musume clip is aired over and over on this form of commercial television and NHK (i think nhk is the producer of morning musume, i can't remember) isn't suing the crap out of Viacom.

this is part of a larger picture but it seems like a case where the corporate entities are really getting something for nothing. and they often just air them as if they're just nameless wacky 'virals' and don't give info as to their genuine origins.


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