FESTIVALS: That's "Intertainment" -- One World, Many Gadgets at MIPCOM '99
by Marco Masoni
Cannes, October 1999. Convergence was given front and center stage at MIPCOM '99, as people from all walks of the entertainment and Internet ("intertainment") industries tried charting where and how television and the Internet would intersect in the future-present. After all the posturing and presentations, it became evident that convergence seemed to implicate quite a lot of...divergence.
The preeminent international, film and program market for TV, video, cable and satellite, MIPCOM is held each year in Cannes, France, boasting over a thousand exhibitors representing some 90 countries from Albania to Yemen (the US, UK and France topping the list) trying to entice buyers into purchasing their "content"-- i.e., game shows, television series, soap operas, films, documentaries, comedies, etc. Certainly, a logical place for intertainment industry execs to discuss what to do as audiences become gadget hoppers, jumping back and forth between televisions, computers, PDA's and mobile phones. In other words, a discussion of how to get the divergent communication and entertainment platforms to converge in the name of fun, education and profit.
It all started with a keynote speech by Mr.Jean-Marie Messier, President of Vivendi, a French conglomerate with significant media, telecommunications and Internet holdings. Mr. Messier pointed out what everyone accepts but few understand: the imminent ability of audiences (AKA, users) to access their entertainment (AKA, content) from multiple devices, requires the delivery of content in such a way that all the devices will uniformly "remember" the user's recent activities and current predilections. Moreover, each device must present users with enriched content, that is entertainment rich in opportunities for interaction, information, communication and commerce. Bottom line: content should be developed so that it can be personalized and follow an individual across platforms (i.e., it should be "sticky"), while also adapting itself to the unique nature of each platform (i.e., it should be platform specific), whether the viewing screen is large or small, the controls few or several, and the bandwidth for data transmission is low or high. An exhilarating challenge, to say the least, for anyone interested in creating content for media's new world. Appropriately, though much to the puzzlement of the many non-Trekkers in attendance, Mr. Messier ended his presentation by saying: "Our mission is to boldly go where no one has gone before."
Discussions about the web's impact on television by a panel with representatives from the cable, television network and Internet media industries were underpinned by the results of a recent study by Yahoo! concluding that, on average, television use declined about 40 percent once a household went online. Also, about half of US households have a television and computer in the same room, with the majority being kept on at the same time (e.g., potentially looking up information on the web about a product they see on a television show or in a commercial). In other words, people are ahead of the curve, already converged, in spite of the divergent platforms. It is up to the broadcasters, content creators and web companies to enhance and facilitate their convergent experiences. And in many instances this means finding the right partners in technology, marketing, production, distribution, etc., to break down and manage the convergence juggernaut.
Examples of this new, enriched content approach abound. Jim Steyer, president of JP Kids, which develops programs for children, announced a partnership with Yahoo! to launch an Internet portal for kids called Yahooligans! in an effort to capture the under-15 age group -- the fastest growing segment of Internet users. MTV is moving full throttle to develop interactive components for its multitask-savvy audience by modifying the format of its shows and music videos so that they are not only watchable, but also include elements that are researchable, buyable and playable-- in other words, MTV is looking to create a "pupil-to-plastic experience." Throut and Neck, an interactive TV program developed by the Danish company Interactive Television Entertainment, has met with great success among college students. Broadcast live, Throut and Neck combines animation with a live action hostess and allows audience members to send commands via the Internet and telephone to animated characters who compete in a game that involves decimating amorous sheep (the cartoon kind).
While much of the convergence talk at MIPCOM '99 centered around the increasing need for and difficulty of branding content and companies across platforms, little attention seemed to be given to one of the more successful branding stories in the domain of convergence, albeit convergence between Internet and film. Yes, "Blair Witch." Much has been said and written about how "The Blair Witch Project" used the Internet to its megadollar advantage. In effect, the "Blair Witch" website served primarily as a marketing tool to promote the film (with the film, once released, then cross-promoting the website). In the process of marketing the film, the "Blair Witch" team successfully created a new brand (logo and all), opening the door to further development of all sorts of cross-platform interaction between audience and content (again, the pupil-to-plastic experience implemented by MTV).
Just as "Blair Witch" used convergence to create a brand for itself, new companies like US-based AtomFilms are attempting a similar strategy. Following the opening of a European office in London, AtomFilms made its debut at MIPCOM, presenting its growing roster of short films to buyers. Having identified a cheap and plentiful entertainment product -- short films -- and a means to promote that product -- the Internet -- AtomFilms is now using traditional channels like MIPCOM to sell its wares and increase its visibility. The company's website, however, serves the added purpose of giving buyers a place where they can see the AtomFilms product line anytime and anywhere, while also growing demand for the product itself band introducing scores of webnauts everyday to the short film format. Meanwhile, the website's design is carefully calculated to impress visitors with a look and feel unique to AtomFilms. That look and feel is the brand image that Atom Films wants people to associate them with, and which they hope to leverage in order to become a media player.
MIPCOM also featured a number of companies aimed at enabling convergence like Web Choice and Licensemusic.com. Web Choice makes TV programs interactive with software that allows the computer to accept audio commands, called "ZapTones," from a television. The ZapTone directs a computer that's being kept on while a person is watching TV to whatever web page the TV program producer wants that person (the gadget hopper) to view and use. This, in fact, is the technology being employed by the producers of Throut and Neck to coordinate the broadcasts of their show with the web content of the Throut and Neck website. It was also recently adopted by MGM Worldwide Television Group to promote interaction between TV and Internet for the show "Stargate SG-1."
Licensemusic.com provides an entirely different but equally groundbreaking service. If one needs to license music for a TV pilot, film, documentary, commercial or Internet video clip, but doesn't have the time and money to have it scored or to buy the rights to, say, "Hotel California," then Licensemusic.com provides an alternative. By going to their site, one can find tracks from lesser-known artists with a few clicks and buy a license to them on the spot, then download the music tracks in the chosen file format (including MP3). The licensing fees are based on the amount of time the tracks will be used, the geographical scope of use and the medium (e.g., theatrical vs. Internet). If the use is intended solely for festivals then the licensing price will reflect that and be significantly lower than if the use were for worldwide theatrical release. Licensemusic.com has already started to negotiate with the big music labels in order to add more, and better known, artists to its list. We may, after all, eventually see "Hotel California" available for online licensing and downloading. It may not be cheap, but it might be easier.
The people at MIPCOM have also hopped on the convergence bandwagon by launching mipinteractive.com and MILIA. Just over a year old, mipinteractive.com acts as an online version of MIPCOM, providing a year-round, global tool for buying and selling content not only among the traditional heavyweights from Europe and North America, but also for companies from the nations that tend to be underrepresented at MIPCOM, particularly in Asia and Latin America. Alongside MIPCOM and mipinteractive.com, MILIA was created four years ago as the world's interactive content marketplace, essentially MIPCOM for interactive media. One can't help but note the irony of discussing the convergence of Internet and television given the fact that MIPCOM distinguishes itself from MILIA on the basis of its focus on the television marketplace, as opposed to the Internet and interactive TV markets. Will MIPCOM and MILIA be forced to converge in the same way that the Internet and television are converging? Again, convergence seems to spring from, and in some ways provoke, divergence.
Once asked in an interview how he thought the Internet was going to change television programming, Ted Turner responded: "I really don't know for sure." And yet Turner's brainchild, CNN, has long been a leader in convergence, now delivering its services on mobile phones, pagers, screensavers and 10 different websites, all in addition to its traditional cable and satellite programming. So what's the best strategy to adopt for convergence in a divergent world? Perhaps Howard Stringer, Chairman/CEO of Sony America replied most appropriately when he remarked that "...it's very important and critical to have our finger in a lot of different pies." Simply put, no one knows the future for sure, the playing field is crowded but, paradoxically, vast. People are creating TV programs for the Internet and Internet programs for TV and everything in between. In the not-distant future, we may be surfing the net using personal monitors on flights between New York and LA, and catching the latest digitally downloaded movie in a small electronic cinema in Tel Aviv. The question being asked and answered at the same time by many players, both big and small, in the intertainment industry is: where do we position ourselves for convergence and how do we do it?
[Marco Masoni is a New York-based entertainment attorney and co-founder of dScoop.com, LLC, a consumer oriented internet resource for digital video enthusiasts (Soft launch is scheduled for next month). Contact: marco@dScoop.com.]