Geoffrey Long
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This is CNN (the Director's Cut).

Earlier today Thom Patterson's story "Is the Future of TV on the Web?" went online at I had a one-line quote in it, but actually the conversation between Thom and I gave me the opportunity to write up some thoughts that I'd been kicking around for a while on the online video front. Below is a roughly-edited transcript of our email interview, which Thom graciously agreed to let me share with you here.

How does video consumption online compare with traditional TV? Is online traffic miniscule compared with the average time most homes watch traditional television?

I don't know the answer to this off the top of my head. My guess is that yes, the consumption of online video remains small compared to the amount of time spent watching traditional TV, but the key factor is the increasing ease with which it is possible to get online video onto your living room TV using simple, common devices such as the Apple TV or Microsoft's Xbox 360. The common assumption in tech circles is that the whole HD-DVD/Blu-Ray debacle was really a losing war on both sides, with the real expected winner being online video services like those currently being built into the Xbox. The idea of a specialized Media Center PC sounds laughable to most folks, but that's really what game systems like the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 already are.

Where might we as a technological society be five or ten years from now? Will TV still be the place where the family gathers? Or will Internet technology change us to a more fractured, individual society?

We're already seeing this change occur thanks to the one-two punch of extremely specialized niche entertainment and our mobile media culture. In his lectures about ubiquitous computing and ambient informatics, Adam Greenfield calls our attention to something he calls ambivalent adjacency -- how many people walk around with their ears plugged with iPod earbuds and how they are using these portable media devices in order to cut themselves off from society even when they're out walking around in it. This isn't a new practice -- the same thing was seen when the Sony Walkman first appeared in 1979 and the Nintendo Game Boy a decade later -- but with the expansion of portable personal media into online video it's only becoming more and more pronounced. This isn't to say it's a bad thing -- I love being able to watch video lectures from the TED conference on my iPhone on the way home from campus -- but it is certainly a use of technology to create a deliberately isolated space in definitely non-isolated surroundings.

As for whether or not TV will still be the place where the family gathers, I'd argue that television should never have been the place where the family gathers. When you have a family all sitting together watching TV, they're very rarely looking at each other or even communicating with each other while the show is on. There are some exceptions, of course – shouting out answers while watching Jeopardy or collectively heckling American Idol – but for the most part the consumption of most media is still a singular experience, even while watching it in the company of others. In my household, more often than not we're dead silent while we're watching Lost or House, M.D. except for when we're laughing at something on-screen, and even then that's less an interaction with each other than a reaction to what we're watching. The family interactions happen during commercial breaks, or after the show's over. Even in the days when you could safely assume everyone you know had watched last night's episode of I Love Lucy, and you could all talk about it, the discussion was still being held separately from the consumption of the media. I think that the transformation of television into these post-broadcast models will simply make these discussions into more like our conversations about movies. People don't watch movies at the same time, in the same place, or under the same conditions, but we still talk about them in more or less the same way. The biggest change now is that many of these conversations aren't being held around water coolers but on Internet forums. The trade-off is that you may be less likely to ask your co-worker if they'd seen the episode of Homestar Runner that was posted online last night, but you can have the same conversation with friends on the other side of the planet. It comes down to how you define a fractured, individual society.

It seems like younger pop culture today places a higher value on art and entertainment created by individuals – including indie-produced films. If you believe this is true, does that make the YouTube juggernaut a tougher competitor against Web sites whose programs are mostly studio-produced TV shows and movies?

I'm not entirely sure that's true. There's been a strong undercurrent supporting the development of 'indie' productions for decades, sp the big studios just learn to create their own sub-brands that capture the 'indie' aesthetic. I think we're seeing the same thing happening now -- big corporations trying to hide themselves in hipster's clothing.

Where I think the studios may be in serious trouble is in their potentially misguided belief that people have any loyalty to the studios or to the channels. You certainly can't blame them -- it's arguably all they've got -- but in this day and age, I think the audience has a much greater loyalty to the creators than the studios who release their work. There's a widespread belief among Whedon fans that Firefly failed due to mismanagement of its airing by FOX. Do those fans associate the show with FOX or with Joss Whedon? If new episodes of Firefly were to be created, would fans first look for them at or at Joss Whedon's personal website? Arguably the most logical place to get that content would be from an official site created for the show, but if any place is going to aggregate the episodes it'd probably be on Whedon's website. Of course, in our current age of 'spreadable' media, there's no reason why new episodes wouldn't appear in all three places. In a hierarchy of brands, it's the show first, then the creator, and then the network, and that's if they're lucky.

I seriously believe that the idea of competing video portals is wrongheaded from the get-go. Instead of using the TV stations as a model, I think online video producers should look more to RSS feeds. People can subscribe to multiple weblogs as RSS feeds that are then collected and delivered to them in an application called an RSS aggregator. TiVo is essentially an RSS aggregator for television shows, and its 'Your Recordings' screen is the aggregator. I think this is the current audience mentality in a nutshell – we don't care what channel the content came from, we only care that we receive the new episodes whenever they're released. Channels now only serve as coolfinders -- I'll pay more attention to new content coming from the Sci-Fi Channel because they've brought me shows I enjoyed before, but I'm just as likely to find new content from friends, from websites, from magazines, or from creators I follow. In the post-broadcast model, I don't want to have to go to a dozen different websites and use a dozen different proprietary viewing applications, I want to be able to subscribe to every show I enjoy and have it show up automatically. That's the beauty of an aggregator like the iTunes Store. When NBC pulled out of iTunes, I wasn't angry at Apple, I was angry at NBC. I've never gone hunting for an episode of Heroes on NBC's website, but I had happily downloaded episodes of it from iTunes and I would again the second it returned. I want my content when I want it, where I want it, how I want it, and I don't want to go hunting for it. That's the real advantage that networks have to offer over something like BitTorrent – and currently they're squandering it.

What do you think of the totally ad-supported business model of Web sites such as,, and others that offer free studio TV and movies? Can it work? How viable is it? How long will it take for such a model to turn a profit?

When the idea of online advertising first came along, advertisers were ecstatic over the idea of measurable impressions, but it wasn't long before their obsession with click-through rates torpedoed a massive number of perfectly fine websites. The flaw in the model is simple: when was the last time you ordered a pizza the second a Pizza Hut ad came on TV? Click-through rates failed to take into consideration the value of building up a brand in the mind of an audience, so that when they actually wanted a pizza they'd think of Pizza Hut, not just while that ad was blinking on and off at the top of the New York Times.

Since then, independent content providers have gotten a lot more savvy about their business models. Simply put, relying completely on ad revenue is a recipe for disaster. If you want a profitable model, look to the webcomics crowd. Some popular online cartoonists are now pulling down six figures a year through a combination of ad rates and the sales of merchandise related to their creations. Other recent success stories can be found in novelists. Cory Doctorow has proven repeatedly that you can post novels as freely downloadable PDFs and people will still buy the dead-tree versions. In March HarperCollins posted a free online reading copy of Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods as an experiment, and as a result the weekly book sales went up by 300%. That's where the money lies -- not in relying solely upon advertising to support your online creations, but by deploying a mixture of free content, purchasable merchandise and ways to take that free content home with you. Now, obviously, getting this model to scale for productions that require much larger budgets is a challenge, which is probably why we haven't seen a free online version of Joss Whedon's Firefly yet, but the Jim Henson Company and the Sci-Fi Channel are currently developing webisodes of their defunct fan-favorite Farscape, so that's definitely going to be a canary in the coal mine.

Long story short, I think that if you make a good product and give it away for free online, people will happily buy it in other, more permanent forms – and often a t-shirt besides, to identify other fans of the same niche media. Advertising, if involved at all, should be gravy.

This is CNN.
There's a new piece up at called "Is the Future of TV on the Web?" in which I'm briefly quoted. I had a lot more to say on the subject, obviously, but due to space constraints it got chopped down to just one sentence. I'm checking with the interviewer to see if I can post the complete transcript here -- there's a couple points I made there that I'd like to share. Also, if any of you are new readers coming here through a post-article Google search, you can reach me at glong [at] mit [dot] edu. Drop me a line and say hello! I'd love to talk shop.