10 Nov 2008

Why Watch TV, when you can Star in your Own Cartoon Movie Every Night?

"Why Watch TV when you can Star in your own Cartoon Movie Every night?"

The shift from passive to engaged user created content of an entertainment variety.
Consumerism takes many forms, and encompasses many kinds of products. We tend to define consumption of a product when we purchase it or use it. For example we certainly consume electricity, and this is the basis for our links into the Virtual Worlds we inhabit. We also have been consumers of electricity for a long time in regards to our entertainment patterns. Indeed radio, television and movies are all imported to us with the use of electricity. We take this so for granted, that to state this truth seems rather simplistic. Perhaps it is, and we have been consumers of entertainments in an electrified form for so long, the adaptation to the computer was rather seamless.

Traditional or old media is now having to watch as its audience once held passive in front of so much current, now shifts its paradigm to a more active form for what is being sought for entertainment. Viewership is down across the board for traditional and so is the advertising support that has provided the monetary backbone for production.

People spent more on videogames last year than Hollywood Box office. CBS just announced a $14 Million loss in the last quarter, it's only bright spot was the recently acquired CNET, and in an effort to "not ignore its audience or current trends" has agreed to broadcast its shows on of all places, YouTube.

But the old media giants do not understand, or are reluctant to understand that this shift is not just away from one screen to another. People are not just moving from one dull old toy to a shiny new one, and this represents something of a more fundamental nature. We are moving from passive viewing habits to another much more engaging form of entertainment. To be sure we are defined somewhat by what we consume. Yes, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, and indeed the media we consume. When the final drum plays, though we will be judged not by what we consume in this world, but by what we produce.

Part of the appeal of Virtual Worlds, is that the content we create reflects who and what we are and what are interested in. We do not have be dumbed down to accept what is being offered on the networks, or in the movie theaters. We are in many ways reaching up when we create what we do. Surely this activity is part of what makes Virtual Worlds so appealing, and so worthy of return. Perhaps even more so than watching reruns of "Seinfeld" 5 nights a week.
Perhaps because I started on HabboHotel where you are not allowed to create any kind of assets, or to script in any way I began using the text based form of interaction for traditional kinds of entertainment. I hosted weekly poetry slams, and wanted to do more, so I expanded quickly into doing plays. I produced Romeo & Juliet for the first time in September of 2003. I had to use my powers of creation, in a more traditional way. I put on shows, I did many more plays, and found willing participants, who wanted to experience the adrenaline rush of freezing cold fingers while awaiting a cue in what is “live” theater. And It represents a key into why, what I have been prototyping for the past 5 years with the now defunct tinyspaceplayers of Habbo, to that which I do on SecondLife in the StudioDome in the SciLands has so much appeal. It is exciting.

The term artificial reality, coined by Myron Krueger, has been in use since the 1970s but the origin of the term virtual reality can be traced back to the French playwright, poet, actor and director Antonin Artaud. In his seminal book The Theatre and Its Double (1938), Artaud described theatre as "la réalite virtuelle", a virtual reality "in which characters, objects, and images take on the phantasmagoric force of alchemy's visionary internal dramas"
Even though the medium of the tiny screen is electric, as we are acting live and in real time, the analogy is much closer to theater, or the beginning of the television age's live broadcast of shows. And of course with the production element of anything can happen, and this is live, we are in "The Golden Age of the Internet" as far as show production goes.

When we log onto a Virtual World, we are already taking part in a suspension of belief immediately which has been the hallmark of sitting in a dark movie theatre about to watch just about any film, except a documentary. We do not, in general log onto Virtual Worlds to create documentary. We do suspend our belief and take part in the fantastic. Accordingly, in SecondLife we can fly for example, walk underwater, be furry creatures and more. According to the SecondLife traffic report, October was a good month to lose oneself within the narratives of Second Life role play as hundreds of residents joined the ranks of Kingdoms of Sand and Remembrance. We are looking to create our own entertainment and if you will, role play is akin to theater. USG is also what we come here to do. As we already suspend our belief; inhabiting the element of the Virtual World is a prime place to construct theater, theater games and shows.
I am however a child of structured theater, not role play. And I do want others to play with me, learning as they do. Walt Disney famously said " I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained" and education when it encompasses entertainment remains more vivid and is retained longer. (Examples of this are the "conjunction junction" songs and all alphabet kind of songs which most of us utilized in learning and retaining the alphabet)In doing plays, in creating shows that have an element of learning something one did not know before, I engage additionally the participating audience. This happened with the Shakespeare plays, never was the Bard more vivid than when I was inhabiting one of his characters. That held true for all the actors, and when Shakespeare became the hottest ticket on Habbo, I knew I was onto something special.

Now I produce shows that people are thrilled to be a part of. The 2nd QuestioN! has a weekly audience which loves playing along as the show is taped, yes live. They watch it on the video on the site afterwards, and it has become a very popular show. It is the Quiz Show to The Stars! The audience interacts as if they are also the stars, and to be honest, they are. It is a fast paced hour with the audience voting along, and guessing the answers to the questions. Same is true with my new show The Dating Casino which encourages the audience to reveal their preferences to the questions asked as the contestants also answer in real time.

In thinking about how people view video, it pays to think about how people already view video. The experience of watching is certainly not new, and there are loads to understand and appreciate about viewing patterns inherent in the traditional TV audience. The screen has shifted yes, but the same eyes remain firmly in place the species “video on the Internet” is very different from “traditional TV programs” but the species Human has not changed so very much, for example:

The average number of TV channels that people actually watch has only gone from 10 channels in 2005 to almost 16 channels in 2006, despite the number of channels going up from an average of 41 to 104. And people spent an average of less time overall on each stop, mirroring a dwindling attention span. The relevance here is that people have “viewing habits” whether on the Internet or television. People will go back to the same thing again & again if they get something they like there. The Internet caters to people’s tastes and, according to PodTrac, a high percentage of Internet audience members tend to listen or watch the same podcast “station” (for lack of a better word, or “site” if you prefer.) Think of yourself, what number of different actual sites do you go to willingly? Do you tend to visit the same sites over and over again? I think we all do. That’s why we have cookies.

The beauty is there are so many ways to engage the viewer, consumer and Interactive audience. The Virtual World platform is unique. One is generally alone at the computer, doing something that has, needs or wants to get done. When someone is in a Virtual World it is usually because they asked for it and wanted to go there. Here is an opportunity to involve and entertain an audience. People log in and play along, this is viewer log in entertainment. Having a specific show and destination for them to be a part of means they also will return. And they do. Here I build audience or customer loyalty today and encourage them to return and deliver customer value tomorrow. This business model also provides opportunities for advertisers to have a branded form of entertainment on the net, beyond what is just on their site. It is happening live on SecondLife, and people willingly are a part of the show.

Watching videos on the net is rising, according to eMarketeer, in 2006 63% of US households streamed video whether it was content or advertising, by 2011 this is projected to grow to almost 87%. In June of 2007 figures released by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and PricewaterhouseCoopers show that Internet advertising revenues continue to skyrocket. The 2007 first quarter revenues of US$4.9 billion represent a 26 percent increase over Q1 2006 at US$3.8 billion. “The continued growth of online ad revenues clearly illustrates marketers’ increased comfort with the extraordinary vitality and accountability of this medium,” commented IAB President and CEO Randall Rothenberg. “It reaches consumers with an unprecedented level of efficiency and measurability that provides marketers with actionable data. And the ever-changing landscape of new platforms and technologies that enrich interactive advertising guarantees that this growth trend will continue.”

The eyes are here, the money follows. And Virtual World participation is also very much on the rise. Recently, Philip Rosedale, former CEO of Linden Labs predicted at an Always On conference that within ten years the number of people in Virtual Worlds will overtake the number of web users.

Using this platform means creating more than precious moments, and full scale communities dedicated to learning, enrichment and having fun. The platform is perfect for launching all kinds of traditional and potentially profitable kinds of entertainment as well. According to a 2007 Morgan Stanley report, “longer term monetization should grow faster than usage, which should grow faster than users, recent very recent rapid growth of online video + voice + USG combined with a high probability of innovation bodes well for continued usage growth. Ongoing improvements in monetization are being driven by improved targetability / personalization / usability.” Not just microtransactions within a Virtual World, but also delivering the kind of game shows that have been around for over 20 years. And these will eventually be supported by advertisers as well, seeking to brand original productions with their names and product. I jokingly have said that I would, on the 2nd QuestioN! drink a martini of Bombay Gin and smoke a Camel cigarette. I might be put to the test one day with this.

Brand entertainment and Internet advertising has the ability to reach people fully focused and literally at the edge of their seats. With all eyes on the smaller screen, those in advertising must decide how to parlay active interest into time spent with the product. “Time is the new currency,” as it has been said, after which follows, “Content is King”.

Online shows will create opportunities for branding awareness, think of the old Kraft Mystery theatre but on the internet where you too can log in to participate in a performance, or watch someone you know. The new age also eclipses the old one in many unusual ways. We have idolized gorgeous film stars throughout the history of movies, but needing to look at Brad Pitt is certainly diminished when you can easily look like him, or better, in your avatars skin. And if your partner wants to look like Angelina Joile, well she can. If we worship beauty, and have been trained to want to look at better looking people, the ability to be that better looking person might be the best of all worlds.

Another factor for online production and return on investment is cost. Clearly the cost of putting on any kind of television or cable like programming is not only fraught with barriers to entry, (especially if your Dad is not Michael Eisner), but also that of cost. On a Virtual World platform, all the elements to create your own show, or machinima is there, and very often quite inexpensively. Consider it costs around $20,000 USD just to have a professional writer craft just a one hour episode of The Office, and this without any other costs such as hiring talent or production staff. The ability to create an online original program as I have done for very much less is a huge incentive for doability.

It does take commitment, comfort with being that much ahead of the curve, ability to withstand criticism and a very clear focus to produce, organize, motivate, write and direct. These luckily are my strengths. As far as scripting the voting board, or building the StudioDome, well I have to leave that to people who are far more talented in that regard. And with any great production for entertainment value, no one can write, film, direct, act and build sets. The difference is in a Virtual World there are people who want to do what their natural talents give them the ability to do.

There is opportunity to make this happen, it is low cost, it is immediate and it is available.
Machinima and video is more than a trend; it is a valuable way of connecting with an audience that in the case of the computer is literally and figuratively, at the edge of their seats. The intimate nature of the relationship between someone at the keyboard versus someone holding the power tool is quite different. The body no longer ends at the fingertips, but extends into the medium of the computer. If the fingers extend into the medium, then so does the mind in new ways. That is why entertainment on the web isn’t passive, it’s active. The brain itself is engaged in a completely new, active way. We are meaning seeking creatures, as Jane Goodall said, if we find meaning, we will return. We must keep this in mind in providing programming on the web worth watching.

We have an endless appetite for things to see and for things that will stimulate us; therefore engaging with meaningful video is essential. We have been trained now for over 50 years to respond to a moving image through the television. We are training ourselves as to what to look for with the InterVision we are presented with now on the net.

For those who don’t want to produce shows as I do, there is the opportunity to play within them as a contestant, or a member of the panel. For those who want to watch, there is the excitement of being at a live broadcast, and what is even more fun, the ability to really be a part of the audience interaction. This is why I create the game shows. On the 2nd QuestioN!, although the panel and myself and my co-host are on voice, the audience is not, but their constant chatlog comments is very rich, varied and entertaining. They are participating in the program as it is being filmed. We have left the passive to become active and star in the very real experience of our own cartoon movies every night.

This creates an added bonus for us in terms of entertainment. When you go to the movies, you are passively watching. On the 2nd QuestioN! you are actively engaged, and engaged in trying to guess the questions along with 60 other people all playing in the “room” at the same time.
Even Alec Trebek doesn’t have that with Jeopardy. I will take viewer log in entertainment on the web, for a million.

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