we write about the things we build and the things we consume
Zach Bagnall

a life less linear

Double Oscar winner Kevin Spacey is a pretty smart guy, and also artistic director of the Old Vic theatre in London and, as if that wasn’t enough, currently riding high as the star of new, original (cough) Netflix series House Of Cards. He even found time to make a 90 minute documentary with Sam Mendes, Now, which he is distributing online through his own website.

Last year, Spacey was invited to give the MacTaggart lecture, opening the annual Edinburgh International Television Festival – the first time this honor has been offered to a “creative”. The full video is here. Some highlights:

His message is that while television has surpassed film as the richest medium for storytelling, it has come to the fore at the same time as the technology and appetites of consumers are shifting fast. And the constant theme through these changes is the demand for engaging story.

[In 1990] The film industry didn’t believe that television could ever become its biggest competitor. And yet it would be only 8 years later that The Sopranos would debut on HBO, and the tide of actors, directors and writers seeking and finding a more fertile playground than the film industry was offering would begin. Mostly because these pioneers in cable took chances and those stories found audiences thirsting for more sophisticated narratives & characters than the movie theaters were offering them.

Content is king, whatever the medium so don’t get hung up on distinctions between movies, television, miniseries’, web streams. Nurture talent and “try new things to discover appetites we didn’t know were there”. Or more succinctly:

It’s the creatives, stupid.

The lines between categories like television, film and web may be blurring. I’m not a massive consumer of web programming but I greatly enjoy Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and I don’t even know what to call that. It’s neither television nor youtube.

Another ambitious platform for content creation is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hitRECord – an “open collaboration production company” to which anyone on the internet can contribute content, download content, remix and share. The intro video is worth watching.

I think we have demonstrated that we have learned the lesson that the music industry didn’t learn: Give people what they want – when they want it – in the form they want it in – at a reasonable price – and they’ll more likely pay for it rather than steal it.

The response from industry to Spacey’s call for innovation in content delivery has been to defend the status quo. ITV’s director of television, sounding like he’s promoting abstinence in a sex ed class, described the traditional serialised delivery of then hit show Broadchurch as reminding us of “the deferred pleasure that we had to wait until Monday night. It became a talking point because we waited until Monday night. I think there is a pleasure in that”. His counterpart at the BBC had this to say: “On-demand is exciting, and we are proud of the strength of the iPlayer, but we know and are very clear that most television is consumed on channels, watched live.”

I can’t wrap my head around that. I’ve been opting out of linear broadcasting for 25 years, since mastering the VCR programming, through home built and home coded PVR boxes, a foray into FM radio recording and casting, and into the blazing always-online present with wizardry like CouchPotato and Plex.

BBC iPlayer isn’t really on-demand – it’s a limited catchup service to support traditional broadcast programming. I got a bit behind on Masterchef recently and the final episode fell over the iPlayer seven day (soon to be 30 day) event horizon. Now I’ll never know whose ice cream didn’t set in time for service.

Returning to Bloomsbury, what role will Atlas, Voila and Engage play in this brave new world of de-categorised content, open production agencies, dSLR cameras and youtube superstars? Is there value in mining creative platforms such as Vimeo, Soundcloud and indies self-publishing on their own sites? Stay tuned!

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