Monday, July 17, 2006

The Long Tail

I've heard "the long tail" defined many ways, but I think the easiest way for me to understand it is this:

Back when I was doing Duckman, I tried to impress upon the Paramount brass that this Internet thing was going to be a big deal. They actually wanted to stop it. They convened a meeting of execs, writers, and producers to come up with a strategy to convince Bill Gates not to ship WebTV. They felt the Internet would kill TV. Best to kill the Internet first.

I was stunned as I looked around the table at this Flat Earth Society. I suggested it would be better to embrace the Internet, that maybe (for example) Frasier fans might like to have chat rooms during the show with cast members or writers. One of the execs said, "Chat rooms???"

I explained what a chat room was.

He sneered and laughed. "Right. Okay. People are actually going to 'type' to total strangers. 'Whatever!'"

I took one more stab. I suggested that the biggest financial future of the studio wasn't in its successes, but in monetizing its failures. That the studio had warehouses full of product that still had millions of fans. So let's take the manufacturing out of the distribution equation. Imagine you didn't have to print anything or press anything or make anything plastic. Imagine you could just sell the show itself to those fans for a dollar apiece with no manufacturing costs.

We had over a million loyal Duckman fans. Let's say, conservatively, ten percent buy the downloads... That's found money! And they had treasures they probably didn't even know they had! Like that male Laverne & Shirley with Jim Belushi and Michael Keaton. Or Bosom Buddies, which at that time wasn't syndicated. Or M Squad with Lee Marvin, the show Police Squad! was a parody of. Or Police Squad!, which is even now not on DVD. I'll bet lots of people would pay a buck to see those.

They looked at me as if I had suggested we slaughter a cow.

That's what I think of as the long tail.

By the way, undaunted, starting about ten years ago I tried for years to get a meeting with TiVo or Microsoft or NBC to lay out my vision for an alternative to network broadcasting that involved hundreds of niche-targeted shows, delivered via broadband and watched on computers and handheld devices. I was unable to get in the door. People thought I was speaking in what Mr. T might call jibber-jabber.

Having taken years to recover, a couple of years ago I tried in vain to get another meeting. My idea to save TiVo -- since I have five boxes I want to see them make it -- was to free them from the tyranny of the networks. I thought, "Wouldn't it be better if people could upload their own videos and share them? If TiVo became a massive community of video-sharing and podcasts, with network TV as a bonus?

Couldn't get in. Cut to: YouTube invented, YouTube explodes, TiVo makes deals with YouTube and Yahoo.

I don't care that I wasn't part of podcasting or YouTube, I'm just glad it happened. And I'm not saying I'm a genius. Lots of people had these same ideas at the same time. They were the way the wired world was moving. They were inevitable. Yet people still evit them. (Evit?)

Still if anyone wants to meet about my combination jetpack and sexbot, I'm wide open after next week.

P.S. Once it became clear at that ludicrous meeting that it was, well, a ludicrous meeting, I confess I got a little punchy. There we all were around a long oaken conference table with green lampshades, trying to figure out how to stop Bill Gates before he unleashed WebTV and poisoned our business model.

So I suggested an idea that was a joke, but I still think is sheer genius: that we use broadband to deliver two versions of each show. One would be (the example I used then) Frasier done the way it was always done, and the other would be the exact same dialogue...

...used in porn.

All hardcore fucking, without changing a single word. As they stared at me, I said, "Tell me you wouldn't watch that every week." I pantomimed assfucking. "Sherry, Niles?"

"You would watch it, and you would call your friends and tell them to turn on their TV's, quick!"

And I really do believe everyone would watch. If anyone wants to try it, just cut me in for a little taste of the profits. A little somethin', y'know, for the effort.


MegaZone said...

They didn't get it then, they don't get it now, and they'll probably never get it. While they're busy trying to figure out ways to legislate against innovation and clinging to old business models, the rest of the world is busy innovating around them. They're going to end up cut loose and adrift, wondering how the hell it happened, railing against the 'ungrateful' market. Like the idiots who think the answer to DVRs is to block ad skipping.

Innovate or die.

Heck, TiVo is what made me a huge Duckman fan. I'd see bits of it on USA first run, but I rarely managed to catch it. A few years ago, after I had TiVo, I believe it was Comedy Central who re-ran it all, and I watched every episode, often repeatedly, because it is a damn good show.

I'd buy the DVDs if they came out. Heck, give me a download that allows me to burn discs, like Movielink just annonced. Put 'manufacturing' in my hands. The cost of putting the content up on a server is nothing. I'd just about kill for Police Squad. Single best gag *ever* - the NTSC interference pattern suit used in one small scene.

The big studios are going to have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the modern age. They fear change more than anything else.

Even fairly innovative companies, like TiVo, can be blinded to possibilities. I think TiVo is handling videoblogs, etc, poorly. They're trying to retain control of the content accessed via TiVo - looking for a way to monetize it. In the end I think they'll have to open up and just make it a standard part of the service.

Whenever I see things like ABC calling for a block on fast-foward on DVRs I just shake my head and roll my eyes. Same reaction to the US government talking about trying to control the Internet, seemingly forgetting not everyone falls under US law.

Grubber said...

That last idea was great. A friend at uni dubbed a porno with his own voice and "whipeout" playing in the background.

I have never been able to listen to that song again without laughing.

One of the funniest things ever.