South by Southwest 2014 – Power of the Fan Base, Return to the Human and Sports on TV
May the force (of the community) be with you
One of the most striking notions to emerge from the festival is the power of the fan base, the huge potential for innovation and added value that arise from a well-nurtured community. This observation links back to the idea that “… value is now generated by the relationship between audience and content“ , defended by Catalina Briceno in the article Are we done with transmedia yet?.
The concept came up during a conference on the webisodes created for The Walking Dead, which stands among best-developed transmedia franchises currently. When asked “Why develop webisodes?”, Mac McKean, Senior Vice President of Digital Media at AMC, the series’ U.S. broadcaster, said: “We had such a tremendous fan base, we knew we could expand the universe and they would follow us.” Fans’ essentially unconditional support opens up new creative opportunities for the franchise. The three webisodes launched to date have gotten more than 2 million screenings since they went online. Hyundai product placement made it possible to pay for the initiative; the Hyundai brand also has a presence in the TV series.
For its part, Lego’s community is a source of perpetual renewal. Using its crowdsourcing platform—Cuusoo—LEGO’s “fan builders” suggest new models assembled from the small multi-colour bricks. The community is then asked to vote for the projects it wants to see on the market. It takes 10,000 votes to get the project past the first filter. LEGO then takes charge of the “community approved projects“, assessing its technical feasibility and commercial viability. The process yields a two-tiered system for innovating and refreshing the brand within the company. On one hand, major franchises like LEGO Star Wars and LEGO City are developed internally over an extensive period (two, three or even four years of development). On the other, fan-proposed projects are fast-tracked, with less than year between project concept and commercialization.
The first LEGO version of the famous selfie from the 2014 Oscars took just three days to create.
After technology: people
Tech businesses are witnessing a return to the human. The focus is not so much on technology itself, but rather on how people can use it for their own benefit or for society’s. The trend surely arises from the fact that the general public has mastered (or least conquered the bulk of the learning curve) “basic” technologies such as the web, connected devices and apps.
As part of the trend, “human curators” have a growing role. While some major players such as Netflix and Amazon rely on their powerful recommendation algorithms, many new services focus on recommendation by human “curators.” Take, for example, the “curated boxes” at Stitch Fix and Birchbox, hugely popular for some time. Also Songza and Spotify, whose music lists are developed by specialists or fans, but not robots. We could shortly see humanized recommenders for TV and film—remember when the video store clerk used to make suggestions that were specific to individual customers?
In other words, recommendations from algorithms or from curators? Both discovery methods will likely continue to co-exist, as needed.
Although it was already clear before the festival, SXSW nailed home the fact that, these days, sports is TV’s pot of gold. Unlike most of the other genres, the sports niche is in no danger of upheaval: the ESPNs of this world are doing just fine. John Skipper, CEO of ESPN, reported that more than 98.6% of consumption of its channels was occurring on live television; personal recorders, pirating sites, and other streaming platforms do not seem to be impacting that share. “A lot of people DVR our games, but end up never watching them,” he explained.
That said, although the brand is doing very well right now, ESPN is looking for new ways to reach (and expand) its audience. As the executives have it, the sports broadcaster cannot afford to to rest on its laurels as an expert presenter of games and recaps, because “we don’t know what tomorrow’s media environment will be,” says Skipper. ESPN is therefore diversifying. Among other initiatives, it is renewing itself by creating news platforms (sports, as well as politics and entertainment) that do not use ESPN as part of their name (for example the Grantland and FiveThirtyEight sites). This daring strategy is based on simple goals: develop new expertise in the ranks and create spin-offs from the central brand that can reach specific, highly-targeted niches.
All in all, the South by Southwest 2014’s interactive component was lively, inspiring and challenging with respect to the current and future media industries. We came away with the impression that the major changes the so-called “traditional” media are now undergoing are opening the door to renewal for both well-established players and industry entrants.