Part one of a five-part series where I sit down to talk about the web video scene with the people who are both making it and making it possible in Los Angeles.
I made two mistakes planning my trip to LA: One, I’m staying downtown, which is revitalizing but still terra non grata; and two, I didn’t rent a car. But then, I wouldn’t be offering much in the way of a unique perspective if I was ensconced at the Chateau Marmont and tooling around town in a limo. Since my view of Hollywood has always been from the bottom up, it’s only proper.
One of the things that struck me on my way to lunch was the the LA County Metro buses have three screens showing “Transit TV” (and maps powered by Microsoft Windows Live). Then, in the elevator of the Westwood office building where I was to meet with my lunchmates, another screen silently displayed advertisements to another captive audience. I was almost surprised not to see a TV at our restaurant table.
I was there to meet with Sarah Szalavitz, who’s the Director of Content Development at Veoh and has a background in feature film production. We were joined by Stacy Jolna, a veteran of Microsoft WebTV and TiVo who’s currently an online video consultant. I let them decide on Tengu, a stylish sushi joint that I can report makes a fine spicy tuna handroll.
Our conversation was a wide-ranging medley of personal reflections on the state of television, from production to consumption. What we all agreed on is that it’s a terribly exciting time to be involved in anything having to do with distributing video online. Of course, part of that excitement is that the field is so new and wide open that, frankly, no one really knows for sure what’s going on or where it will all go.
For starters, while the youth market seems to be getting most of the attention, you might be surprised by who’s actually watching online video. Generalizing from demographic data, Jolna suggested that the statistically typical viewer in the United States is a 35-year-old Asian-American man. Of course, just as MTV played an outsized role in the success of cable television, so will MySpace as the 15-year-olds of today become the parents of tomorrow.
Szalavitz pointed out that if you want easy viewer numbers, you can always go with boobs. But attracting an audience to non-erotic content requires a little more attention to creating quality product. To that end, what’s important is to enable creators, both through tools and through exposure. I was reassured to learn that there is most definitely a nascent “scene” in LA comprised of folks who are working online — but certainly not to exclusion. Almost everyone has had or still has a foot in the entertainment industry.
When asked for my thoughts, I repeated my own talking points about how important programming is going to become. What’s so exciting about Joost is not its open source origins or peer-to-peer protocols, but that it’s attempting to marry what’s good about the web (an active community and searchability) to what’s good about television (passive leisure and findability). Just as aggregators like BoingBoing helped blogging go mainstream, so will video sharing when that friend of yours (who’s constantly forwarding the good stuff from YouTube) can share her own “channel” on your living room set.
That led to some discussion on how celebrity will manifest online. There was a somewhat fatalistic sense that, as online video moves mainstream, web celebrities are more and more likely to start resembling regular celebrities. Talent will still be a requirement, but not the only requirement. The money behind the scenes will predominantly be controlled by men, and the people in front of the camera will probably tend towards thin and blonde. C’est la vie.
What’s so exciting is that there’s both money and cameras, and as long as that’s the case, everyone’s got a shot at doing what they want to do and getting paid to do it. Which is all this frustrated former film student ever asked for. Unlike the days when I had to wrangle a projector to subject people to my terrible 16mm film shorts, now I can publish terrible film shorts to Veoh, YouTube, Google Video, MySpace all at once with a click. And that’s what I call progress.