Is Online Video Missing Public Interest Opportunity?


Watching the big-money players take the stage at NewTeeVee Live yesterday, I was a little sad I wasn’t there, networking up a storm. I had to settle for watching the event on Mogulus (which, despite a few technical difficulties and some “live TV” moments, worked swimmingly, in my opinion). But I was also a little sad that much of what was being said indicated the abdication of the throne by content. As Steve Rhodes quipped on Twitter: “So is content ever queen? Or perhaps a citizen?”

Venture capital and corporate investment is going into distribution, social graphs and advertising. Meanwhile the online content getting funded is, at best, infotainment — programming in the public interest is still no way to make a living. I was reminded as much last week as I walked by the Almanac House, the spiritual home of the folk revival movement that was led by wandering troubadors with a social conscience, like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie (above, in one of only two extant clips of the man).

At a time when decadent, big-band jazz backed with syrupy strings dominated the radio, singer-songwriters could accompany their poems of protest with the most democratic instrument yet invented, the guitar. Maybe it was the ghosts of Seeger and Guthrie whispering in my ear as I walked the streets of the West Village, but it occurred to me that, thanks to the low cost of production tools and free distribution, this period might well be remembered as an era when there was a great flowering of folk art and social critique in motion picture form.

But without financial support from viewers and distributors, some of the most valuable work connecting communities and informing the public won’t be able to continue.

Alive in Baghdad, which brings the unvarnished truth from civilians in Iraq, is struggling to cover its costs. And after years of serving his local community, Chuck Olsen, unable to scare up a buyer among local media organizations, is shuttering Minnesota Stories — a model of online video aggregating, publishing and community in service of the public interest.

It’s an unquestionable success that these outlets even exist, certainly. And content producers looking to fund projects would be well served to use grant-finding resources offered by the likes of the Foundation Center and Michigan State University. But independent content production, especially if it isn’t strictly broad entertainment, remains a moonlight gig (and not just online). While that’s appropriate for the ephemera produced as part of NaVloPoMo, the outsider art created by participant Aaron Valdez and the rest of the Wreck and Salvage crew isn’t finding much commercial traction, and that’s a shame.

Seeing Brian Conley of Alive in Baghdad holding out the virtual hat like a busker at West 4th Street station makes me wonder what new media revolutionaries at large are really fighting for. If NewTeeVee content ends up being just like OldTeeVee content, except with lower production value and more product placement, then the only winners are investors and advertisers — not the viewing public.

The folk revivalists eventually ended up commodifying themselves, but it wasn’t pretty — think Bob Dylan selling SUVs and D.A. Pennebaker providing ‘viral’ marketing material. Hopefully there’s a more elegant solution, one that supports the more provocative, less commercial creators of today before they become footnotes in nostalgic cultural histories tomorrow.



Yeah, sorry, was stupid & presumptious of me to talk about how Wreck & Salvage creators live & view their work – from my position of almost total ignorance. If anybody deserves to make it pay & do it full time, they do.

adam quirk

Contrary to popular belief, I dont have a rent-paying day job in the historical sense. I take on freelance web and video projects to pay my rent and buy my beans, but devote most of my time to trying to figure out how to do Wreck & Salvage full-time. We’ve started to produce video for outside clients. We’re selling DVDs (I say selling but should say sold, as in, we haven’t sold one). I’m constantly struggling for money. I’m not trying to garner sympathy either, just saying that your point is well taken.

We’re trying to make money by making art. It’s been done, but it’s a tough row to hoe. In the past, paintings and sculptures have been commissioned by wealthy patrons. So if a millionaire is reading this, call me at 551-208-4644. I’m prepared to clean pools and bathe poodles if necessary.

Until I get that call, we’re taking on clients at:

We’re in production on a couple “viral” videos, and are actively seeking out clients who are interested in producing serialized videos and/or one-off brand-sponsored shorts.

Smart companies are doing this already, but they are few and far between. Most of them are still too mystified by video on the web to reach into their pockets just yet. But they will.


Loved this piece!

Your closing statement was of particular interest to me, as a co-founder of the San Francisco-based Link TV. “Hopefully there’s a more elegant solution, one that supports the more provocative, less commercial creators of today before they become footnotes in nostalgic cultural histories tomorrow.”

You and others might be interested in taking a look at some of our content to see a successful non-profit & non-commercial alternative to traditional media, new & old.

Of interest may be our:

30-minute Peabody Award-winning series, Mosaic: World News from the Middle East
4-minute weekly Mosaic Intelligence Report
world music videos, rarely – if ever – seen before in the U.S.

jay dedman

This is the first time I’ve ever seen someone frame this discussion so clearly. We are all so quick to be talking and pushing video technology that we leave little room for talking about what we actually what to see.

We seem to assume that good content will just happen. Or that we’ll just take what’s currently on TV and put it online. I know too many technologists to know that the passion we geeks feel for online video is a craving for different stories and ways of communication.

The $300,000 it takes to produce an episode of MySpace TV would easily fund a thousand well-made videos of all kinds of topics. I fear that the funders may have either a lack of creative imagination, or a distrust in letting people experiment with storytelling.

Chuck Olsen

Great comments Rupert. I think you’re right on the money.

I think AiB and MN Stories are much like public television – there’s an audience, but you have to struggle to keep it funded and supported.

Thanks for shining a light on non-overtly-commercial video projects, Jackson.


It will persist, just as folk art has always persisted – on the fringes, and for little financial reward.

The creativity and the human connections are their own reward. Money can often interfere, and necessitate creative compromise or lack of change/evolution.

Alive in Baghdad is a costly operation to run.
Most video – like that created by Valdez (who has a rent-paying day job, as do his W&S co-creators) – costs very little to produce. So it’s unlikely to die out any more than any other form of ‘folk art’.

Chuck has made MNStories for years without payment – and is mothballing it to focus on other projects, because he doesn’t have the energy to keep it going without help.
Not that he wouldn’t have liked to make it pay – he would’ve – but just because you and I know that it’s one of the most interesting video sites out there, doesn’t mean that advertisers are going to care.

Even on the licence-fee funded commercial-free BBC in Britain, the most interesting programming, (particularly documentaries) is relegated to the dark corners of the schedules, while the lowest common denominator light entertainment gets primetime.

This same type of crap is what gets watched by millions on Youtube. (But still, not tens of millions, like TV.) Other stuff just doesn’t get watched in sufficient numbers for it to be commercial.

Whatever the technology, people will still mostly want to relax to crap. OldTeeVee/NewTeeVee – whatever -that much seems obvious to me.

But I hope that people will ALSO be able to choose to see interesting TV more easily. I think this will change when people are able to access internet video via the living room TV. I’m sure that the average person will want to relax, watch and share with their family on their couch much more than they do on a computer.

Maybe new advertising methods, greater audiences and better tracking data will allow independent artists to get a few $ from long-tail views of their videos. This is something that lots of non-mainstream artists have never have had access to until now. But for it to happen, we’ve got to get more people watching overall. And perhaps the real numbers won’t come until we’re all on TV again.

Jonathan Sanderson

Of course, as soon as I submit a comment here, I notice that my server for SciCast has gone crazy, so nobody will be able to see it until someone gives it a kick. Which… might be Monday.

Strange how the web so often makes me feel like Charlie Brown, trying to kick the football Lucy’s holding.

Jonathan Sanderson

Here in the UK, Public Service Broadcasting has long been funded either through taxation (the BBC, via the television license fee), or as a broadcast license condition imposed on commercial channels (ITV children’s, news, and regional programming). Much of this has been under threat of late, particularly ITV children’s programming, which has been essentially dead since 2004 (see

I’ve been grappling with this for the last couple of years, taking as my initial target science & engineering entertainment for children. Here, there are vested interests in maintaining a supply of inspired students – namely academia and, to some extent, industry – and the challenge lies in convincing them of two things:

Firstly, that there’s value, utility, and potential in factual entertainment media targeted at schools, students, and families. And secondly, that they can no longer blithely assume the BBC’s looking after their best interests, and therefore they must take matters into their own hands.

We’re having some luck with the first part, with a modest consortium of backers funding as a sort of extended pilot or prototype of what I ultimately have in mind; there are signs of movement on the second part.

But it’s slow going, and sometimes it seems like we’re feeling our way cautiously rather than diving in headlong. One of the challenges is that, within its comfort zone, ‘old media’ was surprisingly agile and dynamic; in contrast, I find working in the British public sector like wading through treacle.

But hey, we’re trying, and we’re learning. We’re also making some fun and informative films along the way, and getting teenagers crafting video is an absolute blast. If we can make it all stick, we’ll end up with similar levels of impact to the old children’s science TV series I made, for about 25% of the spend.


There are many interesting ways that the infrastructure for serving ads will be used by NPOs/NGOs. I suspect that once the online video ad industry matures, there will be a financial structure in place to increase the reach of social media content. One of the problems with this convergence is that it could end up the way tv ads are run now, where censorship is rampant in order to avoid the wrath of the Fortune 500 brand designers and their ad agency minions.

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