Far from the murmur of panels and parties of SXSW, you can almost hear the old media companies rolling in their graves as a series of small but potent announcements help bring amateur TV and movies to a national stage.
The announcements come from two of the biggest players in the online video and music space. Rovi, a $7 billion company that provides "metadata," or artist and album information, to services like iTunes, Pandora, Shazam, Slacker, and Spotify, is opening up their database to user-generated content. The other is Vimeo, the massively popular user-generated video site that tops 50 million unique monthly visitors per month. Vimeo says it will release new HTML5 technology making it easier to watch all their videos on any device: TV, phone, computer, or tablet.
Death knells for "big content" have come and go in recent years, but web video has still failed to gain a mainstream audience. One reason is that users have a hard time separating the best user-gen videos from the trillions of stupid ones. Rovi's user-gen database could massively improve "social recommendations" and search, ameliorating the wheat-chaff problem. Another issue is that web video is still too hard to access from TVs and mobile phones, because those devices have segmented software requirements. Vimeo says that HTML5 technology like its own could finally make videos device-agnostic, making those social recommendations easy to watch anywhere.
Hello, World (of Niches)
Unlike on TV, the biggest web video successes have been niche shows meant for small audiences. "If you're going to make web content, you have to have a niche," said Felicia Day, creator and star of the hit online web video series The Guild at Monday's SXSW keynote. "In a first-person shooter," she continued, "you aim with a sniper rifle, not a shotgun."
A collective "duh" rose from the crowd. Hyper-targeting isn't a new concept on the web. In fact, SXSW sweethearts like Scvngr and Foursquare have build nascent empires on the idea that software should know you quite intimately—your whereabouts, your present company, and your tastes. Those things are key to making good recommendations for a restaurant or bar, and the same should be true of video or music.
But in Hollywood, things works differently. Dollars are counted in Nielsen advertising ratings, which are largely binary—you're watching or you're not. In today's video marketplace, there's effectively no such thing as targeted advertising; the shows with the broadest appeal get the biggest ad dollars.
The Key Is ... Metadata?
For amateurs who hope to film the next big web video hit, reaching their audience is incredibly challenging: Day says she stumped for her show for months on forums, blogs, and other online video-gamer hangouts before viewers began rolling in. What's know as "the discovery problem" makes it hard for people to find shows that don't already take place on a national stage, and amateur operations like Day's, the first season of which was funded by donations, can't afford to spend millions on blanket advertising hoping to find their precious few. Social recommendations on sites like Facebook or Digg can help, she told the crowd, but not much.
The advantage that large film and music studios have over small players like Day is metadata—the ancillary information about artists and their work that you see in music apps like iTunes, Pandora, or IMDB. Those artist biographies, discographies, clips, and still photos help a company like Apple create its "Genius" recommendations inside iTunes, which in turn help drive sales. This solves the so-called "discovery problem" for any artist with big backers.
"The Web is full of sites and apps that can point you to every single scene a famous actor has ever starred in, but that doesn't help someone on Vimeo," Andrew Pile, Vimeo's VP of product and technology, tells Fast Company. Vimeo hosts high-quality videos made by regular people, whose biographies and CVs you won't find on a site like IMDB, which is one reason they don't show up in your average Google video search.
Too Much, Too Fast, Too Good
Metadata is written largely by professional reviewers and editors hired by companies like Rovi, which have traditionally not used user-generated content. "Editors are extremely important to creating metadata," says Rovi's Chief Evangelist Richard Bullwinkle, "but the problem now is that content is being created at such a incredible rate that no human team can handle it." Rovi's database of metadata updates so often that Apple syncs their iTunes database with Rovi once per week to accommodate for new material. Comcast, another Rovi customer, syncs its TV metadata about every three hours.
Shows like Day's The Guild, which is about video gamers, present a huge problem for a metadata company like Rovi. Although The Guild is not a studio production, it has acquired a critical mass of viewers who expect to find all the usual info on their favorite show when they search for, say, the show's soundtrack on iTunes. But there's no way for a company like Rovi to predict which amateur shows will be hits, leaving them in a perpetual game of catch-up.
As a result, Bullwinkle says, Rovi is moving toward a partially crowd-driven model, especially in developing nations where even a massive company like Rovi (which has about 40 offices worldwide) has a hard time penetrating the culture and language.
Hence the company's launch of AllRovi.com, a product of their acquisition of one of the biggest music databases on the web, Allmusic.com. AllRovi.com will allow regular people to submit metadata—album info, reviews, biographical information, and discographies—for artists or albums that aren't currently in the Rovi database. A new cloud service will give app developers open access to this data, and users with Rovi accounts (which are free) will be able to take the "musical taste" they've honed in an app like Pandora or iTunes and bring it to new apps made by different developers. At long last, data about your personal taste in music and movies is becoming portable.
Crowd-sourcing metadata has opened up the opportunity for niche shows like The Guild to have all the premium packaging of a professional show without needing millions of viewers first. Creators like Day (or her fans) can add reams of Wiki-like information on the actors, the set, the location, the script, and other shows that The Guild fans might like. This puts small shows and bands "on the map" so that systems like Apple's iTunes can surface them as social recommendations. "Just you watch," says Bullwinkle, "these applications are going to get niche."
Portable Video, Portable Taste
Bullwinkle says that by opening up Rovi's metadatabase to developers, users will be empowered to add valuable info on a whole "long tail" of shows and movies, which should drastically improve social recommendations and searches. And while social recommendations improve, device-agnostic HTML5 geekery like Vimeo's will allow peep to view those niche videos on every screen in the house, without having to search.
Vimeo also hopes that broader view-ability will also increase the number of people create videos, since the company makes its money from heavy uploaders who pay to play. "We want to become more of a place where people have a portfolio or a reel, with attribution," he says. The more time and energy users pour into creating portfolios and lists of favorite videos, and the more portable that data becomes, the more metadata gets added to the ecosystem.
With all due respect to Day and her cast, successes like The Guild may not warrant a SXSW keynote come 2012.
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