Hollywood Meets Silicon Valley

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You have to open your eyes, and your vision has to really encompass the whole picture. You really have to feel it … movies, television, DVD, internet. It’s all the same thing, just different configurations. You are seeing this amazing combination of art and science growing and facilitating each other constantly. Nothing transcends content, but a lot of things couldn’t happen if it hadn’t been for the technological advances. It’s an incredible landscape.
Quincy Jones

“ Q” is right … the communications and entertainment mediums are beginning to meld into one. No matter how hard it is for most of us to grasp … there is actually something bigger and better than television and film coming down the pipes. It’s happening now – and we’d better jump on the train or find something else to do with our lives.

During media convergence presentations, I often find that many of the industry professionals sitting in the audience begin to squirm uncomfortably in their seats. Seemingly threatened by this growing phenomenon, they ask the pointed questions, “What does this ‘convergence’ mean? When will it take place? Where is the money to be made? And how will it effect our careers?”

I assure them that media convergence is much more of an opportunity than a threat. Convergence doesn’t replace the traditional forms of media; it incorporates them. For the producers and artists who embrace this new opportunity, riches and recognition will follow. For those who are afraid of it and cling to the traditional models, the opportunity will be lost. Convergence is the next step in the evolution of media.

What Exactly Is Convergence?

Convergence can best be described as the fusion of all forms of media. And as it incorporates these various forms, it thus becomes a medium in and of itself. To illustrate this, imagine convergence media as an orchestra. Television is represented by the brass section, the internet by the strings, print media by the woodwinds and so on. Each instrument represents a beautiful sound on its own, and yet, when it’s layered together with other instruments, under the successful direction of the conductor (in this case, the convergence media producer), the result is a harmonious symphony.

The Convergence Media Producer

While the television producer and the web developer each have their own team of professionals that enable the delivery of a story, the convergence media producer builds a team as well. The difference lies in the fact that the convergence team incorporates all of these teams into one.

One of the most significant hurdles that convergence producers face lies in the fact that each type of production has a language all its own. Television professionals have different methods and objectives than their counterparts on the web. Thus, convergence media requires a skillful producer who understands the cultures and idiosyncrasies of each industry. These producers must be capable of handling the varied roles of translator, facilitator, motivator, and, often times, babysitter.

Let’s be honest, convergence is nothing new. Walt Disney was truly one of the founding fathers of convergence. Long before the internet was even a blip on someone’s radar screen, visionaries, like Disney, had the concept of taking an idea, a story, or even a character and translating it into all the existing mediums of the time. For Disney, taking a story like Peter Pan and translating it into film, television, books, radio, magazines, toys, and amusement park attractions was sheer genius.

But convergence is more than a marketing tool, an ability to utilize the various ancillary markets. It is a way of thinking, a new way to look at an intellectual property. The key is not to think of your story as a television idea or a web idea, but to envision it as an overall concept that can be translated into a variety of mediums. This willingness to “think outside the box” can yield not only fantastic financial rewards, but also a tremendous amount of creative freedom.

Convergence in the 21st Century

What makes convergence in the 21st century different than the work of the visionaries of the past lies in the assimilation of the interactive mediums that have been developed over the last decade. Interactivity is a word that is thrown around carelessly as of late. To put it plainly - interactivity involves the participation of the audience. The era of passive viewing is over. The younger generations expect to be involved in their entertainment. This interactivity will ultimately penetrate all media forms.

While interactive television is still just an embryo and the internet is in its infancy, they are quickly growing up. Exactly where technology will ultimately direct us is a question that many ponder: Will the TV swallow the internet or vice versa? Will our homes be smarter than we are? In truth, how technology evolves over time is almost irrelevant. What is relevant is how we, as Hollywood storytellers, must maintain the greatest amount of flexibility to adapt to the continuous evolution of technology.

Fortunately for those of us in Southern California, much of the cutting-edge technology is being developed here on the West Coast - as a result, we definitely have an advantage over the rest of the major broadcast countries. However, they, too, see the potential of convergence and are quickly climbing on board. Countries such as France, Germany, Japan, and the UK are leading the way.

It’s time for Hollywood to wake up and smell the opportunity. In October of 1999, three major conferences were held around the world revealing just a few of the vast possibilities of media and technology convergence: Internet World in New York City, the ITU Conference in Geneva, Switzerland and MIPCOM in Cannes, France. Internet World unveiled the latest in internet and computer technologies; ITU shared ideas about the future of telecommunications; and MIPCOM showcased what the world had to offer in regard to television content. They had very different agendas and yet, at each of them, convergence was the topic of the day.

All this attention is due to the incredible growth that the internet has experienced over the past several years. Overnight, “Dot Com” IPOs have turned young entrepreneurs into digital billionaires. According to MediaMetrix, there are currently over 200 million internet users worldwide with that number increasing daily. The number of dollars being spent online has increased exponentially over the last several years. The worldwide business-to-consumer e-commerce market surpassed $30 billion in 1999, up from $11 billion in 1998. In 2003, it is predicted that revenue will surpass $380 billion. The penetration of PC’s into US households just surpassed 50%.

Internet & the Audience

The internet is a force to be reckoned with. And in truth, it changes the face of convergence. It makes convergence not just a melting pot of media, but it allows the audience a chance to stir the mixture. Consequently, creators of entertainment must not only adapt to changing mediums, but also to an evolving audience.

Think about it. Interactivity did not begin with the internet nor the CD-ROM, rather years earlier with the remote control – perhaps one of the first tools of mass interactivity. Channel surfing began in the 1980s, and now an entire generation has become accustomed to sitting in the driver’s seat. The viewer has become the co-producer. Instead of an hour of traditional programming, the viewer sees content in 3-5 minute segments. They get what they want and they move on. We must not forget that this is the Sesame Street generation, raised on short segments compiled to create an entire program.

This style, of course, tends to create a big headache for the traditional television producer. But others have embraced it. Some of the most exciting convergence and interactive programming can be found today on Nickelodeon and MTV. Audience participation and input can be found almost every day of the week.

Also, film is often overlooked when the topic of convergence comes up, but all one has to do is look at the success of The Blair Witch Project to see the result of taking a film convergent.

The Benefits?

For the content producer, all this effort establishes an intimate relationship with his audience. Interactive media producers know whom their audience is, how old they are, what they like and don’t like. How? They ask. They pose a question to the television audience, who, in return, responds via email, chat, phone, or fax.

Let’s compare this with the traditional television model. In general, traditional television has been linear, delivered from point A to point B. A program was produced, then aired to the public, and feedback was recorded after the program was completed. And yet, no one really knew exactly how to cater to the feedback. In essence, it was reactionary programming. A program ranked well with the demographic, and consequently similar programs were created.

On the other hand, convergence programming takes the linear model and bends it - creating a closed loop. The convergence producer puts out a product - the audience views it and responds. “We like this, but we don’t like that. Perhaps you should add something like this.” And with convergence, programming can be tailored on the fly, providing the audience with opportunities to participate in the development of the show whether it is through the television, phone or the PC.

What Does This Convergence Look Like?

Well, look around. From its inception, MTV was convergent by bringing music and television together birthing the music video. Nickelodeon currently allows their internet users to determine programming for the Friday line-up. Drew Carey made a courageous leap into convergence with his web cam event last fall. Martha Stewart is still setting standards in convergence utilizing her network of magazine, TV, newspaper, website, radio, and books to deliver the Martha Stewart Living entity effectively to her audience.

Perhaps one of the best examples of media convergence was a project that I was fortunate to have worked on over the past year. In February ’99, I was asked to take a live global television show “convergent.” What made it unique, as well as complex, was the fact that over 150 broadcasters from around the world were contributing content for the 24-hour live New Year’s Eve show. From day one, we planned on taking this project convergent. At least four levels of convergence were planned - creative content to be delivered via worldwide television, radio, internet, and giant screen venues. The television show would absorb the internet; the radio would take from the TV, and venues around the world would exchange live feeds with each other.

More importantly, we were interactive. Viewers would have the opportunity to choose their favorite highlights from the show via internet polling. In essence, they would co-produce the last few hours of the marathon broadcast. Giving the audience a say adds a new dimension to the viewing experience. It’s definitely more intimate. After all, that’s what our advertisers ultimately want … a more intimate relationship with the audience.

Financial Opportunities

With that intimate relationship, amazing financial opportunities are born! The most obvious being e-commerce. Marketing and distributing products 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with virtually no overhead is – to say the least - a relatively inexpensive way to make a significant amount of money. Whether over the internet, the telephone, or the television set, e-commerce is emerging as a major driving force of the 21st century. In the not too distant future, the audience will have the opportunity to watch prime time television programming, see items worn by their favorite actors, and with a click of the remote, purchase the item without ever leaving the couch. Though we are still in the very primitive stages in the development of these concepts, convergence and interactivity are coming into their own.

The Greatest Revolutions in Media Still Lie Ahead

There is no doubt that, over the next ten years, we will continue to experiment with the fusion of all mediums. From this point forward, the television will incorporate the internet, and the internet will incorporate audio, video, and audience participation. We will see the existing and future mediums converge on a level not yet imagined. Ironically, convergence will eventually become the traditional medium - and the generations to come will never know media without some form of interactivity.
This train is leaving the station, gathering speed as we speak. We can either jump on board now and hang on tight … or chase it down the tracks, wishing we had seen it coming. The choice is ours.

Marc Levey is co-founder of Media Mavericks, an innovative entertainment company with associates in Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Paris. Levey is an active member of the Producers Guild of America and, in the past, has worked for Warner Bros., the Walt Disney Company, and ESPN.

(www.mediamavericks.net)

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