TV & Interactive Creators Beware: Who owns the audience?

Producers, broadcasters and funders are necessarily grappling with the rights and revenues attached to opportunities made possible by digital technology. To date, the discussion has centered primarily around platforms for distribution.

The June 2010 CFTPA (CMPA) research study, “Towards a Framework for Digital Rights” does an excellent job of summarizing challenges and opportunities relative to digital distribution and exploitation. However, the report doesn’t address the capacity of digital technology to transform the role of the audience, or who established a relationship with the audience.  That relationship, once the exclusive domain of the broadcaster is now a rich source of content research and development, advance marketing, and testing, all potentially activities undertaken by producers.   The extent to which the public can be now be engaged through digital tools right from the start of a program concept opens up questions around the purpose and value of those pre-broadcast relationships and who “owns” them, before, during and after the broadcast.

The People Formerly Known As The Audience.

Prior to the advent of digital technology, the viewing audience “belonged” to the broadcaster.  How and when content was made available, and the promotional and sales messaging “pushed” in front of the audience were the levers used by broadcasters to drive revenue.

Mass adoption of the Internet, and particularly web 2.0 platforms, have enabled producers and audiences to engage in two-way conversations separate and apart from any broadcast component.  Almost daily, tools are emerging that enable producers to join discussions already taking place about genres or subject matter. Content creators can learn where target audiences are gathering on line, how they like to be engaged, what they care about and what they don’t. When appropriate, content creators can customize their “products” to suit audience demand.

These relationships can help shape creative and foster deep engagement between a program and its audience long before the broadcast release. This early engagement can subsequently influence and improve the commercial success of that release.

Terms of Engagement

The right of the producer to engage existing online audiences and/or to build new groups in a way that helps to shape the very content of a show or series and its success needs to be protected.

Let’s say a specialty network licenses a personal makeover series. During development and pre-production, the producer uses digital tools to attract contestants and to engage existing online groups in the creative process.  Contests and voting deepen the engagement and online profile.  The producer may want to explore posting video tips and pre-releasing scenes, in order to build a web presence that also increases awareness for the series, and which may also have value as an independent asset.

However, as the program launch nears, the broadcaster will also want to develop or use its existing digital avenues to market and promote the program.  The broadcaster may create a web page for the program as part of its larger branded website, as well as creating a Twitter feed and Facebook page even though the project may already have all of those applications in use.

Who Owns the Relationships?

Beyond some tactical issues that emerge with this scenario, it raises important issues about rights. A “database” of contacts developed by the producer during the development of the project may be tremendously valuable.  Documentaries based on a “hot” topic, comedies that have managed to create viral videos teasing series’ content, may boast sizable and loyal followings.  Who has the right to this “database?”  Does the broadcaster “lease” or “license” access to it just as they do with the finished program? How is the value of that pre-built audience established?  If social media profiles are established in the process of creating the program, who “owns” those profiles? What happens to the two-way engagement once the broadcast is completed?

While the broadcaster still needs to be in a position to promote a program to its audience, the age of two-way conversations has changed the very definition of “marketing” “content” and “audience.”   Building a relationship with an audience is no longer about getting their attention with a good promo. It’s as much about listening to what the audience has to say.  Creating engagement strategies require time and expertise that typically go far beyond the scope of the on-air promotions and marketing departments of the broadcaster.

However, if no new language or terms exist, then by default the activity remains with the marketing department even though the very nature of the activity has changed.

Delineating public engagement as an activity that has a much bigger footprint than that traditionally belonging to the marketing department would be an important first step to the future clarification of rights and responsibilities.

The Take Away

Producers are not yet fully exploiting the tools available to engage the audience early on in the production – and some may opt not to use them – ever.  However, the activity of interacting directly with the audience needs to be recognized because it’s already valuable and will only become more so.

Engagement of the audience should not default to the broadcaster simply because the value is not yet fully understood and therefore not fully recognized.

At this stage in the evolution of public engagement it is not possible to anticipate all the future implications.  However, recognizing at this moment in time that there are digital rights irrespective of distribution, and ensuring that they are non-exclusive to broadcasters will be an important first step for the future.

2 comments on “TV & Interactive Creators Beware: Who owns the audience?

  1. Very interesting topic!

    At Omni Film Productions, we are starting to make a clearer distinction between the hats we wear as producer and as distributor. The relationship with the audience in my view belongs in large part to the distributor, and of course most producers are also distributors of their work. The distributor licenses the show to the broadcaster, and gets it back after the license expires, and is the entity that can maximize the value of their relationships with viewers.

    As you point out, this relationship building begins in many cases weeks or months before the show hits the air. As one example, we produce a series called “Ice Pilots” that has tens of thousands of Facebook friends. We involve colleagues from our in-house distribution company well in advance of the airdate for each season (season 3 is in production currently), and they look after our fan relationships via Facebook, Twitter, etc.

    Since our Canadian broadcaster has sweeping rights to the program website in Canada, we geoblock that site to Canada only and maintain a separate website for any international visitors (the program airs on National Geographic in the US and over two dozen territories worldwide). Our distribution company maintains the rights to the international ad revenue stream generated by the international website.

  2. Thanks, Brian. Really interesting perspective.

    In certain cases, when the producer and distributor have common owners or share a common vision, I see it makes sense for the distributor to manage/exploit these rights. It does make me wonder where that leaves interactive producers often tasked with developing and creating some or all of the multi-platform pieces. It likely turns them, and digital strategy firms like Magnify, into hired services. The trick, of course, is that there is often little to no money in the development stage to hire those services. Also, if Canadian broadcasters hold these rights, again it limits the ability for those specializing in interactive and strategy design to come to the table in the early stages.

    What do others think?

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