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Viewpoints from the frontline of content.

Mip digital realities

By Jonathan Webdale 07-04-2016

At MipTV this week I found myself watching a man on stage in the Palais wearing a set of virtual reality goggles with the images he was seeing projected on to the Grand Auditorium’s giant screen behind him. It was quite surreal.

What was more surreal was that the images being projected were of a computer-generated living room with a widescreen TV on the wall, which the man controlled with his eyes – selecting, then playing and watching his favourite TV show.

The demonstration came from Morgan Bouchet, VP of digital content and innovation at French telecoms giant Orange, and head of the company’s VR department. It was a demonstration of a genuine VR experience the company has developed and plans to offer the two million people who subscribe to its OCS premium pay TV channel.

Morgan Bouchet demonstrates Orange's work on VR

Morgan Bouchet demonstrates Orange’s work on VR

The thing that struck me was that in an era when we hear audiences are increasingly fleeing TV in the real world, why does Orange think that they would like to watch it in a virtual one? The only safe place to enjoy such an experience would surely be in the comfort of one’s own living room, which – correct me if I’m wrong – slightly defeats the purpose.

For me, this highlights one of the genuine concerns that persist around VR, particularly in the light of 3D TV’s failure to take off. The technology has incredible potential and yet if it’s presented to consumers in the wrong way it could snuff out that potential before the market really has a chance to get going. This is why it’s critical that experienced TV producers and content development specialists get behind the medium quickly.

As Anthony Geffen, founder and CEO of Atlantic Productions and its spin-off virtual reality studio Alchemy VR, pointed out in Cannes, if a decent VR experience don’t begin to materialise within the next six months, serious questions will be asked of the medium by Mipcom.

Wolfgang Bergmann, CEO of broadcaster Arte Germany and head of Arte/ZDF, warned that the technology is being hyped up too soon, before broadcasters and producers have had a chance to explore its best use and full potential.

“My fear is the hype, technical development and high investment being done all over the world will speed up the whole thing and the situation will overheat,” he said. “We are at an early stage where we should have time to think, experiment, learn and move in the new space. We are taking only our very first steps to see what is possible.”

There were plenty of other VR demos at MipTV and the showcase put together by Vast Media, featuring Orange and the likes of Canada-based Felix & Paul Studios, filled the auditorium – a real-world demonstration of the interest in this space.

Eddy Moretti Vice Media

Eddy Moretti tells delegates about Vice Media’s experimental VR work

Also hailing from Montreal was Vice Media. Chief creative officer Eddy Moretti always knows how to put on a show and didn’t disappoint, trailing the company’s own experimental VR work, a collaboration with Samsung called Beyond the Frame.

Moretti’s big announcement was the launch of the company’s new broadcast channel, Viceland, in France through an exclusive deal with Canal+. The move in some ways seems counter-intuitive. The millennial audience the 22-year-old company has so successfully tapped into is supposed to be switching off linear TV.

This was the message rammed home as part of the third Mip Digital Fronts – a series of showcases that, alongside Vice, featured the likes of Maker Studios, New Form Digital, Studio71, Endemol Beyond and Fullscreen. The latter’s head of ad sales, Kevin McGurn, quoted figures showing that in the past five years the number of 18- to 34-year-olds watching television in the US has fallen by a third, with the pace of the decline quickening.

“That millennial audience is becoming harder and harder to reach,” he said, adding that it’s not the case, however, that they’re not watching television, rather “they’re watching it in unmeasured ways – and that is a conundrum for the advertisers.”

He gave an example of how Fullscreen is working with its expansive network of content creators to produce the kind of video advertisers are willing to put their money behind, a series called Summer Break sponsored by AT&T and returning for a fourth season this year. He then sat down with Catherine Balsam-Schwaber, chief content officer at MipTV 2016 ‘brand of the year’ Mattel, to discuss how the two are collaborating in this area.

Getting close to brands is what it’s all about for all such YouTube-focused businesses. Despite the hundreds of millions of monthly video views they boast and whatever traditional TV’s failings, the latter retains, if not a vice-like grip on ad money, then a very significant portion of the pie.

“We’re seeing that there’s still a sizeable audience and a lot of advertising dollars still in traditional television,” Vice executive VP and chief corporate officer James Rosenstock told me.

“We’re not turning into a TV company. We’re just adding TV to a robust multi-channel platform-agnostic business and we’re bringing advertisers along for this experience – and they’re loving it,” said Moretti, back up on stage.

Vice has succeeded in creating its very own distinctive kind of content.

“It’s curious, it’s made with passion, it’s about human beings and real human stories around the world. It’s real reality and we think we’re the only people that are delivering this,” he added.

It stands apart from that of the wider YouTube universe, those talented individuals corralled together by the MCN fraternity in a bid to transform vast followings into something more substantial than a cottage industry. With big enough net audiences, those the scale of Fullscreen are able to experiment with moves into subscription VoD as a route to potential new sources of revenue.

All are trying to drive their content ‘up-market,’ to lift the production values so that advertisers find it more appealing and it can transition to other platforms in the multi-channel world.

“You need to tap into the passions that got them the audiences they had in the beginning and work out how you can elevate what they’re doing to a brand new level of creativity that they couldn’t get on their own,” said Maker Studios’ international head of creative Luke Hyams during the company’s own Digital Upfronts presentation.

He trailed examples of upcoming “programmes” – longform series. One, called Pass the Pad, is presented by YouTube gaming star KSI and features the likes of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and English footballer Rio Ferdinand. Hyams is hoping it will “reinvent the chatshow.”

Elsewhere at MipTV, I chaired a panel discussion entitled Online Native Formats to TV: Myths and Realities, featuring Viacom senior VP of international programme sales Caroline Beaton talking about Lip Sync Battle – a global hit format that started as a segment within the Jimmy Fallon show and shot to popularity thanks to being spread as clips on the internet.

Also on the panel was Jeroen Koopman, creative producer of Dutch company NewBe TV, which has launched its own linear TV channel called #FIRST, produced and presented entirely by YouTubers.

Again, this may sound counter-intuitive but what NewBe realised was that even in the online space, YouTubers who post videos regularly, according to a strict schedule, tend to enjoy the most success, and that the majority of viewing takes place in the first hour. The idea that linear, appointment-to-view video is dead is very much a myth, argued Koopman.

Back at Maker, president of international Rene Rechtman said “something crazy has happened in this industry in the last 12 months.”

He highlighted UK public broadcaster the BBC’s move of its youth-skewing youth channel BBC3 to an entirely online proposition. He mentioned Viceland. He talked about YouTube star PewDiePie doing “something as analogue as writing a book” and the launch of YouTube’s own premium video offering, YouTube Red.

“I believe what we have talked about in the past 10 years – convergence – is finally happening and it is accelerating,” said Rechtman.

Perhaps this is true but perhaps convergence is a myth also. Perhaps the reality is chaos and coalescence around an infinite collection of ephemeral content forms whose longevity is contingent on the enduring appeal of the stories at their core and their power to connect with people. Thus has it always been though the world is now undeniably more connected than ever. Until the next time we coalesce in Cannes.

today's correspondent

Jonathan Webdale C21Media

Jonathan Webdale is a journalist with more than a decade of experience covering the international television business. He joined C21Media in 2004 after four years at New Media Age and oversees C21's online and social media presence, audiovisual output, daily news operation and special reports, plus the FutureMedia print magazine and annual conference.