The Business End of Broadband

April 1st, 2005 Film, Film Features, Inside Film

Can a new online content development fund give the long-promised online revolution a shot in the arm? Drew Turney finds out.

The Internet has been guilty of coining and propagating more buzzwords than any other institution in history.

Now that it’s proven itself little more than an animated sales brochure for the commercial world with a few innovations at the fringe (most of which are either bought up by a multinational or sued out of existence), you don’t hear people use terms like ‘information superhighway’, ‘multimedia’ and ‘interactive’ very much now — those were the terms that promised a brave new world of empowerment for consumers of information.

The situation hasn’t been helped by the geography (or political/business policies, depending on your view) in Australia. While the rest of the world enjoys domestic bandwidth that can facilitate the high quality we associate with broadcasting and other media, Australia must be one of the only countries where your next door neighbour can get broadband but you can’t (still the case even in some metropolitan areas).

It’s undoubtedly improving, and online content producers look forward to the day when anyone can enjoy a richer experience than that of a web page or small flash file can offer.

True online content — according to the possibilities of technology, is the definition of multimedia. It’s where you can wend your way through a story as you like; stopping to watch a movie file here, download a game or ringtone there, delving deeper to view the supporting material if you like, and so on.

As summarised by producer Sue Maslin; ‘It’s information rich, you can take your users through a narrative if they choose, but they can look at primary source material any time too. It enables the user to construct their own history — they can form their own awareness of the story or character. It’s every filmmakers dream to make your primary source material available for the audience.’

Maslin is worth listening to; she’s one of the few Australian filmmakers who’s given us a decent (and profitable) film in recent times in Japanese Story. Now she’s putting together a very different project about William Bligh, the British navy mariner made famous and infamous by Fletcher Christian’s 1789 mutiny.

The Life, Times & Travels of the Extraordinary Vice-Admiral William Bligh is an early project to come from the Broadband Production Initiative, a joint venture between the AFC and ABC. Funded by several bodies including the federal government and Telstra’s broadband fund, the Initiative is leading the charge to produce the sort of online content that will bring the Internet to its full potential.

With $2.1m from the government, $1.3m from other sources and technical expertise from the ABC (bringing the total value of the Initiative to just over $4m), it’s something of a bold move — especially with a national film industry screaming out for help close by.

To a producer like Maslin however, it’s all about the medium that tells the story, something the BPI is uniquely suited to her and director Daryl Dellora’s purposes.

‘It’s about understanding the story you want to tell and the best screen format for that story,’ she says. ‘Here was a historical figure you don’t have a lot of pictures of, so the director and multimedia producer decided to structure it as a graphic novel to get it to a young audience. Our aim is to try and bring it alive.’

But isn’t the media environment already a cacophony of noise pulling our attention in every direction?

The first key is the intended audience. ‘We saw a program like Bligh very much as an educational presentation,’ Maslin expands. ‘Its place isn’t to try and compete with other entertainment. The need is already there, but this is a completely new and innovative way of meeting that need. There’ll always be a need to bring Australian history alive to the eyes of young people.’

Someone who agrees that the young are the key to online content’s success is Andra Sheffer, Executive Director of Canada’s Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund.

After developing 300 projects and spending $32m (AUD$32.8m) over the last 7 years in a country where they enjoy about 70% broadband penetration, Sheffer must have it easy.

But she’s also certain we have the skills and the market here, and spent early March leading a delegation from Canada in forums and meetings with the relevant personnel of the BPI to both impart her wisdom and absorb ours.

‘There’s no question; the younger generation are doing it much more,’ says Sheffer, ‘and they’re going to grow up and they’re not just going to drop their online habits just because they’re forty years old. So that whole generation has a huge demand for what they can do interactively.’

According to Sheffer, Canadian online content producers aren’t getting rich yet, but they’re making a living. So what are they doing right?

What they seem to understand is the term ‘multimedia’. It doesn’t mean you have a text file and a video file on the same web page. Online content shouldn’t (and can’t afford to) treat the Internet as an island in the sea of traditional media.

‘People are still watching lots of television,’ she says, ‘and a lot of the models we design encourage them to watch TV and then enhance the experience online where they can research more or get involved in the community.

‘They become much more immersed with the television program, which in turn drives them back there. Convergence drives audiences back and forth between the ‘lean-back’ and the ‘lean-forward’ media. We often see peaks in traffic immediately after the television program.’

It’s an approach smart producers in Australia will realise too — one that’s borne out by the experiences of Big Brother or Australian Idol — and a need not lost on Sue Maslin, who hopes to expand Bligh to a TV special.

Of course, TV broadcasters haven’t been the foremost media for fifty years by being stupid, and they won’t tolerate losing viewers lightly. On the upside, it means they have to come together with online content producers. ‘If [broadcasters] are smart and don’t want to lose audiences to websites they might as well extend their own brand, build their own portals and content,’ Sheffer explains. ‘Then when kids decide they’re not going to watch TV any more at least they’ll go to the broadcaster’s own website.’

So just how do we make online content develop into a viable industry instead of having to rely on handouts? Since you can’t charge someone to look at your website just yet, how will producers like Sue Maslin get revenue to keep things going? She refers to another project from the BPI, Us Mob ( that follows the lives and times of four indigenous kids.

‘In terms of an actual business model, it starts to look attractive when there’s a games component,’ Maslin says. ‘Plus the actual template of the site is commercial — for instance to indigenous communities around the world.’

From the perspective of a still-developing but more mature market, Sheffer has seen even more solid frameworks evolve through the Bell fund.

‘The business model is a big challenge and something we’re all still working on,’ she admits. ‘Our producers have found about 25 different ways of making money. For example, TV programs are sold internationally for ‘x’ amount of dollars. They’re also sold accompanied by the website, which means the producers are getting paid a premium by the broadcasters for the rights to the web component.

‘So the broadcasters are getting a little bit of money from international licensing for the website, and producers are getting paid to adapt the website for each particular country.

‘But there’s also educational models where they sell the content as curriculum for schools, certain components get sold to portals that might want a particular game element. There’s also merchandising, and advertising is starting to come online more — it’s much more advanced in the US but it’s starting to happen everywhere else because that’s how advertisers know they’re going to reach their audiences.’

So with a nascent broadband content industry getting at least some support from public funds, it seems the biggest barriers to a workable online content industry in Australia are the digital divide and true adoption of the term multimedia in the spirit under which the term was coined. Maybe the Broadband Production Initiative will be the one to break them down.

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