Sunday 21st January 2018,

Over-The-Top, Top-Down and Bottom-Up

If we’ve learned anything about over-the-top video, it has been its agnosticism. Web video distribution can be progressive or regressive, support diversity or concentrate eyeballs at the top. Whether a company loves it or hates it depends very much on how much it has and how much it has to lose.

Last week saw a bunch of new developments about over-the-top video, revealing how complicated the technology can be. It all depends on who’s producing and sponsoring the content.

Over-the-Top from the Top Down: Protect my profits!

Take, for instance, Comcast. Variety‘s Andrew Wallenstein, who’s been diligently reporting the various legal and corporate tussles over device fragmentation, wrote this week about Comcast’s adoption of HTML5-supported design for XFinity. Comcast’s service allows users to access shows an movies on iPads and computers — it’s TV Everywhere, the kind of service cable operators have had to start offering to stop customers from canceling cable and going web-only (a.ka. the much-debated “cord-cutting” phenomenon).

The new design effectively erases the distinction between accessing its site on a laptop or tablet. The problem? Comcast has licensing deals for online not mobile.

As content creators (the big media conglomerates like Disney) look to the web for more profits, or to replace declines in syndication and ad revenue, charging distributors different rates for different types of devices has become crucial.

In other words: for conglomerates, over-the-top video is a kind of insurance strategy. They need new media distribution to replace old media tech as rapidly and profitably as possible. But technology sometimes moves faster than institutions can adapt. Hence, squabbles! Which have been and will continue to be worked out in court.

Over-the-Top from the Side: Extend my brand!

What if you’re not Comcast, market cap of $70 billion and financially healthy? What if you work for Comcast’s low-rated subsidiary NBC, as a producer for the low-rated but critically adored Community?

There’s been a lot of writing in recent how the financial success of Internet distributors like Netflix (recent problems notwithstanding) is creating new markets for syndication. The latest comes from the LA Times, narrating how cash for over-the-top syndication is becoming a real revenue stream and audience-builder. Being on Netflix or Hulu Plus allows low-rated programs to attract new fans and — in the future — could provide extra residuals for Hollywood workers. This is not to forget the ability for web networks to now pay for its own content, best exemplified by Netflix’s promise to bring back Arrested Development.

The web is creating extended markets for programming — and might help smaller properties broaden their niches.

Here over-the-top video extends brands and potentially enhances value where “old” media cannot, with its limited distribution space and possibly graying audiences. This is fan- and consumer-friendly digital distribution, but it also provides creative producers with more options and helps conglomerates further monetize content. Presumably, everybody wins.

Over-the-Top from the Bottom Up: Help me get noticed!

The most exciting stuff always comes from the bottom-up: the ways digital distribution allows smaller players to get their works out to mass audiences. It’s the focus of most of the posts on this blog: from the mass of YouTubers upping their game to Hollywood actors like Willie Garson creating their own shows outside network support.

We’ve known for awhile the Internet can help the little guys. What we don’t see as often is how mid-size institutions with some clout use digital video support their less-endowed participants.

Cue the NYT report on the Sundance Institute this week: Sundance has entered agreements with Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, iTunes and Amazon to provide some guarantee of distribution to the filmmakers whose works screen at the festival. The deal is a long-awaited, refreshingly sensible response to a vexing problem: in independent cinema, a small number of theatrical and video distributors essentially decide what independent films we can see, often making decisions on “marketability” and “star power” over artistic quality or creativity. Award winners typically get distribution, but not always, and not all great films win awards.

Now filmmakers have some assurance that their efforts, which can take years and millions of dollars, won’t die after a single, poorly attended screening in Park City, Utah. Hallelujah!

It won’t solve all the problems. Obviously, a film picked up by Focus Features, which has cash for theatrical and TV ads, is going to be wider seen than something thrown up on iTunes. Nevertheless, films capable of generating fan interest now have a shot of recouping their investments — the impressive Twitter following of the forthcoming film The Last Fall is a great example. More festivals should follow suit and step up efforts to offer movies OnDemand, as IFC and TriBeCa have done.

Promise and Perils of Access

The central issue is access: digital makes content available in more places by more companies. For most producers this is a huge benefit. The more eyeballs, the more dollars. But the marketing and monetizing power of web video is only starting to become clear. After the market matures, there will be winners and losers. Who that will be, as always, remains to be seen.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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