Monday, December 06, 2004

I want my decentralized TV

I just completed my second post for The Broadband Daily and it goes like this:

As a couple of recent developments have suggested, 2005 should be the year when Big Media attempts to come to grips with P2P in a meaningful way, with a view to co-opting or "monetizing" it. Watching this unfold should be something akin to viewing a car crash in slow motion - horrible, but strangely mesmerizing.

These sorts of big splash announcements may gain the media spotlight, but the real story for 2005 probably lies in something else - the development of de-centralized media. Big Media may titter at the idea that people could ever want something other than the airbrushed smiles of the latest Boy Band, or the hard-hitting insights of correspondents "embedded" in Fallujah. Then again, there are reasons that the open source approach should be taken seriously. Firefox is a pretty good example (it accounts for 35% of the traffic to this site at this writing), and if the just-launched Wikinews service repeats the experience of Wikipedia, then Fleet Street, we have a problem.

If anyone thought the sacred cow of television was somehow immune, they should spend some time with Nicholas Reville of independent music activist group Downhill Battle. A couple of weeks back, the group launched Blog Torrent, with a pretty interesting quasi-manifesto explaining its intentions. I caught up with Nicholas last Friday and interviewed him.

Nicholas, for those who aren't familiar with Downhill Battle, could you give us a bit of background?

We started in the summer of 2003, with the goal of balancing the debate about filesharing and the future of the music industry, which was being completely dominated by the RIAA. We saw that the only real push-back was coming from internet sites that were generally more interested in the technology than in the music side of things. We wanted to talk about why decentralizing the music industry would mean very good things for artists, fans, and culture as a whole. There's an opportunity right now to finally get the major record labels out of the way of creativity and independent music-- we didn't want to miss that chance. Since we started, we've been able to reach millions of people through our websites and concert flyering campaign. We've probably reached even more through the press.

I'm very excited about the potential of your new Blog Torrent project. In particular I liked your comment about reality TV having lowered consumer resistance to production values which aren't perhaps of usual network TV standards. Tell us about Blog Torrent and and how it works first, and then give us an idea of where you see it going.

Blog Torrent adds features to BitTorrent that make it much easier for people to 'publish' files. We've made a simple, web-based way to create a 'torrent' and upload it in a one step. We've also made it easier to install a 'tracker' which is necessary on the server side to connect everyone who's sharing the files. This makes it much easier for video artists, documentarians, or anyone with a camcorder and iMovie, to share their video content on a blog or website. To this point, BitTorrent has been complicated enough that it hasn't been adopted by artists, which means that most of the content people are sharing is being posted by people who didn't make it themselves, mostly Hollywood movies and TV shows. But what's exciting about peer-to-peer is that it's a free distribution method for people who could never afford distribution. With Blog Torrent, anyone can share what they make and that means totally new alternatives to mainstream media, in this case, television. We ultimately want to see internet "TV Channels" that download video in the background and let you watch at your convenience (a TiVo for the internet). All the basic technology is there, it just hasn't been packaged intuitively yet. But it's going to happen soon and I think people will be very, very surprised at the quality and diversity and popularity of what's going to sprout.

With all the news surrounding Shawn Fanning's return with Snocap, what's your view on the likely success or failure of attempts to harness P2P as a commercial distribution platform?

I'm pretty skeptical. I'm not sure why people who want to buy music online will care about using P2P to get the same thing they can get on iTunes at the same price, especially when it will be slower. Now, if the major labels take advantage of cost savings to lower prices, then there might be a benefit to consumers. But really, I think it's got to be a power play-- Shawn Fanning isn't really offering a music selling technology, he's offering a copyright detection technology. And once they demonstrate it, it will take about 2 seconds before the major labels start demanding that every P2P software company get a license and use it to filter out their content, which they won't. So Hollywood will take that demand to Congress and see what they can do.

Turning that last question on its head, what do you see as the potential for Blog Torrent content publishers to actually get paid for what they're producing? I'm thinking here of models like the Morpheus/Heart tie-up, where Heart got their cut, but paid a commission to people who shared the content which triggered annother sale, and also of what Tune Tribe are trying to do in the UK (though it's not P2P).

I think the people that are most successful distributing video with Blog Torrent will make money the same way bloggers do-- through donations, sponsorships, and by gaining a reputation and getting hired by a company. I think that we're going to see some drift, especially among younger artists, away from the idea that digital art is something which can or should be sold like a physical good. I don't see the Tune Tribe / Weed share model working as well for BitTorrent, simply because the technology isn't designed for individual to individual transfers -- it's all about group sharing, which will be harder to monetize.

I know we're probably talking intuition rather than hard data here, but what is your sense of the potential audience for Blog Torrent (I mean content creators), and why? Is there any particular experience you've had which made you think "We have to do this and it is going to be huge."

I think the audience is very, very broad and varied. I have friends, for example, that make artistically serious video work but have never considered offering it online, because it was never practical for them. I hope Blog Torrent will let them jump in. I also expect documentary filmmakers will love this technology-- they can make a name for themselves if they're new, or they can share extra footage and full-length interviews, they can offer old content that they aren't selling anymore, and I bet they'll even start to share first-run material for everyone who doesn't live near an independent cinema. People who make videos and movies always want people to see it and there's hundreds or thousands of times more content being created than gets out through mainstream channels. Not only that, but the number of content producers is set to explode: video has finally become practical on the desktop and small, hard-drive camcorders are right around the corner. We called it "Blog Torrent" -- forgoing our original, and much cooler name "Battle Torrent" -- because it makes sharing video as easy as blogging text or photos and, in doing so, might be able to do in the video world what blogs have done in the news world (or more). And whether it's our software or someone else's, I think TV is about to face more serious competition than they would ever imagine. There are too many talented people out there that have no space on the dial. And access to television channels is much narrower in terms of access than music, books, newspapers, or magazines-- that means new pressures on the system could be even greater when things open up.

No comments: