It’s been awhile since I did a mini interview for this site, so here we go.
G. Beato, who Web veterans might remember from Soundbitten, Suck, and a bunch of other places, has been busy recently with Cooking with Bigfoot, an online, animated cooking show featuring “an aggressively bisexual, substance-abusing Sasquatch”. Mr. Beato shares his thoughts about the business of indie Web media with us. (It’s a long answer to a short question, but it’s worth the read.)
Q: What’s the thinking behind selling subscriptions for Cooking with Bigfoot, besides the obvious riches involved?
A: When I first decided to create CWB almost a year ago, I knew that if I wanted to do it on an ongoing basis I’d have to figure out a way to make some money doing it, because the shows actually do cost money to create: I pay an animator, I pay the voice talent, etc.
Initially, my plan was to license episodes to other sites. Advertisers were getting increasingly frustrated with the limitations of banner ads — they wanted bigger ads, they wanted ads that moved, they basically wanted TV commercials on the web. But as sites like NYTimes.com and WSJ.com now prove on a daily basis, TV-commercial-style ads plunked down in the middle of newspaper-style sites are really annoying — reading is not the same activity as viewing, so when you go to a site to read, it’s frustrating when the ads there are designed to be viewed…
But if you insert a 10-second TV-commercial-style ad at the beginning or end of a 3-minute Flash cartoon, it makes a lot more sense. So I figured I could license episodes to sites that wanted to offer a better context for rich-media ads to advertisers, but didn’t actually want to incur the costs of producing their own series. I used to write scripts for one company that was already doing this, but they were targeting portals and other fairly large sites: my idea was to make the licensing fees low enough so that any kind of website could afford them: alt.weeklys, radio stations, portals, etc.
As I began to implement this plan, however, a few things began to sink in: (1) Selling this concept would be a full-time job in itself, (2) Even if I targeted sites where the standards for content were a little more flexible than a daily newspaper, I still had to worry about keeping the show “advertiser-friendly”, and (3) in order to convince anyone that I could deliver X number of episodes on a weekly/biweekly basis, I would probably actually have to do that for 6 months or so, and I didn’t have the money to do that.
Since I really created CWB mainly because I wanted the freedom to write an online animation series exactly how I wanted to write it (I had been writing scripts for a bunch of other online series before that…), I ultimately decided that instead of trying to sell the show to advertisers, it’d be a whole lot simpler just to try to sell it directly to viewers.
Of course, it’s not as if trying to convince people on the Web to pay for cartoons is simple, but at least this way I can write the show I want to write and not worry about whether or not the marketing director at Sprite will consider a show starring an aggressively bisexual, substance-abusing Sasquatch a good place to sell soda…
Also, I really do think there’s a larger issue at stake here, and that’s the future of independent content on the web, and the varieties of content that the web will support. While there has been a lot of debate about whether web content should be free or paid or sponsored by advertising, I think an important point has largely been overlooked — and that is that an environment where the majority of content is free or sponsored by advertisers ultimately favors corporate-created content.
On the one hand, this seems counterintuitive — after all, if content is free, then business models don’t exist, and neither do businesses. And, indeed, when lots of dot-coms started crashing because they couldn’t figure out a business model, many people rejoiced and said, “Good! The web’s going back into the hands of the people, where it belongs! People who create content for the love of it, not because they want to make fast IPO millions.”
But while there are now hundreds of thousands of independently produced blogs thriving on the web these days, how much *other kinds* independent content is being produced? Obviously, sites like MP3.com distribute a lot of independent music, and various other sites (ifilm.com, newgrounds.com, animationexpress.com) aggregate a lot of independent animation and video. But all of that stuff is mostly one-offs — i.e. a film-school student does a short and posts it on ifilm. A couple years ago, there were at least a couple hundred ongoing online animation series, because corporations were subsidizing their production. Now, there’s probably only dozens of regularly updated series like Cooking With Bigfoot, because it simply costs too much to do without some form of revenue or subsidy. (Similarly, there are very few independent news-oriented sites that do actual reporting on a regular basis, with Salon.com being probably the most notable example).
So the ultimate irony is this: while the Web has huge potential to distribute off-beat, unconventional, non-common-denominator media that traditional corporate media channels will never touch (i.e., the kind of content often favored by people who believe that web content should be free and corporate media sucks), it won’t really be effective at doing that unless viewers/readers/users support that content in a direct financial way. But if content remains free or ad-sponsored, then the corporate colonization of the Web that has characterized these last few years will likely continue. (Currently, 60% of all web usage occurs on sites created by AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, and about one dozen other corporations.) And so we’ll have a web of a million weblogs talking about the content created by a dozen corporations.
Traditionally, the two mediums that have the worst reputations for bad content are TV and radio — the two mediums where the content is mostly free (and mostly controlled by large corporate interests.) So, really, the best way to ensure that the web doesn’t turn into TV or radio is for users to start paying independent content creators directly. And while it’s clear that one of the things people like best about the web is that everything is free, the practicing of supporting content creation directly has its good points too. For example, when a TV network decides to cancel a show, there’s nothing you can really do about it except write a letter and hope that the network listens — but on the web fans will actually be able to make or break shows based on their support, and because the costs are so much lower, it will only take a relatively small number of fans to wield that kind of power. Take Cooking With Bigfoot — if I can attract 1000 subscribers, the show will survive (albeit just barely). If I can attract 3000 viewers, I’ll be able to create around 20 - 24 episodes a year. If I get over 10,000, it’ll go weekly, the episodes will get more complex, etc. In other words, each subscriber really has a stake in the show/site and can help make it better, and if enough people subscribe, they’ll eventually be able to see the impact of their collective support. To Disney or AOL Time Warner or News Corp. of course, an audience of 10,000 is fairly meaningless, but to an independent content creator on the web, an audience of 10,000 can be really powerful — and they can increase their power dramatically just by spending a few bucks here and there to support the content they like. So, ultimately, that’s what I’m hoping to tap into… ::end
What do you think?
BTW, I’m participating in Cooking with Bigfoot’s affiliate program. If you have a Web site and are interested in supporting Greg’s efforts while making some scratch, you can too.
This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.