Talking about Cooking with Bigfoot with G. Beato  APR 03 2002

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.

There are 9 reader comments

stewart13 03 2002 8:13PM

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?

Good point, and rarely heard. Hear hear! It seems crazy that so many independent sites which will need to charge $$ for subscriptions will have to figure it out for themselves, but There Are No Micropayments and it is hard to see how an ecash/centralized billing service for independent content could fly ...

Good luck, G. Beato.

(Also: first post.)

jkottke08 03 2002 9:08PM

Like Cooking with Bigfoot, the recently relaunched Morning News offers independently-produced material in a non-weblog format. As Greg notes, this type of sustained effort is difficult to find these days.

Greg56 03 2002 9:56PM

Before I ended up choosing the subscription route, I did almost use a service called Allcharge.com, which offers something closer to micropayments/pay-per-view. It's the system Icebox.com is now using, and it allows them to charge on a per-view basis rather than a subscription basis. Because there were a few technical requirements (a dedicated server, for one, and i'm on a shared server), and because it's better suited to sites that have at least dozens (if not hundreds or thousands) of items in their archives, I ended up going with a simpler subscription-based service. But if it manages to establish itself as a standard amongst users, it might end up being a pretty good payment solution...

I've also seen various people float the idea of creating a non-porn version of the various adult verification networks out there -- i.e., you pay a single monthly fee and then get access to however many content sites happen to be in the network.

It does seem like some kind of payment-bundling will be necessary eventually if the idea of supporting sites via subscription/pay-per-view is to become widespread, because i doubt people are going to be that willing to pay individually for more than a few sites at most -- it just becomes too much of a hassle and too expensive. But maybe people will be willing to pay $10 - $15 a month to get access to a network of a few hundred content sites. This, of course, is what Real.com is doing with its RealPass or whatever it's called: it'll be interesting to see if small, independent sites band together to offer something comparable...

Bruce Cole20 03 200210:20PM

I've enjoyed Cooking W/ Bigfoot, and have shared the site with many "foodie" friends. I have to admit though, I am of the mindset that everything on the web is/should be still free. CNN now has a subscription for on-line video content. No thanks! I'm not that desperate for news/video. I can still find it for free on the local news sites if I really want to see it. Most major metropolitan newspapers now charge $ for archived articles over 7 days old. For someone who bases their content on links to media sites, this is extremely frustrating - links go dead far too often... And while I can appreciate the need to generate $$$ to keep CWB alive and growing, my initial reaction is to just forget about it. I know, that seems pretty pathetic (especially from a bohemian painter type at heart). But there is still alot of free content out there to be found, even Jason's site (here) is always linking to provocative and stimulating content. There is always something new and interesting to move on to next. Maybe it's because alot of sites on the web seem so impermanent that I'm not willing to pony up my credit card. Here today, dead-link tomorrow. I don't know. I despise the AOL's of the world. I greatly admire the Cooking With Bigfoots of the world. It is, an interesting, conundrum...

timo43 04 200212:43AM

I think Greg covered one of the points I was thinking about bringing up, that being about imitating the system that the porn sites use. If independent producers don't pursue that option themselves, I'm sure some more corporate company like Allcharge will spring up. In that case, I would be a little afraid that they might pull some underhanded tactics like mp3.com did with its independent artists (having very low royalty-like payments based on how often people view the sites and content). You always have to worry about the middleman when money is involved.

It's amazing that the porn sites haven't just duplicated their system in a cleaner version for other kinds of sites. It would be nice to see a grassroots payment bundling scheme spring up.

As for myself, I'm not sure I would be willing to pay $15 a month unless it was a compelling enough deal. Of course, I pay at least $15 a month for music, movies and other entertainment. But breaking the mindset of every thing free is difficult. Would I pay for a cartoon-like experience like "Cooking With Bigfoot" if it were packaged with other Flash-like things. Probably. Would I pay for "The Morning News" or other written non-weblog content (without news, reporting or interviews)? I'm still not sure about that.

Rosecrans28 04 2002 2:28PM

Well, I know I wouldn't pay $15/month for my own site (The Morning News, linked in Jason's comment) but that's a matter of value, not necessarily my inclination to pay. My "New Yorker" subscription only costs me $24/year and that's a far better product...

Personally this is an issue I have a lot of interest in. While we're glad to give away our content, and our writers - for now - are inclined as well, it would be nice to make some money off all the hours we're putting in. For us, though, a subscription-model isn't right for the moment; we haven't proven ourselves worth people's money yet (in my opinion). Also, we all have full-time jobs and couldn't handle the customer support.

But, give us time, and all you suckers will be hooked!

amanda35 04 2002 3:35PM

My "New Yorker" subscription only costs me $24/year and that's a far better product...

This is where I get stuck, too. Publications when they start anew, typically do so with advertisers locked into place and/or non-profit funding of some sort. That avenue just isn't open to independent producers of content.

Even when I flip through the locally-produced zines and my corner record-shop, I don't feel obligated to buy just for a peek. These typically cost between $1-$15 and there's no guarantee that there will ever be another by the same artist. However, I can pick and choose what looks the best for my $5. It's far easier to browse and buy than to plunk down money for the privilege of looking.

It's complex and there just isn't a spot-on parallel with other revenue-producers.

Peter28 05 2002 9:28AM

Maybe making money of constantly updated content doesn't scale down very well.

Wired magazine costs $10 for a year, how are you going to compete with that with a website?

A different avenue I do see possibilities in is permanent, high quality content - ie. content that keeps its value for a few years at least.

I've been thinking about this as so many others have, and I need to find a way to finance my hobby sites or my hosting fees will become too high to support.

amanda24 05 2002 3:24PM

It's amazing that the porn sites haven't just duplicated their system in a cleaner version for other kinds of sites. It would be nice to see a grassroots payment bundling scheme spring up.

People bring up the porn thing a lot and I fail to see the parallels. For your money, porn sites promise porn. No matter what, you will be getting dirty photos. You will be seeing nipples and hoo-has and things that will make you blush. It's promised and there's such a vast archive of smut available that you'd be shocked if there wasn't new stuff up every minute at your local porn watering hole. (Ew.)

I don't think that works for independent content as well. I can see it working better for magazines with a reputation and history of updates and strong mission statements. A bundle of Brill's (we hardly knew ye), Salon, Mother Jones and Utne would probably be worth your cash.

Put independent publishers together and maybe it works but what would you be getting exactly? Could you be sure of new, interesting, informative or imaginative content everyday. And, would those higher standards of quality make the effort worth it. How much or how little money would you have to make to keep it up or give it up?

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.

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