BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM comments on the current seismic shifts in the New Media landscape – from TiVo, to YouTube, to cellphone proliferation – discussed in depth at Script to Screen’s most recent seminar, part of a monthly series of talks and debates on hot topics in screenwriting.

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I ALWAYS feel like a Luddite when people start talking about the Internet. Two years without a broadband connection appears to have totally turned me from a computer savvy individual into a someone who feels like Grampa Simpson working at the Krusty Burger – “what’s this Facebook thing people keep talking about” or “youuuutuuuube?” The internet was introduced as a technology that was going to revolutionise the world. It was going to change communication in ways unimagined by humans before. It was going to wrest the flow of information from profit-driven conglomerates to Joe and Jin average. It would promote equality and understanding among all groups of people. Of course, this utopian view of technology is nothing new, people said the same possibilities would occur with the radio, the telephone, the newspaper, the printing press etc., so you do have to take the more enthusiastic promoters of the internet with a grain of salt. The same proponents are quiet when websites like MySpace have been bought out by the likes of Newscorp. The Digital Divide is also as strong as ever – if I feel left behind by missing out on the internet changes over the space of two years, it says nothing about the 98% of Africans who don’t even have internet access. However, it is undeniable that something is changing, even if no-one’s really sure exactly how it is. That was the purpose the seminar run by Script to Screen (a group which promotes New Zealand screenwriters: script-to-screen.co.nz) – it’s to explore some of the potential implications that all this may have in terms of how we consume, and also, create media texts. The seminar utilised some industry speakers such as Gordon White from APN Media and Bevin Linkhorn from the Gibson Group, both of whom work for big companies that are appearing to react a bit quicker than most.

Despite my seemingly pessimistic opening, it is fair to say that media organisations are starting to feel the changes. For example, the music industry has discovered a great new way of promoting new music, while discovering that the internet has already punished the companies who were slow to react through internet piracy. And as White mentioned, TV is facing massive implications too, notwithstanding programme piracy. He mentions in the US that 20% of US households have format shifting devices like TiVo (in New Zealand there’s My Sky) that allow viewers to skip out advertisements and watch TV when they feel like it. That’s 20% of the television ads suddenly going to waste. That’s billions of dollars worth of advertising already. “Rather than talking to an audience where you want to be, you need to talk where they are”. White runs through a number of statistics that are highly thought-provoking – 38% of New Zealanders who have broadband watch nil to light amounts of TV. YouTube did not exist three years ago, and within two years it was sold for $1 billion. Six out of ten people sleep with their cellphones. There are more web-enabled cellphones than personal computers. 50% of web access in Japan and South Korea is via mobile phones – this is despite South Korea having free broadband. More than half of China’s population is under twenty-five. (If interested in seeing more of these type facts, go to smallscreens.org).

What this all means, I’m not entirely sure. But what it does suggest, is that companies are going to quickly think up new ways of selling people entertainment, that traditional methods of production (while still dominant) are forcing themselves to adapt (e.g. which probably explains why so many movie trailers are posted on youtube pretty early on). Companies are going to have to change the way they advertise, the way texts are promoted, and ultimately, the way profits are received. And while I’ll admit I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the bigger companies who are haemorrhaging profits, this may also affect how artists operate too. As White pointedly noted, if someone started their film degree in 2005, and within that time someone can invent a site like YouTube and sell it off for a billion bucks, how much worth is a film degree going to be when that student graduates three years later? Can artists be really expected to keep up with all that is changing? White claims for artists now, there is “near total creative freedom, a zero dollar barrier to entry”. Admittedly this may be seen as slightly utopian (you need to pay for a camera, a computer, the internet, you need to make something people want to watch, there is still the same distribution biases and inequalities...) but this does show that the possibilities for artists are considerable. Media viewership is becoming increasingly fragmented and focused on niche markets. “You’re no longer talking to people at the Wellington Film Festival. You’ve got a zombie film? You’re talking to zombie enthusiasts worldwide”.

The second speaker was Bevin Linkhorn from the Gibson Group, and he was an example of a company that has reacted to these technological changes. The Gibson Group, along with New Zealand On Air, experimented with this shifting technology, and made a TV show that was able to be downloaded to a cellphone. With the portentous title MyStory, it was a soap-opera that was made to be screened on C4 (and TV3), available on the internet, and also to be downloaded onto Vodafone cellphones. Its major difference? It was a 2-minute show. Obviously this presents new challenges for writers, and those who are already concerned about the MTVisation of younger audiences and the seeming need for instant media gratification, may have problems with this possibility. An artist like Jancso or Angelopoulos just won’t be sexy anymore (not that they ever were, but a four hour panoramic film will probably be useless on a small cellphone). According to Linkhorn, MyStory has proven to be a successful concept (though he was a little cagey on revealing figures as to its actual success). And some of the bigger US TV shows have done something similar, with little spin-off shows devised for the downloading audience such as from Prison Break. Linkhorn did admit they probably rushed MyStory a little bit (it was screened five days a week on C4, meaning viewers who came late to the show would have missed a high number of the 40 episode show). And while I might euphemistically say that MyStory is a bit average in terms of its quality, it does demonstrate potentially new ways for companies to mix art and profit.

Linkhorn does admit that not everyone is ready for all these potential changes. Personally I’m not ready to give up my ninety-plus minute films and novelistic TV shows like The Wire, and I have no intention of using my cellphone to consume my art. I’m also not sure that until there is some major shift in downloading formats or pricing (especially in New Zealand with its outrageous cellphone prices) that there will be too much change in how people consume their media texts. However, the seminar did show that “major media institutions are going through a major paradigm shift” and for artists and companies alike, there is a huge advantage in understanding some of the changes.