Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Broadband for the People

Last week I attended the Alliance for Community Media (ACM) annual conference in Portland, Oregon. These are the folks who run PEG TV channels or Public, Education and Government channels. A lot of people refer to this as public access TV which covers only a small part of it. Probably the popular parody of public access TV is the old Saturday Night Live skit "Wayne's World." There are two things that should be noted about this group. First, long before YouTube and the internet these folks were giving average citizens access to the airways. They provided an inexpensive platform where people, not governments, not corporations and not special interest groups, could express themselves. The second thing is these people are passionate about community television.

The price for freedom of speech is you let everyone have a voice. Then you get shows on public access that inspired "Wayne's World" and you get silly cats on YouTube. This I believe is an acceptable price. The PEG channels have not only given average people a platform but they have made education and their local governments more accessible to more people. From my conversations at the conference it seems that these resources are better utilized in smaller towns and tight knit communities and have less of an impact in suburbia and large cities. There are exceptions of course, especially in cities where the neighborhoods have access to the PEG channels.

While attending the conference I was thinking about the future of television and the PEG channels. PEG channels are under assault across the country by the large cable franchises who give up channel space and a small percentage of their profits to support community television. The Comcast's of the world would just as soon see PEG channels disappear. In addition many have been predicting the demise of broadcast and cable television and its replacement by the internet. The attraction of community television is the community and the connection between neighbors. On-line communities are not the same. How does the Founder's Day Parade streamed on YouTube build community or the City Council Meeting podcasts encourage citizen involvement?

I am not sure what is going to happen but I did make it to one panel discussion that got me very excited. Sean McLaughlin, the Executive Director of Access Humboldt chaired a panel discussion with Christopher Mitchell, the Director of Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance and the New Rules Project, and John Bloch, Board President for ORCA Media in Montpelier, Vermont. Turns out a lot of people have been thinking about and doing something about this for a while now. According to Mitchell 60 communities have already built full fiber-to-the-home networks and many more are working on it. Now I live in Seattle, according to some, one of the most wired cities in the US. I get Comcast's highest internet connection that approaches 3MBps for download speeds and .1MBps for upload speeds. Burlington Telecom, the community run broadband internet services in Burlington, Vermont, provides 8MBps upload and download speeds and bundles that with cable and unlimited US phone service for less than Comcast charges me for internet and cable service.

As a community they are solving the "last mile" problem and providing the gold standard of broadband connectivity, fiber to the home, for less than a private company. In fact private companies don't even want to touch it. Not only do they have broadband, the fiber provides cable television AND telephone service. The comparison of service and costs between private companies and public utilities is pretty striking. Lafayette, Louisiana's public utility's network offers 10Mbps symmetrical connections for less than $30 a month. In Burlington you can get your own television channel for $65 a month. They have plenty of room because they have fiber to the home. The future is here and it's in small towns across America. Of course this is only true in area where it's not illegal. Apparently some states have laws against the public competing against the telecoms. Even Seattle has a group working on it: the Seattle Digital Justice Campaign. Of course Mitchell from Minneapolis had to tell me about it. I'm not too optimistic for Seattle but I'm excited about Burlington, VT, Lafayette, LA, Ashland, OR and the Loma Linda's of the nation.

You can find out more about municipal and community broadband networks at and for more information about broadband policy go to

Saturday, July 11, 2009

YouTube vs. Professional Video

Recently an associate of mine and a fellow member of the Communications Media Management Association, Cynthia Hotvedt of Medtronic, Inc started a conversation about creating "YouTube/home video" style programs in the corporate setting. There were a lot of contributions and opinions on this subject. The members of CMMA are managers of corporate, educational and government internal media departments. Many of them are responsible for internal communications and many more are responsible for external communications and hence the "look" and "message" of their organizations.

It seems that there are three reasons given to engage in "YouTube/home video" style productions.

  1. YouTube is getting a lot of buzz so shouldn't we be doing that too?
  2. We should engage our employees and customers in generating our message.
  3. This is cheap; we don't need to pay for video production.

The reaction ranged from enthusiastic acceptance to beating the evil amateurs away with a stick. Some saw this as a threat on quality and professionalism. Others saw this as the latest in a long line of fads like camcorders and super-8 film (for those of us who were around when these were fads). They contend that the amateurs would soon fade away when it became evident that skill was needed to craft a coherent message. Still others reacted to the continual onslaught of those who wanted something for nothing and devised strategies for coping with the cheapskates. Others thought it was great and have already started distributing flip cameras.

Well, I'm taking a firm stand on the side of, well… it just depends. Meaning that the message and the media just depend upon what you are trying to accomplish. But first let's step back and look at what we mean by professional, YouTube, User Generated Content and all this other stuff.

YouTube is the newest incarnation of the democratization of media distribution. My "25 cent words" for saying that every few years there is a decrease in the cost of the tools to produce film and video and a group previously prevented from producing content now can. When 16mm cameras became available in the 1960s there was an upsurge in independent documentary film producers. When public access television became widespread every suburban teenager had a talk show, aka the "Wayne's World Affect." When camcorders became available in the 1980s everyone started making their own videos. Now YouTube has made it possible for anyone to distribute video for nothing and that's pretty cheap.

Now just because someone can make and distribute a video doesn't make it good and that is the point made by my professional friends. There are millions of examples of bad video on the internet. But it does give talented people an outlet they never had before and those few individuals are the ones creating the buzz.

So, does professional video have a place? Yes of course. Whenever the message is important, the story is critical and the audience needs to be engaged I would pay and depend upon a professional. The video should be distributed where it will engage the audience. If that is on YouTube, NBC or the corporate web site then that is where the video should be distributed.

How about amateur video? If the purpose is to save costs then it is a Pyrrhic savings. It is like the old production saying: I can make the video cheap, fast and good: please pick two. You can save money but you may not achieve your goals. The idea of getting someone to produce your content for free is ultimately bad. You cannot control the message, you have no control on quality and you cannot control the distribution. If you want control you need to pay for it. But what about User Generated Content (UGC) you ask. Coke and Mentos got a huge amount of publicity from YouTube videos. That is true but Coke and Mentos do not let amateurs control their corporate image and message. A business can work with their fans and customers in promoting their goals if they don't abdicate that role to the amateurs. The dark side of course is exemplified by The Sons of Maxwell's "United Breaks Guitars."

A couple of places are doing some cool things with User Generated Content. Robert Halper, the Director of Video Communications at Johnson & Johnson is in charge of their YouTube Channel. One of their cool projects and a great example of effectively harnessing UGC without it being exploitive is the Real Mom Series. This is one of my favorites:

An example from a university is the University of Washington's
Pocket Media contest. The idea was staff, faculty, students and alumni could compete if the shot their video on a camera that fit into their pocket. They got some very good results.

Neither the University of Washington nor Johnson & Johnson are using UGC in place of professionally produced content or to save money on production costs. They are using it to engage their customers, build community and enhance their message. Let me know what you think about user generated content and YouTube quality videos.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Free! The Price of Educational Television: Part 2

In my last blog the debate sparked by Chris Anderson's new book,
"Free: The Future of a Radical Price"
(Hyperion; $26.99) and the responses by Malcolm Gladwell, Mark Cuban, Seth Godin and Chris Bogan inspired me to reflect on the model of distributing educational video. For years I worked at the University of Washington's UWTV and at the ResearchChannel. Besides producing programs and managing the production department, one of my jobs was to get people to produce and air their programs on the channel and the internet. It was not always an easy job. A typical conversation often went like this:

Me: "You should let us record your lecture so we can put it on television."
Professor: "How much will you pay me?
Me: "Nothing."
Professor: "How many people will see it?"
Me: "I don't know."
Professor: "Can you prevent anyone from stealing the content?"
Me: "That will be hard."
Professor: "How much will it cost?"
Me: "Oh, between 2 and 5 thousand dollars."
Professor: "Are you an insane idiot?"
Me: "Um…."

So we now know "Free" is the new future and as many say, the future is here.

As Andrea Ford's article in Time Magazine, Logging On to the Ivy League,
makes clear there are a lot of advantages for those schools who have embraced distributing their video content on television and the internet. Among other things the videos promote the school's presence, their faculty, programs, research, as well as connect with their alumni and reach out to prospective students. Some content providers have told me that the videos are in many ways better than traditional advertising. For example a medical school will record a medical ground round that features a particular operation or procedure. This program will then be seen by a doctor across the country who will then recommend his patient seek treatment at the university's medical center. Other schools feel that the programs are a good way to showcase their research and will impress potential funders and granting agencies. When I asked one researcher who his audience was he told me the state's legislature. Many non-Ivy League schools use this platform to gain attention. It is one thing to have a paper published in a peer reviewed journal and quite another to have 25,000 views on YouTube.

The question now returns to who pays for this "free" content"?

The term "free content" already established that the consumer is not paying and most on-line distributors are providing the service for no cost and are not going to pay for the content. This leaves the schools to pay for production and distribution. Production can cost anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars to the low six figures depending upon the subject and how it is shot. Who generally pays these costs and why?

Those readers who work in academia are already aware that universities and colleges are not monolithic organizations with clearly stated goals and obvious objectives. The English Department, Athletics and the Medical School will not only have different funding models and goals but different constituents and measures of success. Many schools embrace this laissez-faire approach for content creation and if the medical school finds it in their best interest to produce and distribute videos and the English Department can't buy ink for their copier that is fine. Fewer schools look at free content distribution in a holistic way to promote the school or achieve some public outreach goals.

There are many who believe that the entire content production and distribution model should support itself. The reports of millions of dollars being made by photos of silly cats on-line have convinced many academics that the nation's top physicist should be able to do the same. But even if YouTube.EDU shared revenue with content providers like MIT's academic rock star Walter Lewin, Dr. Lewin would be hard pressed to cover the cost of production. His all time most popular video with over 234,000 views is just a third of the traffic make up guru Michelle Pham generates in just one week.

Of course Michelle Pham doesn't make money showing videos on YouTube she makes money selling make-up to people who watch her videos on YouTube. What is MIT's goal, or rather what is Walter Lewin's goal? What is the measure of success? What does it mean if a professor who normally speaks before an annual audience of a couple of hundred students now has an audience of a couple of thousand people worldwide? Does that have a value? Is there a return on the schools investment? Should academic knowledge be reduced to an ROI?

The cost of production including the work of digitizing and posting the video is borne by the school or the department. Let me know what you think. Are there other funding models? Is it worth the effort? I'll be exploring these questions in more depth over the next few months.


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Free! The price of Educational Television: Part 1

I have not read Chris Anderson's new book, "Free: The Future of a Radical Price" (Hyperion; $26.99) but last night I read Malcolm Gladwell's review in The New Yorker, "Priced to Sell." Then this morning I read comments in Chris Brogan's blog: I Believe Mark Cuban is Right
which lead me naturally enough to Mark Cuban's blog: Free vs Freely Distributed and of course to Seth Godin's disagreement with Gladwell's review on his blog: Malcolm is wrong. I'm not going to weigh in on the future of newspapers or whether "Free" is the new price point but I do have some thoughts about distributing educational video, its value and who pays for it.

Several points in the "Free Debate" seem to be clear even if not everyone agrees on what they mean.

  • Consumers are increasingly expecting information for free.

  • The cost of distribution is so low that when you "round down" it is free.

  • Someone is still going to make money somewhere.

Some of the areas of contention are:

  • Who controls the distribution of information?

  • Who gets paid for what?

  • What will the marketplace do?

What does this have to do with educational content, especially with video content where I have more experience? Through my previous roles at the University of Washington's UWTV and the ResearchChannel I spent a lot of my time trying to get professors and schools to record their talks, lectures and presentations, their "intellectual property," and distribute it first on television then on the internet for free. Of course it was not free to produce and distribute the programs but the programs are free for anyone with access to the internet. For the most part the content providers were not paid. However, there are countervailing opinions within the educational community that will both help and hinder the distribution of educational content.

Briefly let's take a quick look back on some of the dominant attitudes of academia on distributing educational video in particular. In our culture colleges and universities, for over a thousand years, have been at the center of disseminating information and knowledge. Even though higher education thrives on a meritocracy access has traditionally been available only to the elite and widespread access has only been available in the United States since the end of World War II. For some the promise of television meant a way to educate the masses and to freely disseminate knowledge. Pioneers such as Johns Hopkins University began broadcasting "The Johns Hopkins Science Review" on WAAM as early as 1948. Many Public Television stations began as educational TV stations in the 1950s and 1960s. For example KCTC in Seattle first aired in 1955 from the campus of the University of Washington. Because of the strong believe that knowledge should be free many of these efforts, from children's educational programs to satellite distribution across Alaska, were supported by local, state and federal subsidies which have been steadily eroding since the 1980s.

While some promoted the free distribution of academic content over television others were vehemently guarding their "intellectual property." They often felt that at certain levels information could be shared amongst their peers but mass distribution, especially on television, was a waste of time and a bit unseemly. Others thought that knowledge needed to be distributed face to face, in a brick and mortar building, that giving people free access to knowledge would somehow decrease enrolment. Others felt that, for example, if they wrote a book they should be paid for it, if they gave a televised lecture they should be paid for it. The basic stance was that giving away information for free was counterproductive.

An article in Time Magazine written by Andrea Ford this past April, Logging On to the Ivy League, pointed out what my colleagues at the ResearchChannel and UWTV had been saying for over 10 years. That giving away the content, the exposure, was worth the costs. In the article Ford talked with MIT's Steve Carson, "who serves as president of the OpenCourseWare Consortium, says it's worth the expense, since the online content attracts prospective students, keeps alumni connected and encourages innovation. Schools have decided that these benefits outweigh the concerns about cost, intellectual property and devaluation of élite degrees. After all, the free material does not add up to a diploma, and viewers can't interact with the faculty."

One major thing has changed between the time Johns Hopkins' educational programs first aired in 1948 and MITs YouTube adventure. Traditional broadcast bandwidth, including the license, transmission towers and related infrastructure, was very expensive and distribution limited to a few hundred miles. When distribution subsidies dried up in the 1980s educational television all but disappeared. Now, as we have learned from Anderson et al, distribution via the internet is so cheap it might as well be free. Now that the walls to distribution have been torn down knowledge is free to roam the verdant fields of an eager public, yet rubble and barbed wire still mar the landscape impeding the free flow of knowledge.

In Caldwell's review he criticizes Anderson's example of Lewis Strauss, the former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, "who famously predicted in the mid-nineteen-fifties that "our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter."' Caldwell points out that even without the problems later faced by nuclear power, electricity would never be "too cheap to meter" because no matter how cheap it became to generate electricity there would always be costs associated with the infrastructure and delivery of electricity. Likewise, no matter how cheap it is to distribute content on YouTube.EDU, assuming that YouTube can maintain or survive their business model, it still costs thousands of dollars to produce and publish the simplest video lecture. Someone has to pay for that.

This is where the current debate in educational video lies and the subject of my next blog. Who should pay for the distribution of educational content and who should benefit? What pricing models make sense and what business models are sustainable?