August 31, 2007
MIT C3 WEEKLY UPDATE
Weekend of August 31, 2007
*Editor's Note: Ivan Askwith's Thesis and This Week's Newsletter
*Opening Note: David Edery on Working in the Entertainment Business without a Crystal Ball
*Glancing at the C3 Blog
*Closing Note: Kevin Sandler on Scooby-Doo, I of II
--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------
Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3. I want to start of this week by pointing out the last in our series of Master's theses from the Program in Comparative Media Studies, as we share with you the work of our recent graduates from C3. This week we are putting Ivan Askwith's thesis up on our site.
Ivan Askwith's Television 2.0: Reconceptualizing TV as an Engagement Medium
Askwith, who now works with Big Spaceship since graduating from the Program in Comparative Media Studies here at MIT, has presented his work in the past to various members of the C3 partner organizations on better understanding engagement with television content. His thesis is available in whole here and will also be made available on the internal Convergence Culture Consortium site for our partners later this week. My thesis, which was previewed in the Editor's Note last week, is now available on the internal portion of our site.
Here is the abstract from Ivan's thesis:
"Television is in a period of dramatic change. As the mass audience continues to fragment into ever-smaller niche audiences and communities of interest, and new technologies shift control over the television viewing experience from network programmers into the hands of media consumers, television's traditional business models prove themselves increasingly untenable. In an attempt to preserve these models, television executives are attempting to shed television's long-standing reputation as a passive medium, which emphasized the viewer's role as a consumer of television content, and which critics often decried as vacuous and mindless.
The current discourse suggests that television's future now relies on the industry's success recasting it as an active medium, capable of capturing and holding the audience's attention, and effective at generating emotional investment. The single most important concept in this new industrial discourse is that of audience "engagement," a term that has generated a tremendous amount of debate and disagreement, with television and advertising executives alike struggling to understand what engagement is, how it works, and what its practical consequences will be.
This thesis argues that television's future as an engagement medium relies not on inventing new methodologies that define engagement in terms of quantifiable audience behaviors and attitudes, but instead in a new conceptual model of television, better suited to a multiplatform media environment and the emerging attention and experience economies, which focuses on the development of television programs that extend beyond the television set. Such a model must understand television not as a method for aggregating audiences that can be sold to advertisers, but as a medium that draws upon media platforms, content, products, activities and social spaces to provide audiences with a range of opportunities to engage with television content. Accordingly, this thesis offers a framework for thinking about viewer engagement as the range of opportunities and activities that become possible when drawing upon an expanded, multi-platform conception of the modern television text. Applying this framework to the innovative and experimental textual extensions developed around ABC's Lost, the thesis indicates both the challenges and opportunities that emerge as television becomes an engagement medium."
This Week's Newsletter
This week, we present some work from David Edery, who formerly worked with C3 here at MIT and is now at Microsoft. Edery presents work from his blog, Game Tycoon. Edery looks at how to use "the wisdom of crowds" to increase the chances of producing content that interests consumers.
Meanwhile, in the Closing Note, we start a two-pat series with C3 Consulting Researcher Kevin Sandler, who shares some of his work from his upcoming book on the Scooby-Doo franchise. The conclusion to this piece will appear in the Opening Note of next week's C3 Weekly Update.
As usual, the newsletter this week features all the entries published during the week on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog.
If you have any questions or comments or would like to request prior issues of the update, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at email@example.com.
--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------
Working in the Entertainment Business without a Crystal Ball
By: David Edery
Note: I think this post may be interesting to anyone creating, investing in, or distributing games (regardless of whether or not they are Xbox Live Arcade games.) However, I needed to ramble through some seemingly tangential stuff to make my point. Please bear with me. :-)
XBLA portfolio management is a complex thing... I'm one part cat-herder, one part traffic cop, one part talent scout, and one part "quality control." (The latter part is especially tricky... who wants to be the guy who turned down Katamari because "the art was weak", or one of the eight publishers who turned down Harry Potter because "the writing could use polish.") I approach these roles with a healthy dose of humility (and even anxiety), knowing that at any moment I could become "the moron who turned down [fill in the blank]." Unfortunately, the longer I hold this position, the more likely that becomes!
Trying not to be a moron
So I've put systems in place to hopefully help reduce the risk of my own tastes (or lack of vision) from polluting the portfolio. I can't really discuss the details, but they include a sort of "wisdom of crowds" feedback loop, in which indie submissions are screened and rated by a group of my colleagues within Microsoft (who are asked NOT to discuss the submissions with each other before rating them -- mainly to avoid group-think.) The wisdom of crowds can make my forecasts more accurate, and it can help compensate for any subconscious biases I have. Unfortunately, what I don't believe it can do is help me identify future mega-hits (i.e. "the next Geo Wars".)
Our marketing team can't help with that, either. But first (for all you marketing haters out there), let the record show that XBLA's two most experienced marketing people have regularly out-predicted the rest of the "experts" on the team (myself included) when it comes to sales of upcoming titles. Unfortunately, they stumble where everyone else does... attempting to predict the truly big winners. Were my job to simply build a portfolio of generally-successful revenue-earners, I would hand over the reins to marketing and go on extended vacation. But Microsoft needs more than that... it needs a diverse portfolio that appeals to consumers of all types, innovative content that (hopefully) inspires the industry, appealing IP, and last but not least, mega-hits that encourage consumers to buy more Xbox 360s!
Luck vs. Madden
Unfortunately, I simply don't believe it's possible to (reliably) predict original mega-hits, which is precisely why companies like EA have focused so strongly on franchises like Madden and Harry Potter in the past. Riding a mega-hit is far safer than trying to predict one. There are boatloads of research that back up this assertion; the most recent report that caught my eye was in my articles of interest a few months ago. A quote from that report:
Intrinsic "quality," which we measured in terms of a song's popularity in the independent condition, did help to explain success in the social-influence condition. When we added updownloads across all eight social-influence worlds, "good" songs had higher market share, on average, than "bad" ones. But the impact of a listenerís own reactions is easily overwhelmed by his or her reactions to others. The song "Lockdown," by 52metro, for example, ranked 26th out of 48 in quality; yet it was the No. 1 song in one social-influence world, and 40th in another.
Music, like games, can be filtered by objective criteria that nearly everyone agrees upon (for example, I hereby bet that a song consisting of primarily nails on a chalkboard and cats screaming will never become a commercial success.) But once you get past those basic principles, marketing and public whim rule the day.
Improving your odds (or, "how to do something other than Madden")
So, if you believe all this to be true, what's the solution? One obvious answer: more content! Place more bets, even if it means spending less per bet. (Here's an HBR article, focused on the research I referred to earlier, which argues for just this.)
For most web-based portals, this is a no-brainer. Pour on the content, then use various ranking and merchandising methodologies to elevate the most popular stuff. For XBLA, the issue is more complicated. As I've written in the past, we're trying to foster a rapidly growing (but still emerging) ecosystem, which (in part) means keeping content flow at reasonable levels while the Marketplace platform matures and our audience grows. We also have a dedicated team of people who help indies get their content onto the service, and that team can only be stretched so far. So, for the near term, we optimize on portfolio breadth and generally avoid very similar games. Of course, clones exist precisely because predicting original hits is so difficult, so avoiding them is a double-edged sword for XBLA and for developers. (Furthermore, many consumers appreciate minor variants of a game mechanic that they know and love.) In the long-term, there are several potential solutions to these challenges, but that's a topic for another day.
What about developers?
Of course, "making many bets" is easy for XBLA. I manage a growing portfolio of many games. And thanks to XNA, I have an increasingly powerful mechanism via which to identify hits... a great community of developers who are creating and filtering them for me! See the Dream Build Play contest winners for examples.
Independent developers do not have this luxury; one or two bad calls and they may very well go bankrupt. So what should they do? One possibility is a variant of "making many bets" -- quickly making many prototypes and sharing them publicly. Of course, this isn't an original notion; many developers have bought into "quick prototype" development methodologies (though far fewer have been bold enough to exhibit their prototypes. I've personally been enjoying Petri Purho's public experiments.)
By revealing their prototypes, developers can get invaluable feedback from the community and an early read on the likely success of the game. Furthermore, they can turn the community feedback loop into a buzz engine that drives tremendous hype for the game. Concerns about "giving away the farm to competitors," while well-placed, are ultimately not worth abandoning this strategy over. After all, any veteran of this industry knows that execution is 99% of what makes a game successful. Ideas are cheap.
Nobody likes to face the notion that, no matter how brilliant or creative you are, guaranteeing a hit in this industry (without established IP) is usually impossible. Well, unless you're Blizzard, but I'm pretty sure they're inhuman, have signed a contract in blood, or something equally otherworldly.
I face this challenge every day. My solution is to harness the wisdom of my colleagues, to increase the quantity of content on our service as quickly as possible (without jeopardizing the ecosystem), and to help foster the growth of the XNA community. These are imperfect solutions, but they're the best available to me at this moment in time.
Publishers should also focus on placing many (relatively small) bets across a wide area, while (as always) relying on established IP to help stabilize revenues. And lastly, independent developers need to find their own solutions, be that to share prototypes, concentrate on cheap-to-develop web-based games, or something else that helps mitigate risk. Hoping to be "the next Blizzard" is great, but 99% of developers won't be the next Blizzard.
David Edery is currently Worldwide Games Portfolio Planner for Xbox Live Arcade in addition to being a C3 Research Affiliate, in addition to formerly working as a manager at C3 and Associate Director for External Relations and Special Projects for the Comparative Media Studies program here at MIT. This piece is from his blog about the video game industry called Game Tycoon at http://www.edery.org/.
---------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------
Looking Back at C3 Work--Fall 2006. On Labor Day, the C3 blog took a look back at some of its work in the previous academic year that appeared on the C3 blog. This post looks at some of the most interesting posts from the Fall 2006 semester.
The West Side: An Interview with the Creators, Part IV of IV. C3 Consulting Researcher Jason Mittell finishes his interview with creators of urban Western online video series The West Side, Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo and Zachary Lieberman, by talking about advertising and distribution.
The Latest from the C3 Team: Gender and Fan Studies, Digital Television, and Social Networks. Over the past week, Henry Jenkins' blog featured the latest round of the "Gender and Fan Studies" series featuring the writing of Anne Kustritz and Derek Johnson, while Jason Mittell shares some work from his upcoming textbook on American television on digital TV and Rad Tollett at GSD&M Idea City looks at Facebook and the changing meaning of friendship.
Theses from C3 Alum (3 of 3): Ilya Vedrashko, Parmesh Shahani, and Aswin Punathambekar. After profiling the thesis projects of the four recent C3 graduates, this post looks at the earlier thesis work of the other three Comparative Media Studies alum who work with the Consortium.
Theses from C3 Alum (2 of 3): Sam Ford and Geoffrey Long. Two more theses coming out of the recent graduation of C3 alumnus is Sam Ford's As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture and Geoffrey Long's Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics and Production at the Jim Henson Company.
Theses from C3 Alum (1 of 3): Ivan Askwith and Alec Austin. As has been promoted here in the C3 Weekly Update over the past few weeks, the thesis projects of C3 alum are now available online. This post looks at the work of Ivan Askwith in Television 2.0: Reconceptualizating TV as an Engagement Medium and Alec Austin in Expectations Across Entertainment Media.
Two New Aca-Fen Blogs. C3 Director Henry Jenkins provides a look at interesting blogs between academics writing about media and fan studies, Bob Rehak's Graphic Engine and Robert Jones' Stranger 109.
NBC Acquires Sparrowhawk: Conglomeration Marches On, But Where's the Brand Going? (2 of 2). In the second-part of this look at the NBC brand, Eleanor Baird looks at how the oldest American television network compares to companies like the BBC and Turner Broadcasting.
NBC Acquires Sparrowhawk: Conglomeration Marches On, But Where's the Brand Going? (1 of 2). C3's Eleanor Baird looks at NBC's brand in the midst of continuing international distribution through multiple platforms, continuing her work looking at NBC as a particular example of a network brand trying to distinguish itself in the current media environment.
The West Side: An Interview with the Creators (3 of 4). In this piece, Jason Mittell talks to the creators of the urban Western online video series The West Side, Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo and Zachary Lieberman, about their use of serialization and processes of distribution for independent content.
AOL Truveo Developing a Reputation in Online Video Search. As companies continue to compete to find their place in the crowded online video market, Truveo is distinguishing itself as a quality video search tool now in the market for branding itself more publicly.
Survey Says Downloading Video an Unsatisfactory Experience. A Parks Associates study finds that only 20 percent of U.S. consumers who have downloaded videos plan to do so again. What does this mean for understanding the market for online video distribution?
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--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------
Scooby-Doo: Part I of II
By: Kevin Sandler
In October 2004, the Guinness Book of World Records announced that Scooby-Doo has been awarded a world record for the most episodes of a cartoon series. Its 350th episode surpassed the previous record holder, The Simpsons, which has since regained the crown. Despite this seesaw battle, Scooby-Doo remains the most spun-off animated or live-action series ever to appear on U. S. television. The character spans five decades of television programming from 1969 to the present, appearing in thirteen different original series on the broadcast and cable networks.
They are Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? (1969/1970, 1970/1971 seasons), The New Scooby-Doo Movies (72/73, 73/74), The Scooby-Doo/Dynomutt Hour (76/77), Scooby's All-Star Laff-a-Lympics (77/78, 78/79), Scooby and Scrappy Doo (79/80), The Richie Rich/Scooby-Doo Hour (80/81, 81/82), The Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo/Puppy Hour (82/83), The New Scooby and Scrappy Doo Show (83/84), The New Scooby-Doo Mysteries (84/85), The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo (85/86), A Pup Named Scooby-Doo (88/89, 89/90), What's New Scooby-Doo? (02/03), and Shaggy and Scooby-Doo Get a Clue (06-present). Once a little Saturday morning series, the Scooby-Doo brand eventually expanded into prime-time television specials, feature films, direct-to-video releases, as well as video games, the internet, cell phones, Cartoon Network interstitials. It continues to be a top-selling licensed product in the North American and overseas markets.
Scooby-Doo's popularity all these years amidst all these platforms and products has made the series a shared reference point for many a generation. As a 38-year old product, the series has displayed an uncanny ability to adapt to the ever-mercurial children's marketplace, but it has been less successful in remaining relevant for teen and adult consumers. Why did Scooby-Doo lose some of its brand luster among these demographics and what might be done in this age of media convergence to make the character relevant once again to a generation who seemingly outgrew him?
The Scooby-Doo brand essence--one that its corporate owner Time Warner endlessly cross-promotes and cross-pollinates across numerous media platforms--is one of goofiness, loyalty, brotherhood, youthfulness, and innocence. The character's brand ascendancy in the late-1990s lay in the company's ability to overcome the dominant youth appeal of the television show by simultaneously tapping into its transgenerational appeal. Cartoon Network played the greatest role at this time in concretizing Scooby-Doo's transgenerational brand equity after Time Warner's purchase of Turner Broadcasting (who owned Hanna-Barbera) in 1996. Scooby-Doo was a great brand frontman (or dog) for Cartoon Network. Both were mindlessly funny and playfully violent. The character’s Saturday morning series and direct-to-video films endlessly played across the network's morning and afternoon dayparts for children. Yet, an element of Cartoon Network's brand image was noticeably absent from Scooby-Doo: irony. This mode of address was primarily responsible for one-third of Cartoon Network's audience being eighteen and older by the end of millennium (a number even greater now in with the success of its late-night animation block, Adult Swin). How did Cartoon Network overcome this brand dissonance?
Cartoon Network broadened Scooby-Doo's brand appeal by following in the footsteps of one of the Great Dane's animated brethren: Space Ghost. Like Space Ghost Coast to Coast, a satire of late-night talk show hosted by the eponymous inter-galactic superhero, Cartoon Network recontextualized Scooby-Doo by placing the character in ironic, parodic, and self-referential "hip" contexts--to attract and "reward" adult viewers for watching its channel. These recontextualizations did not appear in series form but as interstitials and stunt programming that played up the urban myths of Scooby-Doo in an inoffensive but ironic manner, namely that Scooby and Shaggy are druggies, that Fred and Daphne are secret lovers, and that Scrappy Doo is the devil incarnate. They included:
- The Scooby-Doo Project, a parody of The Blair Witch Project
- Behind the Scenes of Scooby-Doo, reminiscences by the Scooby gang on their crime fighting career in the vein of VH1's Behind the Music
- Scooby-Doo for President, a mock campaign during the 2000 election
- The 13th Annual Fancy Anvil Awards Show, an Oscar parody featuring Scooby-Doo winning a lifetime achievement award
- Night of the Living Doo, a parody of The New Scooby-Doo Movies with guest stars David Cross and Gary Coleman
- Bravo-Dooby-Doo: a cross-generic pairing of Scooby-Doo in an episode of Johnny Bravo
As a result of these recontextualized programming and marketing strategies, Cartoon Network successfully developed a cool, alternative, hip glossy sheen for the Scooby-Doo, tapping into an older audience's flippant and ironised nostalgia for the pop culture of times past. These recontextualizations kept the Scooby-Doo brand fresh and exciting for the adult consumer market at the turn of the century.
However, the Scooby-Doo brand lost much of its brand equity since 2001 despite its continuous, but less frequent, recontextualizations on Cartoon Network (Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, 2002; Robot Chicken, 2005; Venture Brothers, 2006). Different subsidiaries of the Time Warner conglomerate failed to strike a brand balance between kids, parents, teens and other adult consumers. Two sets of high profile brand extensions in the past five years from Time Warner----feature length films and console video games--failed to inject the Scooby-Doo brand with the hipness generated at Cartoon Network in the late 1990s. Instead, these platforms infantilized the brand, returning Scooby-Doo to its Saturday morning pre-teen audience and damaging any relevance and goodwill the brand had to adult consumers.
Next week, in the second part of this essay, Kevin Sandler discusses these brand failures and offer suggestions by which transmedia storytelling, participatory culture, and experiential marketing can reinject new life into the Scooby-Doo brand.
Kevin S. Sandler is an Assistant Professor of Media Arts at the University of Arizona. His research specializations include film and television censorship, branded entertainment and media convergence, and contemporary animation. His upcoming book The Naked Truth: Why Hollywood Does Not Make NC-17 Films (Rutgers, 2007) examines the productive and prohibitive practices of the Classification and Ratings Administration. His forthcoming books include Scooby-Doo (Duke University Press), an analysis of the cartoon's uncanny ability to adapt to regulatory, technological, and industrial changes over its 38-year-old history, and The Shield, a study of the FX cop drama. He has published in a wide range of journals and anthologies and is the editor of Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation (Rutgers, 1998), and co-editor of Titanic: Anatomy of a Blockbuster (Rutgers, 1999). He earned in B.A in Communication from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, an M.A. in Radio/TV/Film from Indiana State University, and a Ph.D. in Film Studies from Sheffield Hallam University in England.
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