One Year On: A Report ☆

When The Media Show had been in production for about a year, AfterEd TV’s managers asked me to write up a summary of the past year. This was what I wrote, covering production, publicity, and distribution. Note that our take on YouTube and deviantArt has changed in the year since.

Look at the episodes before and after this document. Did we manage to make the appropriate changes? Which parts of this assessment were correct, and which do you think were off-base?

Production

Weekly production may be overrated.

By now, we have a good, if small, core of subscribers on YouTube and followers on Facebook. A large number of our YouTube views come from the subscriber pages. This probably means people are finding us automatically, without being reminded a new episode is up because of what day it is.
Not only that, but the bloopers reels things we use to fill space — are not necessarily all that compelling. Bloopers reels consistently have lower hits, and some of the less-compelling viral episodes do too.
So it may be worth considering less-frequent publishing, if it means the production value can improve because due to more concentrated effort…

Short “viral” episodes didn’t necessarily do what we intended.
We made the short PSAs in spring semester because 1) it was easier on a weekly publishing schedule and 2) we thought the brevity and topics would encourage forwarding. Alas, we didn’t seem to see much more forwarding with those; the percentage of “viral” hits on YouTube for these was not really any more or less than with other eps, on average.
However, some of them continue to be quite popular: “netiquette,” the remade Snopes, and “Passive Smileys.”

Timeliness is a waste of time.
I spent a good deal of time last year trying to respond to potential stories as they came up — Jon Stewart’s clash with Jim Cramer on The Daily Show; the astroturf campaign story that came out of Sony; the fair use interview that was a result of YouTube taking down one of our videos; the Gossip Girl shoot on Columbia’s campus. Only the latter two got produced. While the fair use episode turned out quite well, the Gossip Girl one took a lot of wrangling about the edit and didn’t turn out that well. And the other two scripts were basically time sinks.
Additionally, it has been dicey to work with scripts developed off of news items from Advertising Age. Invariably, we produce them about a year after the article/video appears. In some cases, this is fine, like the piece about billboard ads, which could end up being a hook for a teacher’s lesson plan at any time and is timeless enough as to not end up being dated. In other cases, like the AC/DC/WalMart/Nike/Coraline bit, the references were a bit out of date by the time we put it up there (though the theme of the episode still holds.
I think the lesson to be taken from this is that timeliness can’t be our goal for high-production episodes. Not while our turnaround time is still a minimum of six weeks including script development, shooting, and editing. We should be focusing on media industry themes which are timeless. This is a good thing, really — it would be easier to package these episodes as parts of lesson plans, anyway.

Production-heavy episodes are often better, but take more labor.
The latest few episodes have taken a great deal of production effort, but the feedback has been very positive. I think we’re at our best when planning episodes which dramatize content (see below), which often takes more prop/set building, and also when we produce episodes which require more research. My preference would thus be to move forward on a schedule in which we publish less often, but produce higher-quality episodes.

Interns are truly our future.
The contributions of Corinne and Nicola to the show have been tremendous — they have brought great energy, great ideas, and professional-level production help which have led to some of our best episodes and putting our best foot forward technically. Having Corinne and Mary-Kate (not an intern, of course) to help edit has been the only way I could manage the workload for some of the more high-production-value episodes (which have required extra scriptwriting, research, prop-building, Motion work, and location/extras coordination). I would love to expand the role of interns in developing the show if possible.

Show, don’t tell.
In general, I’ve been far more pleased with our episodes where we try to dramatize a teachable point rather than lecture about it. Yell and Sell, What’s In A Flame?, Passive Smileys, and Spiders and Spam (forthcoming) all strike me as better scripts than, say, the somewhat preachy Get Outta Myspace, Hot Gossip, and the crap-tacular Warcraft E-Card. We ought to think more along the lines of dramatization in the future.

What about a human character?
It’s occurred to me that having a third character, particularly a human who could sort of act as a superego for the two puppets, would reduce the narrative burden on them. Weena could be more cranky, Erna could be even more of a fangirl, and they could both be more at each others’ throats if there was someone like Joel from Mystery Science Theater 3000, or the adult human characters on Sesame Street, for them to play off of. We might try writing a few scripts with this character to see how it plays out. Bryan Currie, my former roommate who was on the Product Placement episode, is a natural performer and improviser, and I think he’d be great for this role. He has expressed interest in working with us further (now that he doesn’t have to watch TV for [redacted] in the evenings ;))

Are viewer response prompts necessary?
The initial idea of the show was that the girls would prompt the viewers to produce their own content in response to themes of specific episodes. As I describe below, this isn’t really happening in the ways we expected. However, what responses we have gotten are not generally limited to the episodes where we made prompts. So I’m really not sure: should we shoot prompts, or do they just make us sound like Mr. Rogers asking the audience to sing along?


Design

OMG TRANSPARENCIES KILL THEM WITH FIRE
We started out with a number of transparencies layered over the posters on set. This created crummy reflections which blitzed out the camera. omg whytf did we do this?

OMG 3D FONTS NOOOOOO IT AR MY BIRTHDAY
There were a few times I used 3D-looking or glass-effect Motion fonts, and frankly, they make the show look like an Angelfire page from 1999. I want to keep sticking with flat-style, predominantly scribbly/scruffy fonts. I think they fit the aesthetic of the show better.

By contrast, cheesy effects are Awesome.
I’m having fun trolling Motion’s library for cheesy explosion/transition/sparkle effects, because I think they’re funny in and of themselves. Still working on perfecting my ultimate goal, the “cheese wipe.”

OMG WE NEED L-SHAPED PIANO WIRE HANDSTICKS
This is how the pros do it, and it will improve the expressiveness of the puppets and save us from handstick disaster.

OMG PUPPET REDESIGN TIME
yes. yes it is. Everyone knows Weena needs brighter eyes. Erna needs a more stable and manipulable head. etc etc etc. It’s time for Puppets 2.0. The good news is this won’t cost us much more than labor — we have enough fur for a second Erna in the studio, should we decide we need it, and Weena is modular and will probably just take some superficial touch-ups. (There is no bad news :D)
CCTE colleague Rob Branch recently astutely pointed out that the fine details on the puppets — stripes on Weena, ticking/spots on Erna — is playing hell with web video codecs. If we really want this to be a good web video show, he said, we should really redesign them. I was kind of heartbroken, because he’s absolutely right, but I’m not sure whether I want to focus on this just being a web video show. Though it might make us look less amateurish.

YAAAAAAY COLOR CORRECTION!
The show looks much better with the 3-way color correction Corinne has been doing.

Infrastructure

Viewers think we should have our own website.
We’ve gotten feedback from a number of regular viewers that they think having our own webpage for The Media Show would contribute to our credibility and cachet. This should also support a strategy of posting to more video sites, which I will discuss below.

YouTube isn’t a close-knit enough community to support interaction.

While the serendipity of traffic on YouTube certainly gives us a lot of hits over time, it doesn’t yield the kind of interactive feedback the show was originally planned for. I’ve made overtures to deviantART, a website where artists, including fan artists, post their work. People frequently comment on each others’ work and “commission” each other to make specific works. If we can put some leg work into interacting with this community, I think this might be a good place to post.

Why aren’t we getting more video user response?
In general, we get a pretty good little stream of thoughtful comments. However, to date we’ve had only one video response, and that was from a friend. We had been hoping more people would get on their webcams and talk to us. Why hasn’t this happened?
If we want it to happen more, two tactics are probably in order.
First, we might try to insinuate ourselves into the really dedicated community of YouTube webcam respondents. I know they’re out there, but they’re not just going to stumble across us. We should be responding to what they’re responding to, and starting conversations with them.
Second, we need focus groups. Some people have suggested that viewers may not have the technical resources to make a response; they may feel they need to respond with a puppet; or they’re just shy about being on camera. We should ask a focus group how they think they should respond, and how feasible they think this is.

YouTube is still better than Brightcove alone.
Key advantages of YouTube are as follows: 1) Subscriptions, which have been growing (especially in the past month) and which people are definitely using to find the videos. 2) Keywords, which definitely drive people to our videos who were initially looking for something else.

Keywords are key.
Some of our videos definitely have more traffic than others, and this seems to be related to keywords.
Keywords which don’t have too many videos related to them on YouTube — “sell sell sell muppet” and “netiquette” are among them — but which generate broad interest are garnering us greater traffic than, say, “dane cook” or “amy winehouse,” which are doubtless plenty popular as keywords but have a lot of competition on YouTube. These videos do seem to be sent to friends; the “netiquette” one has even been posted on the Blackboard system of a small college in CA which is interested in teaching its undergrads online literacy.

Would multiple video channels be better than one?
Aside from additional effort, which I don’t think will be huge, I see no reason why we shouldn’t be posting to YouTube, Brightcove, deviantART, current.tv, and other sites. Everyone has their sites they visit regularly, and it’s possible we’re just not on some of them.

We get by with a little help from our friends.
Our biggest sources of traffic have been my links from Twitter and Facebook, as well as readers from intern Nicola McEldowney’s and puppeteer Abby Estes’s blogs. Nicola’s blog in particular gives us massive traffic spikes.

And yet we’re not going “viral.”
We haven’t gone “viral” — our hits have not mounted into the tens of thousands. In the grand scheme of things, I’m not too concerned with this. We have a very specific message and viewpoint. Unlike funny videos of cats jumping into boxes, we don’t speak a universal language.
I would, however, hope that eventually we’ll get picked up by a news aggregator on the scale of Slashdot, BoingBoing, or their ilk. I am not exactly sure how to make that happen. Probably making a pitch specific to the interests of their readers, in a personal kind of way.

Audience

As in, it’s really time to find out who ours is.
We have no idea whatsoever whether this show resonates with college students and high schoolers. If YouTube’s age demographics are to be believed (and I’m not sure they are; they seem to have errors when you look at the data in some ways), it appears people in these age groups are not gravitating to it naturally, at least not in numbers any greater than other age groups. Then again, as I’ve said, a majority of our publicity has been to our own contacts, and the age demographics do seem to reflect this; we’re very strong with people our age (25-34) and a little older than ourselves (35-44).
Not knowing whether this show is succeeding with the target audience will hinder any attempts we make to pitch it to funders. Sesame Street has long been able to advocate for itself because it is research-based. It’s the first kids’ show ever to engage in research so heavily. I have great respect for their model, which insists neither creative types nor research gets the upper hand in developing content. And I don’t think we need to do this kind of formative research yet. But summative research afterwards is a good idea, just to see if we’re on the right track.

How about “a conversation with the media industry”?
It occurs to me that one way to frame some of the things we do would be to pose it as a conversation with the media industries, particularly the advertising industry. This would solve a lot of problems. Such a show could be a lot less pedantic, without losing the details of the ad industry we want to talk about. It might give us more room to be genuinely ribald and edgy, without having to consider whether teachers will be able to use episodes in class. By genuinely aiming at an adult audience, and a savvy one, while demystifying it for everyone else, there’d be less risk of talking down. And it could still be playful, as ads often are.
If we actually started getting feedback from members of the ad industry, we would also have more opportunities for them to talk about the details of their work, use their jargon, and demonstrate their reasoning when they make decisions. This could present a real series of teachable moments.