Evolution of digital content distribution

Traditional video content distribution models are in the midst of possible disruption, thanks to upstart services that allow content creators to bypass television and deliver straight to digital.

Before digital, content was creator for television and film and then sent to syndication or a physical format, like DVD and Blu-ray.  Services like Hulu and Netflix took this a step further, allowing content repositories to be streamed, on demand, over an Internet connection.

New content was still created to be first-run on television and the big screen, though, leaving consumers at the mercy of status-quo distribution.  Television seasons are run over several months, while films can’t be seen outside of the theater until they release several weeks (or months) later on DVD/Blu-ray.

New services look to change this, allowing consumers unprecedented access to both the consumption and funding of content they like.

Streaming services develop original content

In February, Netflix made waves with its release of House of Cards, a 13-episode “television” series.  The show explored the political career of fictitious U.S. representative Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey.

House of Cards is unique in that it was developed exclusively for Netflix. It did not air on network television first and isn’t available on DVD; the only way to watch the series is with a subscription to the Netflix streaming service.

Netflix made all of the series’ episodes available at the same time, instead of releasing them weekly, as is customary on network television or cable.  This allows consumers to tailor the viewing experience to their own content consumption preference. It’s not uncommon for consumers that frequently buy television season sets on physical discs or watch on a streaming service to binge and watch episodes back to back.

Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos told a crowd at the D: Dive Into Media conference that the company was “thrilled” with the response to the series, which at the time was Netflix’s most-watched program.  A second season is in production now.

Original content could become a key point of differentiation between streaming services, which compete for monthly subscription fees from budget-conscious viewers. Netflix has several original series in development, which, like House of Cards, will be exclusive to the service.  The most popular of which is new episodes of the comedy series Arrested Development, which originally aired on Fox from 2003 to 2006.  Amazon is working on a variety of of shows for its streaming platform, Amazon Prime, while physical media kiosk giant Redbox is also rumored to be considering original content.  Redbox Instant CEO Shawn Strickland told GigaOM “from an industry perspective, there is a clear force in that direction.”

Fans fund original content

The crowdfunding service Kickstarter allows consumers to pledge money towards projects, services and people they’d like to support, giving those with ideas a funding outlet beyond traditional investing.

While Kickstarter had seen big numbers for projects surrounding new technology, video games and board games, it wasn’t until this week that the crowdfunding model was applied in a large scale to entertainment.

Veronica Mars, a television series starring the titular female detective and her exploits in neo-noir Neptune, California, aired for three seasons on the CW (formerly UPN) before being cancelled in 2007.  The show was well received and became something of a cult-classic.

On March 13, Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell, the series’ creator and star, respectively, launched a 30-day Kickstarter campaign to fund the $2 million necessary to move forward with a Veronica Mars movie.  Fans responded almost immediately, raising $2.5 million in the campaign’s first day.  Those that pledged at least $35 will receive a digital copy of the movie within a few days of its theatrical release.  Provided there are no hitches, the movie will be shot over the summer for release in early 2014.  This project would likely have no chance of happening through traditional channels  without the strong Kickstarter support.

While the Veronica Mars Kickstarter may be the perfect storm of a strong fanbase colliding with a unique project, the project show there could exist a model where consumers can directly support the content they want to see.  Instead of film executives greenlighting terrible films created by a focus group, they could let audiences vote directly with their wallets in a more direct way.  There are issues to be sorted out, sure, like the idea that crowdfunders are contributing to products in which other parties, but not themselves, would see financial benefit, but the concept of being able to support content directly is a nice change from the existing model.

Watch the digital content distribution space closely; the competition among new market services looking to create original content and the ways in which they fund these projects will continue to shape what entertainment we watch and how we get it.

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