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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Notes and News from the HBS Entertainment & Media Conference

Spent the afternoon and evening yesterday at Harvard Business School's annual Entertainment & Media Conference.

I filed a short piece for Variety about the opening Jeff Zucker keynote, which felt pretty news-y to me. Liz Gannes from NewTeeVee was there, too -- and has some video and notes on the Zucker talk.

Some other notes:

- Marshall Herskovitz was on a panel, bemoaning the low ratings for the first NBC broadcast of his made-for-the-Web series 'quarterlife' this week. Herskovitz told me afterward that he was pretty sure NBC would kill the show, but that he hoped it'd find another home on cable, where it could have a few months to build up an audience.

Herskovitz also acknowledged that the production costs were too expensive for something that would only exist online; 'quarterlife' needs the broadcast component to it to make it financially viable. (I was always skeptical that Herskovitz and Ed Zwick started their venture by boasting that they were going to create Internet content with extremely high production values.)

But Herskovitz, later in the panel, was also very hopeful about the future of paid downloads (versus ad-supported streaming) for content creators. "Apple has shown us something," he said. But he acknowledged that most creators haven't figured out how to take advantage of it.

- Fresh from negotiating the truce between the WGA and the AMPTP, WGA West President Patric Verrone said the definition of what constitutes a paid download and what constitutes ad-supported streaming are becoming muddier by the minute. Verrone said he'd heard earlier in the week about free downloadable videos that could have ad blocks inserted in them, which would be updated by a server whenever the viewer decided to watch the video. I guess we'd call that an ad-supported free download ... and it's probably not covered by the new WGA contract.

- We're all still waiting for the mobile device that has high-bandwidth, always-on connectivity. (The iPhone isn't it -- unless you're sitting in a WiFi hotspot, and there aren't too many other people around.) Tim Westergren from Pandora predicted that once that happens, wireless delivery of music and video -- targeted to the tastes of the recipient -- will start to clobber traditional broadcasting.

- At dinner, I was talking with an HBS student who formerly worked in corporate strategic planning at Disney... we wondered what Walt would be doing right now, in terms of creating original content for iPods, cell phones, PCs, etc.

Lo and behold, today Disney announces Stage 9 Digital Media, a studio to create original content for the Net. From the LA Times story:

    ighty years after the 7 1/2 -minute cartoon "Steamboat Willie" helped launch the career of a certain iconic mouse, Walt Disney Co. has returned to its short-form roots with the debut of a digital studio that will develop original content for the Internet.

    Stage 9 Digital Media, quietly in the works for two years, will be unveiled today with the premiere of "Squeegees," a comedy series about window-washer slackers, on and YouTube. It is the first of a planned 20 online programs currently in development.

    ...[ABC Studios president Mark] Pedowitz said Stage 9 would make it possible to experiment with new forms of storytelling, cultivate young talent and incubate franchises that might someday graduate to the bigger screen, namely TV. And because the financial risks are lower, there is greater creative freedom. The goal is to bridge the gap between the irregular quality of amateur video and traditional television show

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