Free Isn’t Always Freeing

As a sometime producer of original narrative content, I’ve had an ongoing interest in online business models for content distribution. In particular, I’ve been trying to figure out how to move forward with an episodic series for the web for some time now. And by move forward, I mean solve the puzzle of how to pay for the help I need in its creation without bankrupting myself.

This entire article presupposes “budgeted” programming, where writers, editors, actors, and others involved with the production are getting paid real money so that they can at least pay their bills while spending six months to a year focused on creating a series of some kind. If you’re doing an all-volunteer project, then you have an entirely different set of fund-raising issues, and monetization is probably not the first thing on your mind.

Getting back to budgeted projects, I’m particularly interested in models whereby content producers can create media of ambition, where artists are getting paid for their efforts, that’s free from the notes of sponsors, executives, and network ratings systems. Content where the audience itself is the sole judge of whether a show continues or not, by voting with their pocketbooks.

Then there’s that whole Free thing.

I’m not talking about piracy. I’m talking about the ongoing discussion regarding the merits of free distribution for promoting awareness of a piece of media, be it a song, a short movie, or a series. I’ve been reading a lot of chat about the importance, necessity, and some say the inevitability of free distribution in reaching a meaningfully large audience.

Clearly it’s a lot easier to get eyeballs on something if it’s free to access/watch/read. Along with this, today’s audience is settling into an “I want to watch it where I want, how I want” set of expectations.

Fair enough, I can’t really argue with that. Of course making something free makes it easier for a lot of people to watch. Paywall barriers are enormous disincentives if they’re not already associated with a “one-click” account that you’ve already set up (say, the iTunes store or Amazon.com). Heck, even unpaid password barriers are a disincentive; who wants to do all that typing?

However, I often see radio used as an example of how “free” has moved an industry forward. That’s a solid point, but I have to point out that radio has never really been free. You have to listen to ads.

Popularity in and of itself doesn’t pay for anything, unless the audience is buying the content, buying schwag, or buying access to live performances (for an episodic science fiction series, touring is probably not a realistic option). So, if you’re not charging your viewers, then most monetized free-to-the-public models of which I’m aware pay the bills with advertising, and then hope you buy something material like a t-shirt, DVD, book, or poster.

So yes, ads keep things free, and free stuff gets bigger audiences. But advertising necessarily results in selectivity of what will be aired to the public on the part of the advertisers. That’s a price. Let me put it thusly: when was the last time you listened to ad-supported music radio in your market? In another example, if you bemoan the difference in content available from network programmers, cable programmers, and premium cable channels, I think I’ll have made my point. (And don’t start blaming the FCC; they ban swearing and nudity, not bland writing).

Network programming is primarily ad supported and “parent-company” sponsored. No program is going to last long if it irritates the sponsors too much, or if it generates protests among a vocal-enough minority of the audience that they complain to the sponsors.

Even worse, no program is going to last if it doesn’t pull in the ratings necessary to justify how much advertisers are paying for those ads, regardless of its content or the passion of an audience large enough to make any internet series producer drool (have any of your favorite programs summarily canceled?).

On the other hand, lots of internet citizens hate ads. Some hate ads enough to endorse a total sponsorship model of content, straight out of the 1940’s, where a single company pays for the creation of a program and then gets product-placement and promotion that’s intrinsically associated with that program.

Financially, this solves a production’s budget issues nicely. Of course, instead of hoping you don’t lose half of your sponsors if you decide to write something controversial, now you have to focus on not losing your one and only sponsor.

Unless you’ve got the most open-minded corporate backer around, this is an extremely influential level of control over your content. Do you really think that a corporation that’s large enough to speculatively spend tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars on a program of ambition isn’t going to have opinions about its development? It’s their money, and they’re perfectly justified in wanting to make sure they’re being represented well, whether the script has anything to do with the company or not. Heck, I’d have plenty of opinions if it was my money.

This may be less relevant if your content is non-fiction, for example a podcast about post-production, or a series of cooking or home-improvement videos (although would any of those sponsored series say anything bad about their sponsor’s products?). But if you’re writing dramatic fiction, there are all kinds of decisions that may suddenly become important to a sponsor. Do you really need swearing in the script? Do you really need that many gay main characters? Isn’t the dramatic arc of the series a bit depressing? Are you sure that fifth episode really strikes the right tone? What if you made the series more all-ages appropriate? How about if the show all takes place inside of our store? How about if we did a different show altogether?

Let me put this another way. Would “True Blood,” “Weeds,” “Rome,” “Dexter,” “Deadwood,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Hung,” or “Game of Thrones” be possible in their current forms if they relied solely on corporate sponsorship?

You, the viewer, might not be paying money to watch sponsored shows, but you’re exchanging the possibility of watching a narrative as it was originally conceived, for a “sponsor-friendly” version that made its budget possible. Despite the freedom and democratization that internet distribution is supposed to engender, advertising and sponsor-driven content promotes an environment where only sponsor-friendly programming is conceived.

If paying for content is “old fashioned,” then ads and sponsorship will be the only way of raising enough money for a show that pays a writer, a director, a DP/camera operator, a sound recordist, some actors, an art director/set dresser/costumer, a couple of PAs, an editor/finisher/colorist, a sound designer/mixer, and maybe one or two VFX artists to do something interesting. And this, presupposing all of these folks are doing double or triple-duty to cover positions I haven’t included, is the minimum if you want to make something that’s even remotely polished.

Of course, you could save a lot of money by dispensing with all those people and producing something like this. And I’m not taking a cheap shot. That show I linked to is popular as hell, and I don’t even want to guess how low his budget is. And it’s free to watch; successfully ad-supported via YouTube’s partner program.

I’m not saying that advertising is evil. Advertising, in one form or another, subsidizes much of the content we all enjoy, content that employs tens of thousands of artists worldwide. However, it’s inarguable that advertising exerts influence. My point is simply to be mindful that you don’t ever get something for nothing, either as a content producer, or as an audience member. If viewers don’t want to pay directly for programming, then they’re losing their vote.


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