Internet TV: Let's do show right here
Anyone can be a TV mogul in the age of the internet. Justin Gayner describes his small-scale mission to become the next Rupert Murdoch
Wednesday 14 November 2007
Four years ago, I scraped a living as a freelance journalist. Scrabbling around for a story, I was tipped off that the great comedy producer John Lloyd was making his first BBC show for nearly a decade. When I called, John explained how he'd been commissioned to make a show called QI. It was to be a panel show with brains, fronted by Stephen Fry. He illustrated the idea with a sample question: "What does a badger's penis have in common with a Victorian gentleman's clothing?" The answer: "Victorian men used the bone in a badger's penis as a tiepin."
After the story had run, John called me back. "It's very rare that anyone gets the idea of QI so quickly and, better still, you got the badger in. Would you be interested in a job?"
"Hell, yes," I said, paving the way to the happiest three years of my professional life. I grew to love every aspect of TV production – the research, the writing, the bright lights of filming and, best of all, the industry's colourful characters.
Through another chance conversation earlier this year, I realised another dream – owning my own TV station. After launching Channelflip.com last month with my business partner Wil Harris, our video shows have been watched by more than 70,000 viewers.
Here, in six easy steps, is how you can produce a TV show from the comfort of your own home.
Step 1: Get a partner in crime
February. I'm in a bar in Oxford for the weekly production meeting of QI. As chat turns to future commissions, John Lloyd, managing director of QI's production company, looks glum. "Getting new shows on telly is a nightmare. Commissioners are playing safe. They want reality shows, cookery shows, DIY makeovers, and the process takes ages."
As John's credits include Spitting Image and Blackadder, I'm in no position to argue. As I leave the bar, a young man with glasses and a goatee puts his hand on my shoulder. He introduces himself as Wil Harris, a publisher based in Oxford. He apologises for eavesdropping but would like to tell me his idea for making TV shows on the internet. (He doesn't apologise for the beard and, 11 months on, he still won't.)
Wil explains that online TV is cheap to distribute (no satellites), has a global audience (it is, after all, the world wide web), and, best of all, has no commissioning process (anyone can do whatever they want at a computer screen). The concept is so good that it takes just four passion-fruit martinis before I agree to start an online TV company with him. I do so safe in the knowledge that this is just pub chat, we're mildly inebriated and, of course, it will never actually happen.
Step 2: Pick a theme
April. If you're serious about making your own TV show, you need a great idea. Wil and I spend a couple of weeks thinking about potential shows. Most are rubbish. I'm convinced that quiz shows are the future. Wil points out that we don't have any money or prizes to give away. Good point. What about Religion TV? A Televisual Guide To London's Musicals? Topless News? No, definitely not, and has been done before.
Desperate, I call up a friend whose only mistake in life was to become a management consultant. His advice is refreshingly simple. "One, make shows that you want to see," says the suit. "Two, make sure you have a specific audience that advertisers can flog their wares to."
Hallelujah! Wil and I have an epiphany. We're both young men, so we'll make shows for young men, "niche" shows in markets where there is plenty of advertising cash but little programming on traditional TV.
The ideas flow. Wil, a computer-game junkie, tells me there are no computer game shows on telly at the moment (which is amazing, considering that gaming is a huge industry). I'm a foodie, and I know there's little in the way of basic cookery programming for blokes. We're away.
Step 3: Make a pilot
June. It's all very well having ideas, but the success of any project is in the doing. At least, that's what my GCSE art teacher used to tell me. So, before you get overly excited about becoming the next Michael Grade, make a pilot episode. Show it to your friends and family. Gauge their responses and prepare yourself for some harsh criticism.
Wil and I know people who can shoot and edit video (which we can't). We rope them in for a day's filming on the promise of fun and biscuits. We decide Wil should film a computer game review show with Katharine Fletcher, a friend and fellow gamer, while I make a cookery show with "The World's 100 Most Popular Dishes" as its tenuous theme.
The outcome is less than impressive. Both shows are bland and much too long for an easily distracted online audience. However, the quality of picture, lighting and sound easily surpasses our expectations. At least we can shoot passable telly, even if we're not yet sure how to write it.
Step 4: Raise some money
August. If you're doing this properly, you'll need cash. First, work out a budget for your show. Will you need to raid Fort Knox, or just nick a tenner from your dad's jacket for a comedy moustache?
Wil and I decide that it's essential we make shows that are a cut above most internet dross, so we make a list of the stuff we need: high-end video cameras, lights, editing software and the like. We realise we're going to have to raise a little bit of money to get started. (You might not have to; see the guide to essential kit for more information.)
To attract investors, we write a business plan and decide to ditch the cookery show for a gadget show. We agree that a DVD review show and a computer gaming show will form the core of our online channel. I ask friends and family for cash. Most of them say they're broke, but I know they're lying. The truth is, they think I'm mad.
We turn to the last place start-up businesses should go for money: venture capital firms. To our astonishment, one is very excited by the burgeoning online TV market and they call us in to make a presentation. We arrive at a fancy London office expecting an intimate chat with a softly spoken accountant. Instead, we are presented to a group of 15 testosterone-fuelled bankers. Imagine the Dragon's Den with even fewer redeeming features.
Machine-gunned with questions, we leave feeling bruised yet optimistic. We're called back for a second meeting, and we're grilled again. All goes well, and we celebrate with champagne. A week later, we get an email saying our bid for money has been rejected. Bastards.
Step 5: Build a team and get a location
September. We're getting increasingly worried about how to fund our operation. Ever the reckless optimists, we decide to go ahead and build our team anyway. Wil's friend Katharine will research, write and present the games review show, which we have dubbed www.PlayDigital.tv. To cut costs, I'll handle the DVD show (www.DiscusShow.tv) and Wil will indulge his geekery by producing the gadget show (www.UnwiredShow.tv).
We place an advert on a local Oxford website to find a cameraman/editor. After being initially delighted by the responses, we despair as most of them are 15-year-olds looking to supplement their pocket money. Mercifully, we meet Ben Pritchett, a recent Oxford University graduate looking to get into the TV business, and he agrees to come on board.
But the best news is to come. Wil has mentioned our venture capital disaster to a friend who's recently made good money from technical websites. He agrees to fund us for six months in exchange for some equity in our business. Delighted, we fall over ourselves to agree terms and go in search of an office-cum-studio in Oxford. Most of them are too noisy and the swanky soundproofed ones are too expensive. However, we agree a deal with a local production company to sublet their downstairs studio, and they throw in a coffee-maker. We even convince them to let us use all their gear, so we don't have to buy our own.
Step 6: Start shooting, spread the word and get advertisers
October. Having watched thousands of online videos in a "research" exercise, it is strikingly obvious that each of our shows should last roughly three minutes. This might sound short, but it's about the length of time that people are prepared to watch clips on their computers or iPods.
We knock up some cheap but swish sets using photographic backdrops, posters and Ikea furniture, add in a little clever lighting and start shooting. A techno-inclined friend gets our websites online, and our first shows go "live" for the world to see.
While it takes time for the three of us to find our feet, our presenting styles improve dramatically over time and we start to believe that we've crossed the line from rank amateurs to half-respectable presenters. Google starts picking up on our website's keywords (the brand names of the games, gadgets or films we've reviewed), and a few cautious punters trickle across to our shows. By the end of October, we are noticed by several of the internet's major news websites and the trickle becomes a flood.
Our strategy of staying niche pays off: it turns out that people will go out of the way to consume content they are interested in. With some provisional audience numbers in a spreadsheet I pick up the phone to Faber, the publisher of QI's books, and persuade them to take a punt at advertising their wares to our new-found viewers – giving us a little cash as well as industry cachet.
At the end of the month, we wait like nervous National Lottery punters as our statistics compiled by Google Analytics, a free application that tells you how many people have visited your website, where they've come from and what they've watched. Beers all round – in our first month, our shows have been watched 170,000 times by 70,000 viewers. We've still got a long way to go before we catch Sky, but we have made it out of the starting block, at least. And, thank God, there's not a Dragon's Den investor in sight.
Justin Gayner is co-founder of Channelflip.com and presents the www.discusshow.tv show (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Lights, camera, action: how to start your own TV channel
The high-definition Sony Z1E is the director's choice at £3,000. Panasonic's HDC-SD5 comes in at just over £500 but still captures pictures in HD.
Many modern digital video cameras record to memory cards. If you're taping, Sony makes a multipack; £7.50 for five tapes on Amazon.
Viewers will forgive poor pictures, but give them poor sound and they'll turn off. For most vocal applications, the Sennheiser G2 wireless mic, with lapel mic and a wireless receiver, does the job; a bargain at £350.
Keep lighting simple. Three "redhead" lights (general purpose, 600-800 watt) can be bought for £750 from firms such as Lilliput. If you have spare cash, a set of three spotlights from Dedo will cost £600.
For digital video, Apple has long been the choice. For maximum power, grab the Mac Pro, a beast with eight Intel processors and a £4,000 price tag to match. Or just use a portable; Apple's MacBook Pro has a 17in screen that's great for editing HD footage, for £1,800.
If you're going for a Mac – and you really should – there's only one choice, Final Cut Pro; daunting, but there's nothing you can't do. The downside? The £1,000 sticker shock. Cheapskates go for Final Cut Express, for £200.
Forget YouTube; serious video viewers know that the place to be is www.blip.tv, which offers high-quality video streaming with widescreen support; perfect for your masterpiece. Or try www.vimeo.com, a hipper, sexier version of the 'Tube.
Wil Harris (www.unwiredshow.tv)
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