Friday, March 17, 2023

Is The Future of Media Convergence? - Repost From Flashes & Flames


This Blog Post is a Repost from Flashes & Flames Written By Colin Morrison

Today's blog post is only a repost from Colin Morrison from Flashes & Flames, who has permitted me to post his article on my blog for TWiT fans to see. Thank you, Colin! If you want to subscribe to Flashes & Flames, please check them out and sign up for a subscription.

Here is Colin's article in its entirety:

A decade before most had heard of Netflix, a team from Ofcom (the UK broadcasting regulator) swooped on the suburban US wine-making town of Petaluma, 35 miles north of San Francisco. They came back convinced they had seen the future of TV. What they had actually seen was a pioneering online service combining podcasts with live streaming.

The so-called TWiT ‘netcasting network’ had begun in 2005 (the year YouTube was launched) as a series of podcasts by tech journalist and Emmy-winning broadcaster, Leo Laporte.

He had dropped out of Yale in the final year of a Chinese history degree and turned to radio. He began specialising in talks on technology in 1990 and then turned to Tech TV. He stumbled into podcasting which became his low-cost route to media ownership – about the same time as the word ‘podcast’ was coined by The Guardian.

Within a few years, Laporte was producing 30 hours of podcasts per week, aiming to be “a 24-hour technology news network, the CNN of technology”.

Fast forward to 2023 and podcasts from his TWiT network (“This Week in Technology”) are being downloaded more than 2.5mn times a month. Its 13 podcasts are streamed throughout the day, linked by non-stop tech news and conversation for an engaged community of 2mn tech enthusiasts and professionals, 90% of whom are registered users. Some 75% of the audience is in the US.

TWiT produces some of the most popular podcasts in the world including: This Week in Tech, Security Now, Ask The Tech Guys, Tech News Weekly and The Week in Space. It broadcasts online as an audio and video stream. But, although Laporte has changed the self-description from “netcaster” to “podcaster”, TWiT is much more a TV channel than a mere “podcast network”. Relatively few podcast regulars will describe them as anything other than audio. And a “podcast network” might be Spotify, Apple, Pandora or YouTube – not a multi-media channel distributing its programme-podcasts far and wide.

Laporte: “The CNN of tech” or much more?

TWiT is a 24-hour online ‘TV’ channel most of whose programmes are re-distributed as podcasts in video and audio. It was big in video before YouTube. Most shows are recorded live and, at other times, recordings are screened. Once recorded, they are edited and posted to be downloaded and consumed “however our audience wants”. Until he withdrew this year, Leo Laporte’s own “The Tech Guy” programme/podcast had been broadcast on 200 radio stations across the US for almost two decades.

TWiT has come a long way since Laporte told his “aw shucks” story to a TED conference in 2010, where he spoke of “a little podcast network which I have built into an internet television and radio station in this little cottage in the middle of nowhere in Northern California.”

For all his New York upbringing, Leo Laporte is every bit the West Coast idealist, distinctly non-mogul. He told his TED audience: “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the internet, the most democratising force in the world. I started a little podcast network. Now I have a global internet TV and radio audience. But I don’t want to own it. I want to give it all away. I want all of you to do the same thing.”

Fans have been known to turn out in droves for Laporte’s personal appearances. In 2011, when TWiT’s new studio was being built down the road from the wooden cottage where he had started out, listeners reportedly sent a total of $250k to help fund it.

He had started out by eschewing advertising and asked fanbase listeners instead for contributions of up to $10 a month. But, as his audience grew, so did his ambition. He took on a business partner and started selling advertising. By the time companies like Ford, Visa, Microsoft, and AOL, were paying a premium price (of some $80 per 1,000 viewers/listeners compared with the then US average CPM of $15) to reach Laporte’s loyal, tech-savvy audience, the rest of the US media started to notice.

Despite his original aversion to ads, Laporte had a clear view of why blue-chip clients were lining up to pay TWiT’s premium advertising rates: “Our audience is authentic, genuine and enthusiastic. We treat them as intelligent and these are the smart people that advertisers really now want to reach. Advertising is moving away from the mainstream messages of ‘tricking’ people via mass media, to targeting people through Facebook and Google. Traditional mass media required the high costs of printing presses and transmitters but that’s all changing because of the low cost of digital production and widely-available distribution through the internet. As media consumers, we’ve been trained to sit down and shut up. And now it’s time to stand up and be heard.”

The irony of TWiT’s pioneering multi-platform success is that it operates in a world where hundreds of thousands of podcasts are launched every week. But most lack the content, targeting or even tech necessary to sustain themselves. There are many notable exceptions, of course, but much of the real opportunity for audio-video podcasting may be more in channels like TWiT than on platforms like Spotify or Apple.

But here’s the bit that will get your attention.

TWiT employs a mere 20 fulltime staffers (unlike mainstream TV, “consistently many more people in front of the camera rather than behind it”) and “several independent contractors to make it all happen”. Total operating costs are some $3mn annually. Even with revenue that has fluctuated $5-10mn in volatile times, TWiT is a consistently profitable media business, generating positive cashflow of more than $2mn a year.

It’s a performance – even during the pandemic slowdown – that owes much to the increased professionalism brought by CEO Lisa Laporte, a former management consultant who has turned TWiT into a highly-successful media business: “Our audience is very loyal, and the advertising industry likes it. We don’t do market research with our users, but we know that they are above average and have a high income.”

Interestingly, all ads are read by the programme/ podcast expert presenters (rather than a third party voice) which, the CEO reasons, conveys the network’s trust on behalf of the advertiser: “TWiT’s host-read ads stand out”. It also means that ads are embedded and live in perpetuity with the content – and are free to clients after they have paid for the audience reached in the first 45 days.

Although TWiT is primarily ads and sponsor-funded, increasing numbers of its audience are paying $7 per month to become members of the TWiT club – and get their programming without the ads.

Laporte has been able to prove the viability of this real-life cottage industry TV because he, his colleagues and audience are enthusiasts discussing the technologies that have millions riveted. But look beyond that. There could be hundreds of other enthusiast and business networks just like TWiT. It is easy to imagine the development of truly narrow-cast ‘live’ channels for food, finance, travel, relationships, and a hundred other ‘enthusiast’ topics. Serious niche-interest news channels are another possibility, as are local networks to fill the gap left by the collapse of regional newspapers.

The TWiT track record proves that an online TV/audio network can be sustained for not that much more than the cost of a high-quality magazine – if you have a team that can produce compelling content and connect with its audience. It could be ‘specpub’ heaven. Even TWiT might be expanding its horizons: its recent launch of The Week in Space looks like a tentative challenge to Discovery cable TV.

The TWiT network is significant because:

  • The tech is simple, highly effective and combines TV-like viewing with the interactivity and accessibility of the web and social media, and the convenience of podcasts. While its multi-activity screen is (sort of) reminiscent of Bloomberg, TWiT may also be the most experienced media company when it comes to ‘simulcasting’ – content that is made for audio and/or video, as the audience wants.

  • The operations are, by any broadcast standards, stunningly low-cost. In what Lisa Laporte describes as the “wild west” of podcasts with variable audio-video quality, limited navigation tools, and frequently poor marketing/ scheduling, TWiT is the benchmark of podcasting. It’s a real “podcast network” unlike Spotify et al which (as Leo Laporte says) are more determined to audience data than build communities.

  • This is dynamic, open-access TV where viewers Zoom in and engage in dialogue online and on-screen. TWiT offers its viewers not just friendliness but also authenticity: controversial views are challenged and corrected in real-time in ways which appeal to many consumers reared on the untouchability of mass media and the echo chamber fakery of social networks.

It is easy to see how TWiT has become an addictive network for the tech obsessed in a country accustomed to decades of tech TV. But there are many more topics than technology with millions of followers who would like nothing more than their own channel on which to learn and participate.

For all the inevitable future of broadcasting via the web rather than through the air, TWiT is the very definition of how the internet is made for specialists. It points to a future of digital media convergence that seems to have been a long time coming.

We’re just waiting for many more low-cost specialist and business media – whether aimed at gamers, boaties, petrol heads or hoteliers, retailers and travel agents – to soak up the lessons of Leo Laporte. In some cases, the tentative first steps could be “TV channels” broadcast online from trade shows to worldwide audiences. In others, it could start as a daily few hours of programming to an audience of enthusiasts or business people.

This mix of live programming and audio-video podcasts could so easily become a (sort of) template for a service like Mail+, the UK Daily Mail’s fledgling subscription-funded sister to its huge celeb-fuelled MailOnline. The TV-audio-online news channels GBNews and TalkTV may also be pushing towards TWiT’s multi-platform distributed model. But, as Leo Laporte wants you to know, you don’t need TV broadcasting budgets to compete.

What are you waiting for?