Saturday, July 7, 2012

On Brothels vs The Childrens Media Conference

This is a weird way to start a post about a Children's Media Conference and I am fully aware of how implausible it sounds but I have a good friend who has a business associate who is addicted to using prostitutes.

No, it's not me nor is it the good friend. It really is a business associate of a good friend of mine. Really, it is.

On one particular occasion my friend accompanied his business associate to a brothel to see what all the fuss was about. He sat at the bar while his business associate did what he had to do and the thing that struck my friend most forcefully was how much the girls laughed at his business associate's terrible, terrible jokes.

The business associate failed to appreciate the significance of his role as a buyer in the situation. The (much smarter) girls ended up taking him for over £1,000 for drinks and a hand job (my friend said he would have done it for £400) but he was happy and, to this day, the business associate probably thinks that he is *this close* to having a career as a stand up comedian.

My point is this.  When you leave a big job at a prestigious company like an Aardman or a BBC or a Disney to go independent, you do immediately ask yourself, 'am I actually funny and interesting and likeable or did everyone just laugh at my jokes because of where I worked and what I might be able to do for them?'

And so, with a little trepidation, 3 days after leaving my job at Aardman, I headed up to Sheffield for the Children's Media Conference to hang out with an awful lot of the people I have come into contact with over the last nine years of my employment at Aardman.

I think I did OK. To be fair to me, I have always practised what I preach to anyone who'll listen: 'be nice to the runner or receptionist or secretary because if they are any good, one day you will be working for them'. My first job in the media was as a runner on a feature film. One of the members of the production team treated me very badly. It was only some 10 years later that he, still working in the same role, applied for a job at the Company that I was then running. There is a time for forgiveness, that wasn't one of them.

People were incredibly supportive and positive about my plans and I don't think I'm going to starve in my new life as a freelancer. Result.

Back to the Childrens' Media Conference which, as usual, was fascinating and fun and sociable and inspiring. It's two and a half days of talks and workshops and panels on a huge variety of subjects which, if you have anything to do with Children's Media, you should attend. Acclaimed author Patrick Ness was a brilliant keynote interviewee (Mark Lawson presided) but here are 5 random things that I took away from the sessions that I attended, some of which made me punch the air so strongly did they chime with my sometimes partially formed thoughts:

1) There is a lot of noise at the moment about the 'second screen' experience, i.e. watching TV and playing with or using some sort of app on your mobile/tablet/laptop which is in sync with the TV show. When you hear about these things you invariably think 'oh shit, another thing I'm not taking seriously enough - this could be the next big thing'.

My view: it won't be. A perfectly good presentation by 2nd screen evangelists convinced me that while the second screen will be great for playing along with game and quiz shows they are going to be about as game-changing as the red button on your remote, i.e. not at all.

One of the most successful red-button applications ever was the one that showed lyrics to songs playing on Top Of The Pops. This tells me that the second-screen, simultaneous experience will have a very few, very simple, successful applications. As more people watch video on their computers or mobile devices (the subject of another good session) the second screen becomes the first screen and TV's are too dumb to become a second screen. Which leads me neatly on to;

2)  Smart TV's are irrelevant and need to get dumber not smarter. This was an incidental takeaway from a brilliant session on monetising apps. People upgrade their TV's much less frequently than they do their mobiles, laptops or tablets. The 'smartness' will always reside on the mobile device and the best that smart TV's can hope for is to be the big screen on which we view the content that we select and manipulate through our much smarter mobile device. Forget Smart TV's, concentrate on the device in your hand or on your lap. This is different to the simultaneous, second-screen experience. It's the mobile device as the super-smart storage device and TV remote, not as a second screen.

3) A thrilling viewpoint on the role of narrative in games also came out of the monetising apps session. Good games create narrative but they don't respond well to having narrative thrust upon them.  Games are about users manipulating characters in worlds to create narrative. Films (in their broadest sense) are about using narrative to drive characters through worlds to a pre-determined outcome. The two are different, we need to stop saying they are the same.

4)  The funding model for children's TV in the UK is in big trouble. The UK tax credit for animation can't come soon enough. As I contemplate setting up a business I can't even imagine going to investors and plausibly convincing them that kids TV would be a good bet in the UK at the current time. I am fearful for the business, it badly needs re-capitalising, companies that only do kids TV are going to find the next 12 to 24 months very hard indeed in the UK.

5)  The people who work in kids media are the best. It's an amazing community of caring, passionate and committed people who want to do the best for their audience and, probably because the amounts of money that they are dealing with aren't that huge, it is a w@*nker free zone.

Unlike the brothel that my good friend's business associate chose to visit.