Monday, March 05, 2007

Child-Generated Content as Media Fad or Technologized Play?

There's a provocative think-piece in today's KidScreen Daily written by John Marley (a series producer at UK-based Talent Kids, creators of Best of Friends) on child-generated content and Nickelodeon's recent ME:TV announcement. His main argument is that although children are early adopters, they are also early abandoners when it comes to new media fads, which (according to him) makes it unlikely that user-generated content will be all that successful as a media strategy targeted toward the younger demographics. Marley lists several previous attempts to use UGC-television programming in the past, and describes the fickleness of the "multiplatform" generation. He then goes on to conclude:

I can understand why commissioners can get dazzled by the idea of getting kids to provide editorial content. It's cheaper, you can own the rights in every format in perpetuity [**SMG winces**] and, if they film it, it must - as I mentioned earlier - resonate with them, right?
[W]hile there is still a certain cachet for those kids lucky enough to actually see themselves on TV, the rise of home video and webcam has slightly dulled this as a motivator. In a kid's mind these days, it's only exciting to be seen on TV arriving somewhere swish in a limo, being chased by the paparazzi!

Now if, as a producer, you package that thing correctly for them, then you could have a hit on your hands. The user-generated prospect that will work best for the kids' audience, I believe, is one that springs from a larger back concept that will already have some appeal in the minds of children. Get them hooked into a back story, and then you can shape the content with which they start to provide you. That way you are more likely to get footage that will be genuinely "on message" for your audience and hopefully make for good content.

I can't help but agree to some extent with Marley's valuation of "UGC" (or CGC as I like to call it when the users are children) as quite the hype-magnet right now. Reading the industry literature on the "vast potential" of UGC, where potential always means either profits or branding or market research data (these last two in the hopes of eventual profits), it's often puzzled me where and how exactly the industry thinks they can make any real money off the common vlog or machinima. Of course, television, magazines and newspapers all make their real profits from selling advertising space, so perhaps this can translate into the YouTubes and XNA Game Studio Expresses, but doesn't THAT sound a bit like the net-bubble of the late-1990s? I agree with Marley's conclusion that Nickelodeon is going to need more than just a toolset for kids to upload home-videos to draw in an audience of any significance or shelf life. His notion of providing the "back story" or a narrative umbrella is one currently used by Zimmer Twins, and provides the rationale for the new TV-themed MMOGs I've been blogging about. This could certainly be one way of harnessing kids' (well, users generally) propensity for appropriating and playing with media-brands.

In this respect, perhaps Marley is looking at this from the wrong perspective. Can we really compare UGC/CGC to the more "passive" forms of media consumption of yesteryear? Why try to integrate these experiences? There is an audience aspect to CGC (well, the possibility of one anyway), but perhaps Marley's focus should remain on the production angle and on understanding what this is really an extension of. Is it an extension of television watching (consumption)? Or is it perhaps better understood as a digital networking of creative activities (production) like and including fan-fiction and branded play? And from this perspective, nothing is more effective or engrossing for kids than playing and creating with others - CGC may not "replace" television watching, but it may very well extend and technologize (and eventually mediatize) the creative play practices that make up a big part of their everyday lives. The problem is that television profits necessarily derive from the "audience commodity," to the point that even UGC/CGC must somehow (for the current business models to continue working and generating profit) come down to audiences and consumption. The shift to the "prosumer" and the "audience/user as producer" shakes this up at such a fundamental level--it's fascinating to see how the media industries scramble to adapt, even while failing to shift their own mode of thought away from traditional models.

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