Planning the future of TV: "The first revision was broadcast TV, the second was cable, and we are Revision3, the next generation of television," says Ron Richards. (Photo by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid, licensed through Creative Commons)

Greenscreen Envy

Hannah Eaves December 5, 2008

For anyone working in the Internet video industry, walking into the Revision 3 studio is a little like stumbling into Xanadu (Khubla Khan’s, not Robert Greenwald’s). Live switching in a control room that sports a massive mounted flatscreen HD monitor alongside a row of compositing systems, multicam teleprompter-assisted shoots in a spacious greenscreen studio, and a fridge full of beer?

Senior Director of Marketing and Product Management and iFanboy producer and co-host Ron Richards tries to tell me that it’s all on the cheap—the monitor replaces the traditional window into the studio and was a sweet deal, small prosumer HD cameras are mounted on low-tech wheelie dollies. But coming in from a traditional production environment where we’re still shooting on BetaSP and trying to dress an old studio, this looks like paradise. And these guys aren’t even going out to traditional TV broadcast. Instead they’re part of a new generation of pioneering Internet broadcasters.

After offering me a beer, Richards sits me down in a small meeting room next to Revision3’s sea of cubicles, down the hall from their shiny new studio in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood. He doesn’t need much encouragement when talking about Revision3’s aspirations, and there’s something fresh about his unironic optimism. "The first revision was broadcast TV, the second was cable, and we are Revision3, the next generation of television. I truly believe that we, along with people like OnNetworks and Next New Networks, are the future of TV."

What does this future look like? Tech-y, right now. At least on this network. And despite the luscious greenscreen studio, it’s worth keeping in mind that Revision3’s most recognized show, Diggnation, which profiles top stories on the user-curated news site Digg, is still shot on a couch wherever their net-famous hosts happen to be.

Revision3 was created by Digg founder and Diggnation co-host Kevin Rose, along with Digg CEO Jay Adelson. Rose and Revision3’s other co-founder David Prager had worked together at Tech TV, a short-lived technology cable channel that merged with G4 in 2004 and soon disappeared. Says Richards, "Jay Adelson actually, despite his great career in the Internet business, was a film major and always had an interest in media. Driven by their lack of satisfaction with the type of television content that was available on cable, [Revision3’s co-founders] said let’s start our own TV network and distribute through the Internet—purely to create the type of content they they would want to watch."

It seems that they’ve met their goal, at least on the most basic level. A quick viewing of Revision3’s roster of shows demonstrates a clear emphasis on programming for young to medium-young male geeks. Watching Diggnation, while fun, can culminate in "dude" overload. No, dude, really.

A glance at the Revision3 homepage gives a good overview of their programming and for some examples of the quality of their greenscreen work check out Totally Rad Show and The Digg Reel. While the general wisdom online has been to go short, many of Revision3’s programs are surprisingly long. With banter and hi jinx thrown in I’d guess they’d say they’re just as long as they need to be, with some shows running over an hour.

Unlike broadcasters who pretty much rely on licensing content, such as Current TV or Link TV, Revision3 creates most of its in content in-house. What this means is that unlike a traditional TV station, there is no pressure to fill 24 hours with fresh programming. This leaves them with a small but concentrated mix of mostly weekly shows, albeit in regular time slots. Revision3’s recent attempts to branch out through the acquisition of popular web shows like Epic Fu and Wine Library have not been a success, and compounded by the recent economic slump, the company has just gone through a round of cancellations and layoffs. This would seem to indicate a survival-instinct level of pragmatism surrounding ad sales and sustainability.

When asked about the cancellation of Epic Fu, a digest of the best of the web and arts hosted by the charismatic Zadi Diaz, Richards self-deprecatingly warns me he’ll have to revert to press re-lease speak, "We love the show, we love what they do, but looking at the way the economy is…the show didn’t quite perform as well as we would have liked and we didn’t perform in our ability to monetize it. Nothing against Steve and Zadi, they do great work, and personally I’m bummed, but they’re going to do great, I know they will."

Richards’ attitude toward advertising is revealing, because these shows and networks will not succeed until online advertising and sponsorship rates are high enough to create a stable business model. Revision3’s biggest asset is not just its audience size, but its ability to deliver an audience in their particular demographic—an audience that brands like GoDaddy, Netflix and Virgin will pay for. Matching ads and audiences is essential for this model to work and it did seem odd to see a recent Epic Fu episode sponsored by Carmex lip balm and the US Air Force. Another factor in the move away from licensed content might be a reluctance to offer revenue splits with their content creators.

Despite the greenscreen studio, what Revision3 shows the ordinary filmmaker or actor, is that popularity is possible with little filmmaking knowledge. These shows have succeeded because they appeal to a certain early-adopter, technohappy audience, and their hosts have developed fol-lowings in that community. Low-fi as it is, ifanboy has its own strong community, and Diggna-tion has an even stronger one, based on the celebrity of the hosts, the power of their audience, and their dedication to a certain level of onscreen fun and sincerity. As we whizzed through questions at breakneck speed, Richards recalled meeting a young woman at a party who wanted to get into—not movies—but video podcasting. His advice?

"Just get a camera and do a show and put it out. That’s all it is. You just do it. All the obstacles of writing a show and getting it pitched and getting NBC to accept it and all this kind of stuff, you don’t need to do that. Honestly, people don’t even need us. Find someone who knows how to write an RSS feed, or learn it yourself, and use iMovie. It’s this freedom and empowerment of content creators that gets me really excited."

But in the online world, what is a mark of success? When will you know you have a shot at the big time—actually making some bucks?

"The number one thing is views. But that’s a dicey thing because we don’t have a standardiza-tion of view counts…but still, if you’re clocking 250,000 people on YouTube, that’s a large number. Website traffic and membership isn’t really a big thing. A new metric is number of Twitter followers around people and shows and things like that, that’s an important thing. But mainly it comes down to views, and there’s no magic number where if someone comes to us and says ‘We have 300,000 views,’ we’re going to distribute them, because it depends on the type of audience, the type of community, and also for us, because we’re a business, our ability to monetize it. It has to be a show that connects both with the community and with advertisers."

And that’s always been the bottom line—revision 1, 2, or 3.

(Photo by Scott Beale/ Laughing Squid, licensed through Creative Commons, some rights reserved.)

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