Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Self-publish or perish? (with Richard Herring interview)

One of the more exciting developments we have seen in recent years on the Internet is self-publishing. This is an opportunity to distribute and promote entertainment in ways which was previously only possible for major distribution companies and national broadcasters. One of the fields exploring interesting alternative platforms is comedy. Here I will examine a few cases as examples of ways that comedy is benefitting from the advantages of self-publishing.

The rise of the Internet has coincided with a gradual shift of comedy into the mainstream, to the extent that stand-up comedy, once only seen in small pubs and clubs and occasionally on television, is now described by some as "the new rock 'n' roll". Stand-up comedians regularly fill large stadia and feature heavily across television schedules.

YouTube if you want to

The meteoric rise of YouTube has been central in popularising comedy videos, to the extent that the term "viral" is now used in reference to videos (usually comedy) gaining millions of viewers in a short space of time. Over the last couple of years Foster's have tapped into this phenomenon by reviving popular television comedy titles of the 90s. The first of these was a new series featuring Steve Coogan's character Alan Partridge called Mid Morning Matters. This comprised 12 weekly episodes of more than 10 minutes each; an entire 2 hours of new material presented entirely free for YouTube viewers. 

This proved to be an incredibly popular project, with more than 4 million views in total. This has led to various broadcasters taking a new interest in Alan Partridge, with the BBC and Sky leading talks with Baby Cow (the production company who owns the rights to the show) in packaging these YouTube episodes into 30 minute episodes for television, with the possibility of a second series to follow. For a title not seen on our screens since 2002 this is a remarkable turn of events.

Since then Foster's have built on the success of Mid Morning Matters by producing new material from Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer and 90s BBC sketch show The Fast Show. Vic & Bob's Afternoon Delights has so far posted 20 short episodes of new sketches and gained more than 1.5 million views at the time of writing. The Fast Show has so far posted 12 short episodes (totalling more than 1 hour of new sketches) which have received over 1.3 million views at the time of writing. Whilst perhaps not quite as successful as the Alan Partridge episodes, these revivals of popular 90s comedy shows are demonstrating there are new ways to produce comedy without the need for agreements with television networks. Foster's have also shown there are new ways to advertise and sponsor programmes through a very popular campaign which strengthens the link between their brand and quality comedy. 

Stand-up and Deliver

Also exploring the possibilities of the Internet are a couple of stand-up comedians in the United States. Louis CK recently filmed a special live performance and made it available exclusively as a download directly from his own website at a cost of $5 per download. This was a financial risk as it cost him $250,000 to produce, but has proved to be a huge success, generating over $500,000 in its first week and soon afterwards bringing total revenue to over $1,000,000. He then announced that $280,000 of that would be donated to charity. 

Another U.S. stand-up comedian, Jim Gaffigan has recently announced plans to follow Louis CK's lead by similarly producing his own special performance to go on sale exclusively as a download in April. To reduce the likelihood of piracy, Gaffigan has already declared that $1 out of every $5 download will be donated to charity, in the hope that this will appeal to the conscience of someone looking to illegally upload the file for others.

Fist Of Fun

Similar to the approach taken by these U.S. comedians is the case of British comedians Richard Herring and Stewart Lee, who have funded the release of 90s BBC comedy show Fist Of Fun with their own money. This involved buying the rights of the show from the BBC and financing their own production of DVD extras as well as the distribution on DVD through a website called Go Faster Stripe. This is a move which builds on the success of previous independently produced DVDs of stand-up shows through Go Faster Stripe.

The advantage of this move was for Lee and Herring to have the freedom to put out a premium version of a show which the BBC had no plans to release, packed with more extras than BBC DVD sets normally do. The obvious disadvantage was the financial risk to Lee and Herring, and Go Faster Stripe, who invested thousands of pounds of their own money in this project. I asked Richard Herring and Chris Evans from Go Faster Stripe about the process of self-publishing the Fist Of Fun DVD.

Interview with Richard Herring and Chris Evans (from Go Faster Stripe)

Apex Web Works
What were the risks of producing a Fist Of Fun DVD independently of the BBC?

Richard Herring
RH: The risk was only that it would sell 0 copies and we'd all lose about £10,000. But I didn't think that was much of a risk. I was pretty sure we'd sell a couple of thousand of each series and break even. We've already done about double that for series 1. So the gamble seems to have paid off.

Apex Web Works
How helpful were the BBC in co-operating with the transfer of Fist Of Fun to you and Stewart Lee? Did they provide material for the DVD extras?

Richard Herring We had a man on the inside who ferreted some stuff out for us, some of it was about to be deleted (the extras not the shows) I think. I don't think the BBC thought there was any commercial value in the release and they had the choice to do it themselves, but turned it down. I am glad because Go Faster Stripe have done an amazing job of putting together a package that will delight fans and bamboozle enemies in its thoroughness. The BBC would not have spent the time or money in doing something this lovely and loving.

Apex Web Works You have released a number of DVDs of Richard Herring's live shows in the past. How different was it to compile a DVD set of an existing BBC series?

Chris Evans, Go Faster Stripe CE: Well, it turns out the BBC had already filmed, edited and mixed the sound for the whole series, which is something we usually have to do, so that saved us a bit of time. And I had a lot of help from a chap at the BBC who got the master tapes and all the studio extras for me. So all I had to do was record commentary tracks, sort out the subtitles and get them all on the discs. But then this was a four disc, so all in all, it probably took about the same time as one of our usual releases.

Apex Web Works How successful has the DVD been so far?

Richard Herring Like I say, we've made our investment back and I am hopeful that series 2 will earn Go Faster Stripe enough for them to keep putting out even more DVDs of obscure comics who would never get a DVD made any other way. 

Apex Web Works Why do you think it is that larger distribution companies are unable or unwilling to release the kind of shows you offer?

Chris Evans, Go Faster Stripe It's all about the money. I think that as you get bigger, the cut of the sale price that goes to the creative side of the production gets smaller and smaller. You need to pay for advertising, PR, distribution and so on. So they can't take too much of a risk in who they choose to film - and that's why I think most big stand-up releases are pretty samey.

Apex Web Works What role did Twitter, Facebook and other social networks play in promoting the release of Fist Of Fun?

Richard Herring I guess they helped spread the word. We did all this without any PR budget and via word of mouth. So emails to fans and social networks and reviews from journalists who were fans were going to be our only publicity. People are still finding out that it's out there. Every time I tweet about it someone expresses surprise. This is a product for old and new fans alike and most of them know where to get the info about us already.

Apex Web Works How likely is it that we will see other 'self-produced' releases from you in the future, such as Fist Of Fun series 2, This Morning With Richard Not Judy and other projects?

Richard Herring I believe Chris Evans (not that one) is looking into it. Series 2 is definitely coming out (we did the extras in March), but the other stuff is up to the BBC again.

Apex Web Works You have released previous live shows on DVD independently through Go Faster Stripe. Do you think more comedians and performers will follow this method to release material in the future?

Richard Herring It is now relatively easy and cheap to make DVDs of your shows, and yes, I think more people will do it. But it takes comedy fans who don't care about making or losing money to really make this thing work. Most of the releases Go Faster Stripe do lose money.

Apex Web Works Do you think that other comedians and performers will follow the example of Fist Of Fun and purchase the rights of other cherished programmes from national broadcasters?

Chris Evans, Go Faster Stripe I don't know. I hope so. It costs a bloody fortune though.

Apex Web Works Do you think the freedom to include material without fear of censorship is an advantage of distributing comedy online that comedians have yet to truly explore?

Richard Herring It is great to have autonomy. For me the best thing is just that this outlet allows the shows to exist once I move on from them (which is why I am going back and re-doing a couple of old shows). Once it's on DVD then people can see it and I can do the next show. It was always hard having to leave behind a good show knowing that it would never be seen by anyone else. This means old shows might get the respect they deserve somewhere down the line. Also the sales help to make a tour make a bit more money and justify me carrying on with live work

Apex Web Works You have provided a huge amount of free material on your website, including your long-running blog and numerous podcasts. How important is this free content in driving the success of your DVD shows? 

Richard Herring I do the free stuff because it's fun and I'd rather have it out there than not existing. I think the podcasts especially have (without me intending this) given me a huge number of new fans who certainly come to see me live and give me money that way, but also who want to catch up on my old stuff. So there is a clever business model to doing the free stuff. But I only do it because I want to explore ideas in a cheap way and don't think you always need polished and edited comedy (in fact the lack of editing and the failed jokes make the good bits even better)

Apex Web Works U.S comedians Louis CK and Jim Gaffigan are selling recordings of their stand-up shows as downloads through their own websites. Do you see this as a possible route to distribute your own comedy in the future?

Richard Herring It's possible. Though they have huge fan bases which mean they can afford to do it that way. I am not sure we'd do well enough to justify the outlay. But you never know.

Chris Evans, Go Faster Stripe Maybe - I was talking with Rich and Stew about this very thing in March as we were recording the commentary tracks for Fist of Fun series 2. I think we are going to give it a go.

Since this interview Go Faster Stripe have already begun making some shows available as downloads.

So what can we learn from all this? Well, the number of potential avenues for comedians to get their work seen by fans is growing and evolving. The Internet is providing possibilities for comedians to self-publish their own stand-up shows by download and DVD, as well as revive older much loved television shows which deserve to be preserved and seen by fans old and new.

In the case of Fist Of Fun we are even seeing the comedians themselves stepping in and rescuing their own work from a broadcaster with no interest in releasing the show. It seems likely that we will see more performers doing this in the future.

Fist Of Fun Series 1 is available on DVD from Go Faster Stripe.
A wealth of other material from Richard Herring is available at

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Why Twitter is the new water-cooler (with contribution from Graham Linehan)

When I was a child I thought that everyone watched television. I assumed that programmes promoted as big events were watched by everyone in the country. I suppose this was partly a product of conversations with classmates at school, which revolved around TV programmes from the previous evening. Such landmark TV events as a new episode of The Russ Abbot Show or New Faces '87 provided the excited chatter of the playground.

However, as I grew up it became clear that not everyone viewed the world through the same televisual prism as me. Very rarely did more than a third of the UK population watch the same programmes, with the odd exception such as England's nail-bitingly tense exit from the 1990 football World Cup semi-finals. Nevertheless, television provided shared experiences, especially back when it was normal to have only four channels to watch.

The Water-Cooler Moment

Around the turn of the century the phrase "water-cooler moment" became popular as a description of the memorable moments which dominate workplace conversations the next day. The phrase is derived from the common location where office-workers take a break from work, grab a drink and have a chat with their colleagues. Television and sport (and certainly televised sport) are the modern forms of community; shared passions and sources of heated discussions and jokes.

But television has drastically changed in the last twenty years. The emergence of satellite television and cable television has introduced hundreds of new TV channels into our homes, giving us much more choice. This has had the inevitable effect of diluting the audience and making it less likely that the bloke working at the desk next to yours watched the same programme. This means that your water-cooler moment has less chance of resonating with others.

Further depleting this diluted audience are other competing activities such as DVDs, cinema, computer games, music and the Internet. Fewer people are watching television. The nightly audiences of 18 million for regular programmes like Eastenders and Coronation Street are long gone. These days, only the biggest shows will ever reach audiences of over 15 million, and even then only in rare circumstances like the final of Britain's Got Talent. In short, the water-cooler moment no longer has the relevance it once had.

The Social Network

Still, us humans are a social bunch. This is evident in the popularity of social networks online. And these social networks are taking the place of the water-cooler in providing the platform for communal televisual experiences. Leading the charge, as we all know, are Facebook and Twitter. Much more so than Facebook, Twitter is an open social network which encourages conversation. Almost anyone in the world can read what anyone else in the world writes on Twitter. Trending topics (the most discussed subjects at any particular time) and hashtags provide an unprecedented ability to read what other people think about a common topic.

Often these topics will relate to television programmes; so much so that in the UK top trending topics nearly always include something connected to a TV show being broadcast at that moment. Sometimes programmes like X-Factor, Britain's Got Talent, Eastenders and even Question Time will dominate the trending topics during broadcast with references to aspects of the shows. Many users of Twitter are tweeting whilst watching television; often reading others' comments and responding; thus generating conversations about what they’re watching – the instant water-cooler moment.

Twitter ye not?

There is another dimension to this which never existed before, and makes television a kind of interactive experience. The popularity of Twitter with celebrities means that 'normal' members of the public can follow the comments of people they are watching on television. This creates some interesting scenarios.

Celebrities can tweet during the broadcast of their own programmes (assuming they’re not live). For example, Graham Linehan (@Glinner) provided interesting commentary during Channel 4's 'Father Ted Night' last year. Twitter is now being used as TV's own equivalent of a DVD extra.

Also, users can send celebrities unsolicited comments. Ok, there's no guarantee they will be read, but often they are, which means the process of audience feedback has gained an instant platform. For better or worse, it is possible for a celebrity to find out from Twitter what sort of response their programme is getting from parts of the audience as it happens.

Celebrities can perform a search of their own name on Twitter and find out what is being said about them, even when those comments are made by people not following or being followed by that person. I know of a number of instances of people mentioning a celebrity in a tweet and then being surprised by a direct response from that celebrity. In one example a friend of mine used Twitter to settle an argument about which programme Andi Peters used to present on the BBC. Unexpectedly Andi Peters answered the question himself, laying to rest any doubts about the reliability of the information! Be careful what you say on Twitter - you might inadvertently be telling someone exactly what you think of them.

Glinner Space

I asked Graham Linehan about his experiences with Twitter:

Your tweets during the broadcast of Channel 4's Father Ted Night provided the kind of extra information usually found in DVD extras. Do you think 'live-tweeting' is something we can expect to see more of during TV programmes?

I don't see why not. Lots of fun watching a show and tweeting a commentary. Certainly more fun than watching the show in silence.

Do you think you would 'live-tweet' any of your TV programmes in the future? 

Probably! Maybe not on first runs but certainly on repeats.

Twitter provides an unprecedented level of instant audience feedback. As a TV writer, how useful do you find this? 

I find it useful as a human being, but not necessarily as a writer. Audiences may think they want, say, a Die Hard parody, but I prefer to give them things they don't know they want.

To what degree do you think Twitter is the new 'water-cooler'?

Well, it's true that the water cooler is now our PC/phone, so the water cooler is everywhere. So I guess I agree.

Hashtag Wallop

TV shows have also quickly realised the power of Twitter as a free marketing tool. They use dedicated hashtags related to their own show and encourage viewers to use the hashtag when discussing it. This increases the likelihood of seeing their show appear in the trending topics (and spread awareness to people who might be otherwise unaware of the show), but also it gives the programme makers a handy keyword with which to obtain instant audience feedback.

Interestingly, this has recently been stepped up to another level by Britain's Got Talent, who have attempted to get individual acts trending on Twitter by placing a specific hashtag onscreen during their auditions. It is highly likely that we will see more new and inventive ways of using hashtags to promote television shows.

So Twitter is the new water-cooler. My rose-tinted idea as a child that the population watch the same programmes was never accurate, and never will be. But while it's true that fewer people watch the same programmes at the same time now than twenty years ago, Twitter enables a truly communal viewing experience. Like never before it is possible to share a televisual experience with other viewers across the nation. I know of some people who sometimes choose to watch a programme broadcast live, rather than on a catch-up service later, because they want to "join in" on Twitter. Perhaps Twitter is the first truly social network.

You can find Graham Linehan on Twitter at @Glinner.