A decade ago, MoviePass tried to upend the 100-year-old film exhibition industry by bringing Netflix-style subscriptions and data-based marketing to the hoary old business of getting people to sit in a dark room for a couple of hours. Many theater owners hated it, and Hollywood studios never embraced it either. But here in 2021, we’re firmly in the direct-to-consumer video future MoviePass helped imagine.
Now, former MoviePass Chairman Ted Farnsworth is trying to tweak another entrenched, endangered and rather hoary media business, broadcast syndication, by layering on a decidedly digital extension.
Farnsworth is co-founder, along with Jaeson Ma and Vincent Butta, of Zash Global Media, a rollup of video production and distribution companies that last month finished acquiring short-video social site Lomotif alongside Vinco Ventures. Zash and NASDAQ-traded Vinco are merging in a deal announced in January.
Now Zash has ordered production on its first three shows, all reality-themed programming designed to hit syndication markets next year:
> Love is Blurred - a dating show that pairs singles on a virtual first date that lets each participant see everything about the other person’s home, but not the other person’s face (initially).
> Own-It – A cooking competition pitting three up-and-coming chefs for the chance to get a free year of paid restaurant space.
> The Millennium Penthouse Dance Party – Set in a prominent dance studio, each episode will feature a different choreographer, with live music from notable musical acts, DJs and celebrities, against a backdrop of prominent dancers. Executive producers include Millennium CEO AnnMarie Hudson, J.Todd Harris, David Ladd and Long (Luc) Vu.
TV vets Marc Sternberg (Triller, mobile games, Just Jared, October Sky) and Brad Kreisberg (Hell’s Kitchen, Jersey Shore, The Real, among others) will be executive producers on all three series along with Farnsworth, Ma and Butta.
Farnsworth, who’s based in Syracuse, N.Y., near Zash production studios, acknowledged that broadcast TV syndication is a “very cutting-edge 1996” sort of business, but said that’s exactly why it’s overdue for a digital makeover.
“Oh, my gawd, it's such an old model,” Farnsworth said. “But old models want to be disrupted.”
That’s where Lomotif comes in. The service is a competitor of TikTok, considerably smaller than what is now the world’s most downloaded app, but still claiming 31 million active users in July, and more than 225 million app installations on mobile phones around the world.
The service provides its users strong video-editing tools to make their short videos, and recently announced a licensing deal with Universal Music Group to allow users to tap its songs in creating their Lomotif videos.
As the three shows hit syndication in U.S. markets, full episodes will also be made available free to a global audience on Lomotif, Farnsworth said, backed by promotions, contests and other marketing efforts to connect online viewers and deliver additional reach to the brands backing the shows.
“What do you want: Engagement for your ads, downloads from the (sponsor’s site)?” Farnsworth said. “We'll drive the KPIs on our network around the world. I'm telling you we believe that we can deliver pretty much anything they want, though maybe some things better than others.”
For advertisers, the key attraction with that international Lomotif audience is its price: free, on top of whatever audience the U.S. syndication sales bring in. Given the fraying economics of broadcast, overlaying digital may be an important addition in terms of make-goods and building broader, more highly engaged audiences.
That digital backstop certainly appears to have been a lifesaver for Olympics broadcasts this past couple of weeks. NBCU saw broadcast ratings well below 2016’s Rio games, but it said overall viewership and ad reach was dramatically buoyed by 6 billion minutes watched across the company’s proliferating digital outlets.
Tapping an in-house social-media site with an active creator community also becomes a way to tap ardent audiences who can in turn build significant viral video assets and presence for the shows on Lomotif and beyond, and both domestically and internationally, Farnsworth said.
Lomotif is hardly the only social-video site expanding into new areas. Triller has pivoted its focus in video more times than a figure skater. Just today, game platform Roblox announced its first full-length video episode, an episode debuting next month of Spin Master anime series Bakugan: Geogan Rising, a week before the episode appears on Netflix.
TikTok continues to expand both its global popularity and the length of videos it allows from (so far) some select contributors. Even YouTube, the granddaddy of social video, is cultivating new kinds of creators with a $100 million fund designed to encourage them to make shows for its TikTok competitor, Shorts.
Farnsworth said initially the connection between the Lomotif digital stream and the shows will be modest. As an example, he suggested contests involving B roll from the dating show, where viewers could create their own short videos about participants.
The next step is to create mobile apps tied to each show that allow even more interaction and potentially change the direction of the reality competitions. For the dating app, that might include the ability for viewers to vote digitally for their favorite couples.
“I think that's where that's going to make the big impact on TV here,” Farnsworth said “It's no different when people were texting ‘1’ on American Idol, but it's going to the next level. I just think that's fun, gamifying the experience.”
It’s way too early to know whether Farnsworth is on to something by targeting broadcast syndication for a digital makeover. Issues of broadcaster interest, advertiser enthusiasm for global audiences, and plenty of non-digital programming alternatives complicate an untried model.
But it’s yet another corner of the business of “TV” ripe for integration into the digital streaming future, on all kinds of platforms. For Farnsworth, it’s another adventure in disruption.
David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
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