Video Podcasting from the The Wild Classroom
The Wild Classroom Crew has assembled a video podcast for lovers of science. We ecourage teachers to download this podcast to show students videos that are engaging and entertaining. We have teamed up with scientists and graduate students around the globe (with central hubs in Washington, Panama, Hawaii, Sweden, Wisconsin and Montana), to diversify your understanding of the world around you.
Video Podcasting: A new approach to science filmmaking
By Rob Nelson (written May 2006)
We live in a unique and exciting age of filmmaking (video making), where a brand new media has just swept around the globe with amazing speed. The Internet, with its ever-increasing ability to deliver high quality video now enables filmmakers to distribute videos themselves over this unique medium. No longer are filmmakers restricted to distributing films through the broadcast television world. But, is this distribution market just a mini-market of broadcast? Is filmmaking for the Internet fundamentally different?
In this short article I’ll examine one facet of Internet filmmaking, that of the relatively new distribution via podcasts. I’ll like to examine in closer detail this new and emerging market. Who watches podcasts and what podcasts are successful? Then, I’ll throw in my own experience as a developer of a new science podcasting series for kids called The Wild Classroom: Ecogeeks. This should give us the ability to answer that fundamental question: Is filmmaking through video podcasts, different than traditional television broadcasting?
Podcasting: an introduction.
Because most people I talk to have relatively no knowledge of what podcasting is, let alone have actually used it, I feel it is pertinent to start by defining what podcasting is. Wikipedia describes podcasting as “the method of distributing multimedia files, such as audio programs or music videos over the Internet for playback on mobile devices and personal computers.”
This is done through either RSS or Atom syndication formats. For the podcasting I do, I use both RSS and ATOM feeds. They are small files that reference video or audio files on a server. The great thing about podcasts is that certain programs can read these RSS/ATOM feeds and will automatically download the files to a users computer or portable device.
For instance, I subscribe to Rocketboom, a daily show on “internet news”. Every morning, the new episode is downloaded to my computer, which is then downloaded to my video IPOD. I don’t even have to think about it. It’s there for me to turn on and watch at my convenience. In that respect it is selective video on demand – even better than TV.
Since podcasting only became popular in late 2004 (eighteen months ago), it’s caught a tremendous wave of support (more on that later). Video Podcasting only really became popular in late 2005, when the Fifth Generation Video Ipods came out. At the moment (May 2006), it’s still an open field and hasn’t become mainstream.
In only a decade or so I’m predicting podcasting to take over broadcasting completely. If the growing trend is any sort of indication, we’re surely at the cusp of a modern revolution.
Eweek (Ben Charny, April 17, 2006) recently sited Feedburner (a web company that distributes RSS and ATOM feeds) stating that podcasts outnumber radio stations: “FeedBurner now distributes 47,000 different podcasts, which means there are more podcasters than radio stations. And the rate at which new podcasters emerge on the scene has doubled in the last six months.”
So podcasts seem like a great thing, and everyone who produces them (myself included) thinks they are the best thing since sliced bread. Yet, the question really is who watches these things? According to eMarketer (Mike Chapman March 2006, 7 pages, 10 Charts), there’s only about 10 million people in the US that regularly subscribe to podcasts. In four years they predict that number to 50 million. Taken as a percentage of the US, you could say that number is very small. Yet, I prefer to see 10 million potential viewers as very large. A radio station in a large metropolis (say my home town of Dallas) would only reach max 5 million potential listeners.
As far as video podcasting goes the model seems to have revolved around the hit of host Amanda Congdon (co-created with Andrew Baron). It was only two years ago that this 24 year old was an actress looking for to make her first break. Now she’s changed the face of broadcasting. Sure others would have taken her place, but her good looks and playful banter have made her a common internet face.
She appeals now to over 250,000 viewers a day and all from her living room, bedroom and own backyard. Congdon has stated that it only costs them 20 dollars an episode to produce, with a small mini dv camera and computer. With these dismal starts, they’ve made a great name for themselves and been able to start the first real revenue in video podcasting.
For example, recently Rocketboom auctioned a weeks worth of advertising on their video blog through eBay. The highest bidder won the auction for 40,000 US dollars. While they only used this one week, do some hypothetical math and you get a huge figure just over 2 million dollars! Not too shabby.
But here in lies the most amazing thing to me. Rocketboom may seem like an amazing video news program to anyone who hasn’t seen it, but for those who have seen it, you’re surely saying “anyone could do better than that?” Frankly, I could only watch a few episodes. I wanted to see what the craze was about, and I think it is just a craze. Here is briefly why I think it has been a hit:
There’s what Amanda and Rocketboom have going for their video podcast. But with that said, I still find it very difficult to watch. The content really isn’t there. You end up watching a lot of crap just to see the attractive female host. I hope the episodes get better as time goes on or she will be dethroned, it’s as simple as that. On that note, I think it would be worthwhile to take a look at a few more of the top video podcasts to see what they have in common and what’s making them the top of the heap.
TOP VIDEO PODCASTS
This is a snapshot of the ITUNES top video podcasts on May 1, 2006. ITUNES will feature the top 100 video podcasts on their “video podcasts” page. This image was taken from the first page of the list. They are ranked according to subscribers (and other things noted below). Notice that even today, Rocketboom has fallen from the list to (in my opinion) much better video podcasts.
The top of the list is StrongBAD emails. Strongbad is a long-time famous internet based cartoon series that follows the same style as the famous South Park or Simpsons. Its uses a lot of adult humor in a simple cartoon that is very funny. There really is not much more than pure comedy in this.
The second on the list is my personal favorite, ASK a NINJA. This podcast also revolves solely around humor. The premise comes from the completely ridiculous idea that you could ask a Ninja questions and he’d respond. The questions are absurd. The last question was, “how many questions can a Ninja answer in one podast.” He proceded to answer a majority of the questions with “Because I’m a Ninja”. Its classic Will Ferrell-esque comedy.
The X-Play video podcast is from the G4 network, a podcast from the cable tv channel for gamers. It targets Internet gamers, and is hosted by a few very attractive early 20 year old females. Again, sex sells, but it does have a lot of content, almost two podcasts a day! That’s a lot.
Joga TV is my second favorite podcast. It’s a podcast for anyone loving soccer. It profiles quickly the top soccer athletes in the world and shows them doing some amazing things. Yet, the best thing about this podcast is the innovative ways it presents the topic. The podcast is clearly paid for by NIKE, and they’ve obviously paid for some very good filmmakers to make these short segments. They are inspirational and you can’t help but watch and re-watch every episode. Here, quality is king.
Four of the next five are cartoons. While I don’t care much for them, they are clearly hitting a particular market. Cartoons are heavy on humor, which again, seems to be a common theme.
The next big area of interest is in all things tech. Dignation and Macbreak, 7 and 12 on the list respectfully, have tapped into the geek how-to videos market. They explain interesting things about techy Internet components.
Another video in the top that’s worth mentioning is TikiBar.tv. It used to be the top video podcast and has since dropped to about fourteen. I’d imagine it has dropped quickly because it fails to put out frequent content. It maybe several months in-between episodes. Yet, it does have many great things. The idea is that three characters: a cute girl, a doctor and a sidekick, prescribe certain cocktail drinks, throughout a comedic episode of drama. It’s very well put together and seems like it has high production value. Everyone in the show is an actor, some very good. Again, content, despite its lack of quantity has kept it in the top 20.
To sum things up I did a quick survey of the top 100 in May. Here is a quick list.
1. Strongbad emails (comedy)
First things first, what makes a podcast fall into the top 100? To be listed in the top 100 there is a complicated system. It doesn’t depend simply on how many people download your podcast, but it depends on the number of people that subscribe to the podcast, rankings AND number of downloads. Here are the criteria
Given the list above its important to note a few things. First of all, notice that Rocketboom, while it was on the top at the turn of 2006, is now in the mid 50’s. There are many higher quality programs that have moved to the top of the list. Of the top 100, a large majority are either comedy, technology, cartoons, or some sort of entertainment. This isn’t necessarily surprising given that these are popular on traditional broadcast television. However, it indicates there may be a definite shift in demographics.
Podcasting is really big with those in the 35 – 55 age range, as stated by eMarketer, but there must also be a big market for the youth. I base my prediction of the market solely on my review of the top 100 podcasts. There are many gaming podcasts, cartoons and animations, and many work off of comedy (even though most of the comedy is poor).
The technical podcasts seem to fill the 35-55 age groups thirst for content. There are three how to use Photoshop podcasts in the top 50, and a few how to speak different language podcasts.
The one type of podcast I find unusual to be missing is any sort of science podcast. TERRA, Montana State’s MFA program podcast is not listed in the top 100 with ITUNES, even though they were featured by ITUNES at one time. Why are there no science podcasts in this grouping? My first guess is demographics.
Clearly, either there is a lack of good science content, or there is a lack of an audience. I first assumed it was a lack of audience. The typical audience of science programming such as PBS, is an older crowd. I’d go as far to saying they are less computer savy, nature lovers. At the same time, National Geographic and Discovery channel does have a younger, more hip and technically advanced demographic. Based on the popularity of these channels, there should be at least one show in the top 100 that grabs the attention of viewers.
With that said, I decided to peruse the listings of science podcasts. As far as I could find there were only 4 video podcasts:
And, both numbers two and three on the list are very science journal-type news programs. They are quite dry but are full of information. People that watch podcasts I feel want to be entertained and none of the above have significant entertainment value to warrant a large amount of subscribers.
The entertainment value however, is no different in podcasting than it was in television. You have to make a program people like to watch. Yet, there are fundamental differences in podcasting compared to television.
Podcasting vs. TV
In the past, a comparison was made between the ways programs were made on television compared to a release for the big screen. When you make programming for television you have to make sure people don’t CLICK away from the show. People are less committed to watching any show on a television. This drives the way programs are made. Movies can have buildup and payoffs at the end, that TV just can’t have. I think there are real differences for making movies designed to be shown on a 2-inch screen and downloaded on the computer.
Before we go into the theory of creating videos for podcast, lets look at some technical differences. The three that are most important are 1) show length, 2) broadcast size and 3) compression.
The first is show length. People don’t sit down on couches, relax with popcorn and enjoy a podcast with family members. Instead, they are either downloaded directly to the computer and viewed on a small screen on a computer monitor, or they are downloaded to a portable viewing device such as an apple video IPOD. Either way, they are normally viewed alone. The attention span is thus, severely reduced. It is difficult for anyone to sit and watch an hour show during a commute, or while in front of the computer (although there are a few shows that have proved successful - namely LOST downloads). Because of this, shows designed for the Internet need to be short. In my opinion they must be under 8 minutes long. Any longer and the viewer wants something new.
The next issue is broadcast size. No one watches a podcast on anything larger than 10 inches, and if it were actually blown up that big, the image would already appear pixilated. Because of that, there are a few technical issues that podcasters must remember. In the same vane that IMAX filmmakers never shoot extreme close-ups for the fear of having a 15-foot nose projected on the screen, podcasters must remember to stay away from long shots. When you shoot for the end goal being a 2 inch screen the podcasters must shoot a larger percentage of close-ups than would not normally be included. Large and close is always better in this format. This goes for text as well. Anything written must be large enough to read clearly, often larger than would normally be produced.
Finally, compression formats make shooting video designed for the web extremely different. The way compression works is that the computer remembers one frame from the next. If one frame is a blue sky and the next frame is too, the compression simply says, “Remember frame A, that’s the same as frame B”. It can do this without having to commit to memory all the pixels in the previous frame. That means that the use of a tripod is even more important that ever before. Handheld shots can not be played like they would be on TV. There are too many artifacts and the image becomes poor. On the other hand, shots taken on tripods that are steady can look very nice, crisp and clean.
Given those constraints there are some theoretical differences between podcasting and television. The first is the market. I don’t think people want to go to the computer and to a podcast to see exactly what they could see on television. I think the people that are into podcasting are going to find new content. They’re looking for independent shows from producers that deviate from traditional shows. ABC news for instance has a podcast, but it’s not in the top 20. In fact there are no commercial shows in the top 20 except a show produced by the gaming channel (G4) designed specifically for podcasters.
Next, podcasting is a niche market. Video podcasting is only just catching on, but we can look at the vast audio podcasting market. With over 47,000 podcasts distributed by Feedburner, there are enough podcasts on enough subjects, for everyone to find their unique market. One in particular I found is a podcast on different uses of mushrooms in the home. That’s a pretty particular podcast for a very specific niche. Many podcasters only have an audience of 50 people, of which they are quite happy with.
Television, while in some ways does have different channels that appeal to different demographics, it is not set up the same way. Since you subscribe to podcasts an audience can be built up without steady broadcasting.
How to produce a science podcast
Based on the relatively little data that can be found on this new science, one should contemplate the best way to produce a podcast to get the most viewers. Since this was a goal I’ve had for a long time, I have thought long and hard about it in addition to browsing dozens of popular podcasts. I’ve been able to search through the deluge from a consumer so as hopping to get some more insight. My list includes the following:
The first step in creating a successful podcast is choosing a topic that inspires you and will be something that interests others. I don’t believe you should pick your audience first and then the topic, even though from a money making perspective, that would clearly be better. By that I mean you’d pick the largest audience group and make podcasts for them. Instead your topic should consist of a specific, yet general idea. Pick your interests but remember what your audience might be.
For instance, I started a podcast on a topic that interested me – Invasive Plants of the United States. However, I feel that in many ways the topic was too small. It restricted my audience. How many people are interested in this? First, it restricts my audience to people from the United States. It would be a science conscious audience interested in invasive species. But, even more specific, only those that had an interest in botany. Not the greatest topic.
In the future I plan on doing a science podcast in the same style, but with a different topic. My topic is Natural Science. While this restricts my field of science down to those concerned with life sciences, it increases the potential for a large audience. In summary, the topic should 1) interest you, 2) be specific but also 3) general enough to attract a sufficient audience.
This next topic is more important than choosing your topic. You could have a very interesting subject, but if targeted to the wrong audience you’re in trouble. No one would say, make a podcast on say Medicine of Old Age for 15 year olds. It wouldn’t make sense.
Lets look again at Invasive Plants of the US to analyze why I have so few subscribers. My podcasts are fun and the audience I picked was middle school to high school age kids. Yet, the topic doesn’t mesh well with the intended audience. This was clearly my fault and explains why I only have 9 subscribers after having my podcast up and running for 6 months.
A better science podcast would have a topic for the audience and be made in the proper way. For example, the new podcast, called EcoGeeks, is a natural history podcast but with a name that appeals to middle school and high school kids. But at the same time, is this age group one that watches podcasts?
While not reported in the eMarketer, I feel that kids on the net will soon be a big market. I recently visited my friend Hazen Audel, a science teacher in Washington. He teaches 10th - 12th graders. As an estimate I would say fifty percent of them had Ipods, which are the outlet for podcasts. That’s huge!
Next as far as audience goes, the question remains, who will download them? Are kids going to download them, or teachers for kids? This argument is similar to the Greenpeace videos online. If you’re a supporter of greenpeace already, you’ll probably stay online to watch them. You’ll end up agreeing with the horrific videos they show and remaining an activist. Yet how many people actually watch them that aren’t already convinced? It’s speaking to the choir.
The same argument must be asked when dealing with a podcast such as EcoGeeks. Are kids going to download the podcast even though it is intended for them, or is it really the teachers and parents of the kids that we should be targeting? I feel this is a very important issue and while I’ll discuss some of my ideas in the Marketing section, I felt it was important enough to mention in this section.
The question of who your audience is, is going to drive your content. At this stage I must say that content is key to the success of the podcast. After watching a large number of podcasts, I have noticed that podcasts lower down the list are composed of people just babbling about and don’t really have much to say.
Rocketboom as a podcast relies both on its content (Internet news) and its charismatic host. Both are directed to an audience of middle aged men, which so happens to be the largest market for podcasts. Yet, while the actual informational content may be there, there is a great lack of artistic and creative content. The podcasts are poorly done and are simply not fun to watch unless you have a crush on the host, or really like the information. But, since it is still very high on the charts with total subscribers, it’s a case in point as to why content drives everything.
To bring the discussion to EcoGeeks, the issue of content is extremely important. We’ve already discussed that we need to know the audience. While kids aren’t necessarily interested in learning stuff, I feel the real audience we need to appeal to is the adults (parents and teachers) that then let their kids download certain shows. With that in mind, we need to have a majority of content.
Kids should realize in EcoGeeks that they learned something only after they finished watching the show. There is a common belief in science shows for kids that you should have 95% information and content and 5% humor. I think the humor can be distributed throughout in a very informative way.
Now it’s time to produce your amazing podcast. You have an idea and you are ready to tell the world about it. Fortunately enough for this new medium of Internet distribution, you don’t need complicated equipment. The resolution on the net is so poor that even the cheapest of cheap video cameras will do. Although, any effort put into quality is going to improve visual content and help your feed in the end.
The production of one podcast should not take more than a week. This is because for any podcast to be effective there needs to be consistent feeds on the web. If you can’t do it in less than a week (or two at max), consider either getting more help, or producing many videos before you start a podcast feed. Then you can pretend you have consistently new content while in reality you are simply uploading already produced videos.
EcoGeeks for instance will be a podcast that has two hosts, Hazen Audel and myself, Rob Nelson, who will be discussing interesting ideas in the life sciences for kids. The first podcast we created was on SNAKES.
So you have a great topic, of which has a targeted audience to watch them, but somehow people have to find out about it. That’s were marketing comes in.
The idea of marketing shouldn’t be restricted to the idea of advertising. Marketing your podcast is a way to get people subscribed, although another marketing avenue that needs to be approached is also looking for funders.
So how do people find out about podcasts? At the moment the main outlet for podcasts, is through Apples ITUNES. While this may not be the only distributor, it is by far the most popular. ITUNES has the ability to feature a podcast. Featured podcasts are listed on the main page and thus receive a large number of potential subscribers.
Podcasts can, and should also be listed in other podcasting directories, such as podcastingnews.com and podcastdirectory.com. These directories offer ways for people to find your podcast. Depending on the audience, it is very important to find a way of letting people know about your cast. This could be through email lists, forums or through popular websites.
Since EcoGeeks is going to target kids we have set up accounts on MYSPACE.com. Myspace is the new pop web community for the youth. Nearly every highschool student has an account on myspace. There are over 20 million users currently, most of whom are kids. Myspace recently started a filmmaker’s forum and way for filmmakers to let the community know about their films and video blogs.
The biggest success story from Myspace 'advertising' is a video podcast called FourEyedMonsters, a video podcast of two young filmmakers who travel to Slamdance and the trials they encountered. It stayed in the top ten for a long time, and has only recently. They have a huge amount of MySpace ‘friends’ which allows them to easily market their videos to their target, young adults and kids.
Podcasting and in particular video podcasting is a revolutionary new broadcast medium where new and upcoming filmmakers can distribute their content without spending huge amounts of resources trying to go through broadcasters. While only about one percent of the American public is currently viewing podcasts, the number is growing rapidly. Its my belief that this is the start of the shift of content away from broadcast television to the internet. It’s a new and exciting time that’s currently a free market. The ones that enter the market first will be the first on top and the first to receive an audience.
As a final note, I encourage anyone that is pursuing this medium to remember the key to success is picking a topic that suits your audience and then producing good content that can be marketed to your viewers!
By Rob NelsonWritten May 2006