February 8, 2007
If you're interested in continuing to work as a photographer five to ten years down the road you may want to take a look at the relatively new independent TV network called Current TV. The business of visual communication may be about ready to move away from stills and toward video. You can find out more about Current TV and the cable and satellite channels it is available on by going to www.current.tv.
This network takes crowdsourcing to a new level. Most of the content on this network is shot by amateurs. The segments are short videos -- mostly three to five minutes -- of first person nonfiction stories that inform the audience in some way. All you have to do to participate is get a story idea, shoot it, edit it and upload it in finished form for consideration. Current TV calls these segments Pods. Pods are often narrated by the videographer, although in some cases they were obviously produced by a two person team - one telling the story and the other operating the camera. Pods can be on all subjects, in all styles - everything from first-person narratives to animated political satire.
Most of the segments I've seen are of surprisingly good quality, and interesting little slices of life that you might not expect to see on a major network, or cable channel. In many cases the subject matter will only be of interest to a relatively small, select audience, but because the pieces are short occasionally sitting through something of marginal personal interest is not as irritating as spending several minutes looking at ads you've seen -- and memorized -- 1000 times before. In addition, on Current TV, they regularly show you the subjects of segment that will be coming up in the next half hour and if there is nothing of interest you can switch channels.
At present there are basically five categories of content:
Pods: Short videos that tell a story, profile a character and/or share an idea.
Current Journalism: News segments that follow normal journalist standards (and they are defined on the web site).
Promos: Promos for Current TV that tell the audience who they are, why they're different and why you should participate in the network.
V-CAMS: Viewer-created ad message for Current TV sponsors.
Raw Intel: Raw video footage of a news-worthy event that is so riveting on its own that Current TV will consider buying it without all the extra editing and post production needed to create a finished Pod.
It seems likely that as the volume of available content increases they will start sub-dividing into more specific subject categories with pieces on the same general theme slotted together at pre-announced times.
The network also offers a system called "greenlighting" that allows members (anyone who has submitted a Pod) to review Pods online and vote on whether or not a specific pod should be aired.
There is also a payment structure for anything that gets used.
Why Is This Important To Still Photographers?
Still photographers need to seriously consider the possibility of this trend expanding because suddenly, it has become much easier for people with little experience to get their personally produced stories on TV. Anyone can play.
While there is compensation, in most cases it won't cover the real cost of producing a Pod. Therefore, one of the main motivations for people to do this will be ego, not financial reward. But keep in mind that with YouTube we've seen that tens of thousands of people are willing to create videos for no compensation whatsoever. It seems likely that the most talented of these will begin producing for Current TV.
Granted, Current TV has a lot more controls on what will be acceptable than YouTube, but it seens likely that a huge number of amateurs will be willing to work within those parameters.
As we move toward getting more of our information from TV and the Internet rather than from print there may be greater demand for short video stories than for single illustrations that support a writer's text. We've already seen a decline in the use of print and a proliferation of cable TV channels. Now technology has made it possible for non-professionals to produce information videos on subjects of narrower and more specific interest to smaller and smaller groups of consumers. The costs of doing this are so low that newspapers and magazines will have difficulty producing the same thing in print form.
In addition, back in December Yahoo launched its "Your Witness News" website inviting anyone who happens to capture breaking news on their digital camera, camcorder or camera phone to upload their pictures/footage. "Your Witness" uploads will not be the first amateur material used in the news (memorable examples include the 911 Disaster, South Asian Tsunami, London Bombings and the recent small plane crash in NYC) and it isn't the first such solicitation of public content by a major news source (CNN and the BBC have sites for public uploads). But, Yahoo! has partnered with Reuters in this effort and unsolicited content has the possibility of being distributed by Reuters.
All these uses could begin to cut into the market for still photography.
Will The Use Of Stills Decline
But some will say, "Okay, so there will be an increased use of video, but there will always be a demand for stills". Maybe so, but to what degree will that demand grow or decline?
Look at what's happening in Dallas at the Dallas Morning News. The paper is equipping all its still photographers with video cameras. And moving toward the time when their photographers will shoot nothing but video. Short videos can be used on the paper's web site. And when they need a still photo for the printed paper they simply do a frame grab from the video shoot. The reproduction quality of the frame grabs, shot with the new HD video cameras, are equal to what the paper's photographers have been getting with their still cameras.
Also remember that when the transition from film to digital started happening news organizations started using digital still cameras about two years before all the commercial photographers started buying them.
And because anyone can do it writers, who are story tellers, may start picking up video cameras and begin taking business away still photographers.
The time to begin training is now. And it may be time to stop thinking about single illustrations and start thinking about stories.
It seems conceivable that the editorial side of the photography business will grow and become more focused on video while the still side - and particularly the commercial still side - will move into decline.