Comment: UGC – It’s Utter Bedlam, says Helen Veale, joint MD, Outline Productions

Let’s admit it: most user generated content involves large kids re-enacting their favourite fight scenes from Star Wars using home made light sabres. Is this enough to create a realistic threat to our creative industries? No. Writing and producing coherent and entertaining narrative in the comedy, documentary or movie genres is a very difficult discipline with some of the most talented and inspired artists of our time choosing television as the medium in which to express this creativity.

So will short form clips and shaky hand comedy moments threaten the mainstay of our industry -not if you are going to produce something good and with a shelf-life.

The main issue here is the introduction of new technology, it seems to at once excite and intimidate us. Do we have to take the fear so far as examine our strategies as storytellers and producers of content in the light of fat pipes and social networking? We’ve had the technology for UGC ever since William Caxton invented the printing press and today, if you own a biro, does that mean you can write a sonnet?

At Outline we’re developing forums around our factual entertainment shows where our viewers can interact with us and with each other, can share their views and the video content that they have created. To us there’s a difference between UGC as an enhancement to traditional content and UGC as a potential replacement for traditional content.

It sometimes seems that our industry feels too threatened by change. With each new launch or upgrade or wackily named digital service, it’s almost voguish for a ripple of fear to take hold of us for not being quite modern enough.

Sure, we should be commercially aware of exploiting new avenues and never underestimate upcoming talent, but there seems an over emphasis and overstated premium on the ‘new’ in our industry. Of course this has been encapsulated in the ability to create and upload digital material, however it is my absolute belief that it is the professional who will continue to dominate the medium, here and long into the future.

Think about TakeOver TV in the 90s – this show was UK terrestrial Channel 4’s brainchild to give a platform for viewers to send in tapes when handy-cam technology similarly sent producers scurrying to democratise access to screen time.

Over the course of three series the concept was redeveloped. It morphed into The Adam and Joe Show when the realisation dawned that these two contributors were bright talents, but the vast majority of content sent in was more large-kid-with-light-sabre than the new Seinfeld.

Earlier this year Current TV, Al Gore’s online channel walked away with an Emmy. Current TV relies on viewer-created content for more than a third of its schedule, but it is mediated and meritocratic. As a result, the ‘pods’ of content that are selected are well produced, visually inventive and provide fresh perspectives. Their short form nature also really appeals to a younger demographic that enjoys rapid hits of information.

But the fact remains that the amount of people, even in the 16-to-34 age range who are actually proactive in the generation of content is overstated. Only half this age group have emailed comments to a website, and just a tiny faction of them have actually devoted time to creating video content.

The standard of the films on Current TV is extremely high and I hope that this medium will inspire and push new filmmakers and provide an outlet for fresh ideas. But wouldn’t people with genuine talent, who are driven, passionate and want to tell their story in an entertaining way get there anyway?

The concept of democratising content production and citizen journalism may be exciting, but what’s wrong with respecting expertise? Our skill sets should be put in an official framework; experience, research skills, gaining access, directing and executing mean our credits usually speak for themselves. We wouldn’t want to democratise medicine – even with the internet’s almost infinite information on medical matters – we may be more informed, but that doesn’t mean we’re qualified to operate.

When email first became widespread in the early 90’s, we were inundated with bad jokes and ‘pass this on or you’ll never have sex again’ warnings. It was the technology that made this possible. I’m hoping that people at office Christmas parties have shed their penchant for photocopying people’s backsides, especially as now we’ve all got camera phones that make it so much easier to circulate drunken shots of things we’d never want others looking at if we were sober.

The point being, the technology allows us to get involved in something that often neither the generator nor the consumer particularly cares about, has no enrichment value, and therefore soon becomes boring. There’s a flood of excitement and then a settling time until we find the next toy to play with. So wave your light sabres and dress up as Britney, but the Bedlam freak show that makes up the vast majority of what ‘users’ generate is not about to engulf the creative process.

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