Promises of niche programming for all has only partially come true

It wasn’t quite tea and a Madeleine, but last week’s Entertainment Matters/YouTube keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show conjured remembrances of things past. One thing, anyway.

Robert Kyncl, YouTube’s VP of global content, painted a picture of myriad channels tailored to narrow interests. In the panel that followed, “CSI” creator Anthony Zuiker said, “The ability to tell stories on a categorical niche … makes possible not just the future of entertainment but possibly the extinction of TV as we know it.”

I came out of the event duly impressed and enthusiastic, but then, as I settled in with a hot drink and a snack, a single word from the depths of memory surfaced: narrowcasting.

If you’re a certain age, that word may bubble up in your memory, too. “Narrowcasting,” niche programming and niche channels, was the promise of cable TV, remember?

In 1972, Dick Burgheim, director of CATV program projects for Time-Life Broadcast, wrote in Variety, “Clearly, the awesome gaps left by American broadcasting can be filled by, to use the catchword, cable ‘narrowcasting.’ Channels will be available and production costs will theoretically be normal enough to allow access to all the interests priced out of over-the-air TV.

“Ethnic groups and the inner city can speak to themselves in their own vernacular. The deaf can use sign language. A man who is not rich can wage an election campaign. Cable can, in short, lesson the alienation of the blacks, the disaffection of the young, the feeling of powerlessness and anomie of all citizens.”

Burgheim was unduly optimistic about elections, but much of that promise was actually fulfilled.

Yet many niche channels on cable have been diluted. Syfy has sci-fi, yes, but it tried a food show and has a reality competition show. The former Learning Channel became TLC and is only vaguely connected to learning anything. The History Channel (now just History) last week showed “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” (Hey, it’s set in the past, and it was made in the past, so it’s historical, right?) There’s a lot of niche programming, but niche channels are under pressure to diversify in pursuit of ratings.

I searched the Variety archives for “narrowcasting.” The term pops up as early as 1950, as FM radio came in, with the same promise of niche programming. FM was very niche-oriented when it was new, but it’s a lot less so now.

So will Web video go the same way: niche-oriented when it’s new but drifting toward broad-aud blandness as it succeeds? Or will we really get our narrowcast channels this time?

I spoke to the moderator of the panel at the Entertainment Matters keynote, Medialink CEO Michael Kassan, about why narrowcasting might really become a reality. He noted the lower barrier of entry — anybody can create a YouTube channel for free and get instant global distribution — and said: “People like Anthony Zuiker who historically have worked with much larger budgets can produce quality content at a much lower cost.

“And the gatekeepers are no longer the three network heads or the four network heads. The gatekeeper is the public. Let the consumer decide.”

Kassan added, “The sky’s the limit. Right now we can blow this stuff in ways we never anticipated in our wildest imagination. I hate to sound dramatic, but I think truly we’re watching the dawn of a new era.”

I’m inclined to think he’s right, but we’ve heard these promises before, and they’ve never entirely come true. I can’t help but wonder if some Variety columnist in 2052 will be writing about the promise of direct neural interfaces and their ability to bring narrowly tailored, niche-oriented experiences to consumers’ brains, finally relieving us from the dispiriting sameness of broadcast, cable and Internet programming.

Bits & Bytes: Facial animation company Image Metrics is spinning off its Faceware product line to form Faceware Technologies, Inc. The Faceware markerless facial animation system has been used for many games and movies, including “Grand Theft Auto IV” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” The new company will market the software to professional animation companies. Image Metrics will expand its focus, including products yet to be announced. … At last week’s Moody Gardens Digital Cinema Symposium, Qube Cinema demonstrated a digital cinema server delivering 4K 3D (that is, 3D with 4K resolution for each eye) off a single Digital Cinema Package. It was the first public demo of 4K 3D off a single server. The setup used two Barco 4K projectors and an 80-foot-wide screen. Demo included content shown at 24, 48 and 60 frames per second. … The annual Hollywood Post Alliance Tech Retreat has been set for Feb. 14-17 at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort in Indian Wells, Calif. … Deluxe subsidiary Company 3 and Mumbai-based post facility Futureworks have pacted to give commercial clients in India access to Company 3 artists based in Santa Monica, Atlanta or London. … 3D technology provider Cameron Pace Group has opened an office in Melbourne, Australia. It’s the first CPG office outside the U.S. Andrew Wight, who produced the 3D feature “Sanctum” with CPG co-topper James Cameron, will run the new CPG office.

NewTek has named Carter Holland executive VP, worldwide marketing. Holland is a former marketing VP at Avid. … Hollywood Center Studios has tapped Jerry Cole as director of visual and broadcast services, a new position. He will oversee virtual production services for webcasts, broadcast and TV production. Cole was most recently head of business development at Hayden Studios in Culver City.

Panasonic has received a Technology & Engineering Emmy for its removable solid-state media for video camera/recorders and their creation of the P2 video recording format. … Cinedeck is shipping its Cinedeck RX rack-mountable recording system with solid-state memory. All Mobile Video in Gotham has installed the system. … Cinedeck has also made changes to its exec team. Alan Hoff has left the CEO post, though he will remain a board member. Co-founder Charles Dautremont is acting CEO. Robert Stacy, CEO and co-founder of Asia Media Products is now Cinedeck’s VP. Jane Sung has been promoted to director of operations. … The reboot of “Dallas” is using MTI Film’s Remote Control Dailies.

D-Box has announced some of the titles that will use the motion-seat tech in early 2012: “The Grey,” “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” “Act of Valor,” “John Carter” and “The Hunger Games.” … Cinedigm Digital Cinema has passed 10,000 screens in its digital cinema deployment in North America. Eventually it will deploy almost one-third of all North American digital cinema screens. … Cinedigm has allied with Independent Cinemas Assn. of Australia (ICAA) for d-cinema deployment in Australia and New Zealand. … D-cinema integrator Beyond All, has signed a letter of intent with 15 Brazilian exhibitors for digital cinema deployment on about 1,000 screens. The Virtual Print Fee agreements will expedite the deployment of d-cinema. Beyond All’s partners include Cinedigm for technical services and MKPE for negotiation.

The Siggraph computer graphics conference will return to Anaheim, Calif., in 2013 and to Vancouver, Canada, in 2014. Last year’s Vancouver confab marked the first time Siggraph was held outside the United States, and according to the show’s parent org the event broke all conference attendance records. … Creatasphere’s Digital Asset Management conference will be Feb. 22-23 at the BevHilton.

USC has joined forces with Vicon Technologies to upgrade the motion capture system at the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts. System had 20 cameras when installed in 2006. Now it has 46 cameras on a 1,700-sq.-ft. stage. School is already eyeing another expansion of the mo-cap facility.

E-on software has shipped Vue 10 RenderNodes for Linux, the company’s first Linux-basd rendering solution. DreamWorks Animation is already using the software. … Assimilate has shipped version 6.1 of its Scratch digital intermediate finishing tool. New version includes support for the new RED SDK 4.2 an
d Tangent’s Element control panel, as well as a SDI output architecture.

Post facility Incendio has purchased two Image System Nucoda Film Masters with Precision panels for its creative color and finishing pipeline. … Sky Deutschland’s new Sky Sport News HD channel has equipped his studio using Vitec Videocom brands for automated production. Net is using a robotic camea system with six Vinten Radamec Fusion FP-188 robotic pedestals and two Telemetrics cameras controlled by a Vinten Radamec HDVRC. Studio is equipped with Litepanels LED lighting.

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