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Fred Seibert has excelled in more media careers than there are
media forms to master—or so it might seem. In the '80s he was the
creative force behind MTV's original on-air promotions and helped
propel Nickelodeon and its spin-off networks to their current
success. He went on to become president of Hanna-Barbera, and even
co-founded a chocolate company for entertainment-licensed candy.
Currently, this 2000
AIGA Medal recipient runs Frederator Studios and Channel
Frederator in New York, feeding animation and other comic
content to cable TV (particularly the Cartoon Network) and via
podcast. Over the past year, Seibert has emerged as one of internet
TV's prime movers and shakers. His Next New Networks is the next
big thing in the revolution from conventional TV to something,
well, next—and new. We caught up with Seibert long enough to
channel his views on community-driven content and programming for
Heller: You call your new venture Next New Networks, but
are they networks in the conventional sense of the television
Seibert: Yes and no. The definition of a media
network has morphed tremendously over the years. From the '30s
through the '70s, in radio and television, a broadcast network
meant a bunch of local stations that played a lot of the same
programs, delivered to them by telephone wires. There were only a
few networks, so they all had very broad, mass-appeal programming
to satisfy everyone in the family. By the '80s a cable TV network
came to mean 24 hours a day with dozens of narrowly defined
programming genres (delivered by satellite) like news, sports,
music, kids, weather, what have you. Well, those telephone cables
and satellites have gone out the window, anyone can access anything
they want, and at Next New Networks we feel that.
Heller: So, how do you define the new television
Seibert: It's a place where you can go to
satisfy exactly the kind of programming you've always wanted but
conventional delivery systems could not deliver because of cost and
distribution limitations. Now the world is different. We watch
television in lots of different ways on lots of different boxes. We
"cable," we "Tivo," we "iPhone," we "YouTube." Those telephone
cables and satellites have gone out the window.
Heller: And then there's on-demand TV...
Seibert: Our Next New Networks are
on-demand—not continuous play—micro-television networks that serve
specialized communities slivered by specific interests. They're
more like magazines and radio stations than what we've all become
used to on broadcast and cable. We're not just cars but fast
European cars, Corvettes, or street racing. Not just fashion, but
do-it-yourself fashion, jewelry fashion, the fashion in every
woman's closet. Not just entertainment, but sophisticated cartoons,
indie film, and internet culture. And all our networks are branded
experiences where the distance between the producers who make the
network and the viewers who watch, promote and distribute our
networks is almost indistinguishable.
Heller: What do you want to communicate through your
hundred new networks?
Seibert: We love watching TV, we love making
TV, and there's nothing better than being able to make an audience
happy, no matter how narrow their interests. If we can do that a
hundred times a week, we've done our jobs.
Heller: Are these just trial balloons and whatever
doesn't burst will continue to fly? Or do you feel that they all
Seibert: All our networks are really
partnerships between our talented staff and their audiences.
Everything starts out when we've found there's a vibrant community
underserved by television programming. Sometimes they'll embrace
what we're offering, sometimes we'll be off the mark.
Heller: I know you have a show about radical knitting—I
guess anything these days can be made into a TV show—but are there
Seibert: Sure. If an audience, small or large,
falls in love with what we're presenting, my standards have been
Heller: What are your top ten, and why?
Seibert: You don't really think I like one
child more than another, do you?
Heller: Are these new shows predicated on the fact that
everyone can be a TV producer?
Seibert: Yes and no. At our joint, the audience
is a complete part of our networks in any of a number of ways.
Heller: How so?
Seibert: Anyone in any era with talent and
craft could be a producer. Only now there are no significant
barriers—technological or financial—for the producer to expose
their work to an audience, a distributor, or a network. We find our
producers in what you'd think of as "normal" channels of
professional referrals, but also when a viewer sends in a film that
blows us out of our chairs and leads to a call out.
Heller: YouTube has certainly changed the way we think
about broadcasting. Isn't this all just a scrapbook of videos
produced in any which way?
Seibert: I think maybe you're reacting to all
of the "user-submitted" action—15 seconds of fame—out there on the
internet. At Next New Networks our audiences are always part of the
networks. Sometimes it's with video they submit to us—a cell phone
video, a million-dollar cartoon, a video comment—or with a blog
comment or phone call. And in a complete business revolution,
community members are actually important distributors for us, since
they can take various feeds we offer them to literally run our
networks on their own websites or blogs.
Heller: If the do-it-yourself aesthetic reigns, what is
the new definition of professionalism?
Seibert: Hmm. There's always been room for DIY
in the modern media era of the last hundred years. Orchestral
musicians bemoaned the primitives who played homemade guitars in
the Mississippi Delta or amateurs who pounded out "Louie Louie" in
a Seattle garage to the top of the pop charts. Then, as now, about
the only distance between the first song of these "uncultivateds"
and a career was enough control of their skills to create longevity
from an accidental phenomenon.
Heller: And TV, too?
Seibert: It's no different now in television.
Truth be told, I was made vice-president of production at MTV in
the early '80s before I'd ever set eyes on a television camera. My
boss, Bob Pittman, told me not to worry: "You'll figure it out." I
guess I did. And by the way, most of the young folks we meet who
want to work with us now, whether it's from our office in New York
or their garages back home, are a lot more craft-literate than I am
Heller: What is the business model? How do you make
Seibert: Advertising, as far as we know.
Broadcasters have relied only on advertising for ninety years.
Cable started as subscription, evolved to advertising, and quickly
added fees paid by cable operators to create their revenue streams.
Who knows where this version of the business will evolve?
Heller: What is the artistic model? Who decides what
Seibert: At first it's our staff—currently
about thirty people ranging in age from 19-to-56-years old, with a
variety of experiences from recent college dropouts to full-bore
professional filmmakers. But, you know, ultimately, like most
everything else we actually pay attention to, the audience finally
decides what it loves.
Heller: With so much on the internet how do you expect
to compete—and who do you expect to compete with?
Seibert: Isn't that the question?
Heller: After Next New Networks, what's
Seibert: Ha! If you find out, let me know.
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