Creation

Raja Khanna (Snap Media Corporation)

I would like to give you my company's take and my own on creativity on-line - interactive creativity and digital creativity in this country and where it is as of now - focusing on what can be done today. I will also walk through the project of Degrassi, because it is a good example of what can be done.

The first thing I must say is that there is absolutely no lack of creativity in this country. We are known all over the world for our creative thinkers and our creative products. Sometimes, it is unbelievable to see what we can do given structure and infrastructure that sometimes is not the greatest in the world to support a creative industry - yet somehow we manage to do it in all kinds of industries. We have proven ourselves to be world-class creators and inventors, developers of ideas and content.

Why? I have a theory that has to do with the months from January to March, but then I am from Toronto and there is nothing to do in the winter there. I do not know how that works out West. We are leaders in television. Someone told me about 70% of the animation we see on television and in the theatres is produced by Canadians. There is another statistic somewhere that 4.5 out of 5 of the world's greatest writers have come from Canada. I do not know them all, but Michael Ondaatje, Brian Moore, Margaret Atwood - the list is endless. Similarly we have done some incredible things with film, with next to no money, which speaks to our creative spirit. In the music industry, same thing - everyone from Céline Dion to Daniel Lanois, producer of some of the world's most popular music and a great musician himself. Software and hardware - another area that is relevant to what we are talking about here today. We have had some of the world's innovators and leaders here in Canada. Anyone who has anything to do with the creative industry and computers has heard of ATI. They are a Canadian company. Anyone who has had anything to do with animation knows Soft Image: it is a Canadian company. The list of Canadian innovation, as you know, is a long one.

But what about interactive content? Clearly we can produce content for all these platforms; we have proven ourselves time and again, sometimes against great odds. But what about interactive content as a native form of content? Where do we stand in the world market?

The first problem is that interactive content is not a silo like these other industries. There is no interactive-content industry per se. We cannot compare interactive content to film or television, because it just does not exist. Right now a new-media producer in Canada, nine and a half times out of ten, is a service company. They are getting paid to do something and they do it and they own nothing and they go on to the next project. The content may very well be somewhat original, however, more often than not it is a repurposing of something already pre-existent from another medium. So there is no industry there. It is merely an enabler today. Interactive media is an enabler for all those other silos. It lets the film producers make a film Web site. It lets television producers make a television Web site. The interactive creator meanwhile owns nothing, and is only paid under service contract. The interesting thing is that this situation exists not just here in Canada, but everywhere in the world, including the United States.

I am talking specifically about creative interactive content - something hard to talk about because (beyond the few successful genres like gaming) it doesn't exist. I am not talking about the building of search engines. I am not talking about the archiving of pre-existing works. I am talking about original creative digital content, whether it is a new article written just for the Web or it is an interactive world created specifically for the Web, targeting those people who use the Internet.

There is, of course, some content being produced in this vein, by large companies. Most of them do not know why they are producing it, however; they just feel like they have to. Additionally, a great deal of what I would call original creative interactive content is being produced by consumers, but most of it is of very poor quality. That is the difference between a professional writer and a Web designer trying to write a story. We all recognize the distinction. It is a different level of content.

So why is it that interactive content is not an industry in and of itself? Well, I will propose a few reasons. One, because it is not popular. The whole idea of interacting with content is not popular. Television, film, and music and radio - all those things do it much better. We are told that people do not like what they have so far seen in the interactive-content world. My response to that is, first, that it doesn't exist so we can't say that. Number two is, we have evidence, peripheral evidence, that people are very interested in interactive content: the gaming world. Statistics tell us the industry of gaming is bigger than film and television combined.

What about instant messaging, chat, e-mail? These things are the killer applications of the Web; they are used every day. Although we haven't compiled the statistics on this yet, clearly the average person, certainly the average young person, spends a lot more time in instant messaging and chat and e-mail than in many other activities. These media have a profound impact on our popular culture and how we regard ourselves - especially for younger people. Yet the only people using them as content media are these big companies who, other than routine profit, have no particular stake in them - or consumers who really have neither focus nor an audience. We are not embracing the medium to its potential to create new and original content.

The second reason interactive content has not become a silo in and of itself is often given as a lack of demand for this sort of thing. Again the only answer here is how can there be an appetite for it when people have not even seen what its potential is? For a medium like the Internet or any other interactive medium, whether it is a wireless medium or a PDA or interactive television, the potential is there. Interactive content will allow us to keep everything we already have and all those separate mediums combined - plus a back channel to interact directly with the producers of the characters and the actors of the story. In fact it is mind-boggling, the potential. Yet, unbelievably, very few people have ever tried to harness it in a really creative and innovative way.

I am not blaming anyone; this situation exists only because it is a young industry. At the same time we should not lose sight of the fact that tremendous potential is just sitting there while more and more people are using the Internet every day, increasing numbers of kids are spending more and more of their time there - and we haven't even scratched the surface.

Another reason people think it impossible to be a new-media producer is because it is not a separate silo, because there is no business model. However, anyone who thinks he or she can create a business model for on-line content without first creating the content is delusional. We cannot do it. We have not seen the huge successes in original content on-line - not yet. Not because the business models are not there, but because no one has made it.

The main reason I see for the industry's failure to thrive is the lack of accessibility and incentive for the creator to create. I am talking specifically about Canada, but it is similar around the world. For other industries, writing and music - compared to interactive media - it is relatively easy to create, if not actually contribute. I could, if I wanted to, sit down and write a short story. It is not going to cost me a lot of money, and I know the different avenues that I can approach to try to get it published. I can produce a song in about three and a half minutes on my computer at home. It may not be a good song, by any means, but I can. If I wish to try to produce work for television and film, these things have been around for a long time, they have the benefit of age and of standards and practices. Industry organizations, advocacy groups, and government agencies tend to lend support because of their inherent ability to draw audiences and generate interest.

Interactive content is new and expensive, and extremely difficult to do well. To do something truly multimedia across the platform might require writers, audio people, video people, interactive people, programs, and a creator who understands how all this works - a big production.

So the challenges I see are not in creativity itself; I have no doubt that once people in Canada are enabled they will be among the best in the world. Our challenge has never been creativity itself. The challenges we face are only those related to creativity. Number one will be providing an infrastructure and support systems for artists to actually develop and produce content, and content formats - that is an interesting point for interactive media. We have no real idea how to tell a story on-line, or how to communicate with consumers on-line in a compelling and engaging way, other than for very specific things like sports information. For entertainment content, for popular cultural content, we have not figured it out yet. I know we are going to and I know it is going to be huge. This is becoming the medium of choice for a lot of our younger people who will soon be taking over all of our companies. Meanwhile we have some things in place in Canada - the Canada New Media Fund from Telefilm, which we are all looking forward to, various private companies who have been supporting the industry through directives from the CRTC; the Bell Fund; and Telus. We are even beginning to see some tax credits across the country to support this sort of thing, but we will need more, especially for research and development and the incubation of new ideas.

Another issue facing creators of interactive content is marketing. How do we get the thing seen? The Canada New Media Fund is a beginning but there needs to be more. Without a brand on-line, we are pretty much lost in a sea of stuff.

To realize our potential as leaders in this medium the second major thing will be to secure the support of the business community. I think there is a fundamental gap of understanding, which has been exemplified by the events of the last year and a half and in the wake of September 11th. There is a general feeling in the business world that interactive media is merely an offshoot, is small potatoes. Therefore let's do the least we have to do to placate our board and our stockholders. That is simply not the case. How many of us think that after September 11th fewer people are using the Internet? More and more of the younger generation see it as a central part of their lives, and it is only growing. It is cannibalizing other media. Internet use is taking away from television viewing, it's taking away from reading, it's taking away from many social activities; for better or for worse, it's happening. And by not recognizing it, we are putting ourselves at risk of losing that Canadian sensibility, that cultural stamp.

We have to get the support of the business community. We have to make them understand that in their own terms it is very simple: the consumer demand is there. So do something to fill that need. Do not go and spend a billion dollars on some wacky idea that some new-media person came to you with. Do controlled experiments. Limit your risk, but experiment. Do research and development. Try new things.

In the future, I have no doubt this will be the medium of choice for many genres of information and entertainment. It will have the power to profoundly affect our culture.

As I was asked to talk specifically about the Degrassi project, however, I will do that now. For those of you who do not know, Degrassi was a Canadian television series that followed the daily lives of students from Degrassi Junior High to high school. When it ended about 10 years ago it was (and still is, in reruns) seen in numerous countries around the world. In this sense I imagine it is our number one television export, in terms of dramatic programming, of all time - an incredible success. It is currently enjoying close to its 20th run on the CBC. Last year before any talk of a new Degrassi even existed anywhere, there were several fan Web sites devoted to it.

The creators last year had the idea to bring it back on the premise that a baby born to one of the show's main characters would herself now be twelve years old and just about to enter grade seven. It seemed like a good time to revive Degrassi for a new generation. In doing so the producers had the insight to realize that they couldn't just make the same show again, they had to modernize it. They had to reflect the culture of the young people today, a culture that has been revolutionized in terms of the way it communicates. By that I am talking specifically about the Internet and the effect it has had on them - how students have changed. So the idea was from the very beginning to produce this property as a cross-platform piece of entertainment. It was approached from the very beginning as a means to entertain and educate these children, these people, this target audience where they are consuming media. This meant doing it on television, on the Web, and on wireless devices all at once. Throughout the project there would be no separation: our writers were working in the same offices as the television writers. We wrote characters for the TV show; they helped us write characters for the Web; they affected scripts on-line; we affected scripts on television.

Here we were also taking a bit of a chance. We were proposing a project that had not been done before, one that was very expensive and required the co-operation of many different parties. The challenge was, of course, to create a truly interactive original piece of content that was both entertaining and educational but recognized the evolution of consumer demand. To this end, we did not want to create something which won design awards, but that the kids did not like. In order to succeed we had to understand their behaviours on-line and behaviours in general.

The steps that we had to go through to do this involve some of the very things we have been talking about at this conference, some of the most difficult challenges. The first is funding. Because we had a huge budget, it was an uphill battle. The Canadian Television Fund came to our support in something which had never been done before, an on-line component. We managed to convince people to look at this as one project, as one budget; TV show and on-line was together. We were able to raise some private money, and we managed to get the government involved, because there is a definite educational component to Degrassi. The government became involved, SchoolNet was participating - providing some content, a homework helper, and financial contributions to the site. We are talking to Heritage Canada now and hopefully at some point we will be talking more to Health Canada, original supporters of the first series. Incredibly, it came together.

Now, one of the big problems with interactive creative content - it does not end at the production plans. God forbid the thing is successful, because it means major costs in terms of ongoing maintenance, technical maintenance, and content update. So we built a model into it, and this is the business model side of it - this is one project that encompasses all these components. When Alliance Atlantis sells this show internationally, even if a third party brokers the show and the Web component as a bundle, they cannot be separated. Every time they get a licence fee from the foreign broadcasts, a portion of that goes to the Web site. Not only that, but for every 1,000 users entering the site from their territory, the broadcasters pay an extra fee to cover bandwidth costs. It is all groundbreaking stuff, never done before, yet thanks to the co-operation of CTV and Epitome Pictures, we were able to preserve a creative entity to arrive at a profitable business model.

I will talk very briefly about the site, but I encourage all of you to go to www.degrassi.tv and check it out for yourselves - register and become a virtual student. The Web site is a faux high school, where registrants are assigned a home room and become students of Degrassi. They enter into the school community and access several community tools there, such as an internal mail system and message boards separated by category - health, style, pop music, all those sorts of things - even a locker page. In the Degrassi-mail interface viewers get D-mails from characters they can respond to and D-mails from real people at the same time: it is all integrated, a seven day a week window into the lives of favourite characters. Among its many educational components, the site's guidance counsellor interface provides virtual students with advice on various issues, and connects to SchoolNet and the homework helper.

When we launched the project October 14th we knew there would be no middle ground - it was destined either to fail or succeed, spectacularly. It was a major success. The site saw one and a half million unique page views, over 150,000 unique visitors, over 10,000 registered users, and upwards of 25 million hits. All this happened in two and a half weeks. To give you some context, last year Snap Media built the Web site that won the Gemini for most popular Web site in Canada. Now we get approximately 250,000 page views every three days and 10,000 registered users in about five days. We have almost 15,000 registered users on the site as of this morning. The Web site is effectively more popular than all of the digital channels on television.1

Degrassi, however, is just an example of what I was talking about at the beginning - how far we can take what we are doing today. It's a bit of an uphill battle to get these things done, but we can. We have barely scratched the surface of what is possible for Canadian content on-line - and we are winning in some areas. No one in the world is as yet leading in terms of popular culture content for entertainment, and we are in an eminently favourable position to do it because we have the social infrastructure to support creation. The Internet is not really global, when you are talking about content. It is not. People prefer content that is relative to them and there are language barriers, there are cultural barriers, there are interest barriers. The only thing it's not is global - in many ways the Internet is local. It's not regulated nor should it be, but I think we need to loosen our definition of what Canadian content is in the funding world, so that more things can get financed; nearly all content on the Internet created by Canadians should be considered "Canadian content." We need to have more interministry co-operation, because the interesting thing about on-line content is that it is not just cultural, it is also technical, it's also creating jobs, it involves both industry and heritage. Because it involves all these areas it also needs to see them come together. Obviously all of this requires that Canadians "can actually see the bloody stuff," as Senator Laurier LaPierre said this morning. I would add to that that we also need to own it.

Note

  1. As of August 2002, the site has over 70,000 registered users and over 2.5 million unique page views a month.



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