“Find it, fund it, view it,” reads Mobcaster‘s punchy tagline, a pithy, no frills invitation that sums up what it’s about: crowd-funded online TV honed to discover, fund and broadcast independent television online. If you’ve ever wondered how some TV shows get made, and wished you could weigh in before all those tragic millions have been spent, Mobcaster’s pitching itself as the answer.
Most TV shows go through innumerable contortions on the road from pitch to cablecast, changing so many hands and enduring so many tweaks that what comes out the other end is often an expense-needled shadow of its creator’s original idea. What’s more, ask any creator in the biz — some of the best conceived, written and pitched TV shows wither on the vine or never get made. And the creative and economic waste is mind-boggling: According to Mobcaster’s breakdown, TV 2011’s pilot season ordered over 75 pilots at a cost of over $145 million, but just 40 pilots made it past “initial development” and only 25 “saw actual airtime.”
“Most new television fails because audiences are shut out of the process,” says Mobcaster co-founder Aubrey Levy. “Something ends up on their TV screens, and if five million viewers don’t show up when the show premieres, the network hasn’t lived up to its advertising spend and shows get cancelled.”
Enter Mobcaster, an online channel that just launched in 2011, designed to empower indy creators who want to get their ideas off the ground and in front of viewers without having to scale that ever-more-steep and costly industry access cliff. The idea’s simple enough: You pitch your TV show concept to an audience before you’ve actually gone to production. If viewers like it, they can fund it. Goodbye tough-as-nails producers who only care about an idea’s appeal in terms of demographic remuneration, hello convincing the people who might actually dig a show like The Weatherman, a new Mobcaster-broadcast comedy about an insecure, slightly neurotic Australian meteorologist that’s received nearly $74,000 in crowd-sourced cash — enough to fund a full season.
“We’re looking at independent television producers and how to help them get their show ideas out there,” says Levy. “Whether it’s just a concept phase, or they already have their pilot, we help them take it directly to an audience online.” The idea, says Aubrey, is to help creators get enough funding for a pilot episode, and if that pans out, funding for further episodes on up to broadcast-worthy full seasons, the pivot point being the crucial funding relationship between audience and creative team.
“Nobody but the audience, who’s again the consumer of this content anyway, should really be the determiner here,” says Aubrey. “They’re the most important stakeholder in determining whether a show should get made or not. With Mobcaster, we’re talking about the first time the audience’s voice really dictates the programming. They’re basically preordering their television.” And it’s not just a matter of wooing viewers, then taking their cash. If you’re willing to fork over money to fund a show, you can receive non-financial incentives that range from greater engagement with the show’s creative team to firsthand meet-and-greets with a show’s actors.
At the moment, given its nascent Internet footprint, Mobcaster’s in a bit of a chicken-egg situation: Successfully funded shows should in theory indicate won-over audiences, but in order to win an audience over, you have to get your idea in front of sufficient numbers of people.
“First and foremost, the primary marketing point for any project is the show’s creators,” explains Levy. Keeping to the literal definition of crowd-funding, Mobcaster expects its creators to come up with their own ways to reach a show’s target audience. “Show creators know better than anyone else who their show is right for,” adds Levy, noting that creators will often start by tapping family and friends or using previously published web-videos (say, on a video sharing site like YouTube) to highlight what they can do. And if they succeed, importantly, show creators retain full rights to their show’s IP.
Say a show’s a hit and the creators want to take it to an audience broader than Mobcaster’s — would the site ever partner with an outlet like Netflix or Hulu to cross-distribute a show? “Ingrained in the process of Mobcaster is that we create an ideal exposure point for any television distributor or producer looking for content,” he explains. “What we’re able to do is take all the risk out of developing the content, which is this hugely expensive process.” And the process is fully platform-agnostic: Mobcaster’s as happy shopping to a new media outlet like Amazon or Netflix as it is a traditional TV or cable channel.
Sweet as that all sounds, the Internet’s swarming with anxious, hand-waving startups. Can something like this really work?
Mobcaster faces the usual obstacles, of course, from generating exposure and turning its name into a commonly referenced verb (it calls what it does “mobcasting”) to maintaining momentum, but it’s already drawing impressive numbers. The site says The Weatherman‘s over $70,000 full-season funding represents the third largest episodic programming tally across all platforms, and that’s including crowd-funding mainstay Kickstarter. “Take a look at what’s working on our platform, see what’s been funded through,” says Levy “Everything we’re broadcasting is full-length television, and audience supported. It may not be huge multimillion numbers out of the gate, but even if it’s just a couple thousand, those viewers are hugely, hugely engaged.”