The Times They Are a-Changin’

A couple of weeks ago I heard about a feature-length documentary being produced by respected British journalist Paul Mason and directed by Theopi Skarlatos.

“Greece: Dreams Take Revenge” is being filmed right now. It’s unscripted, the events are taking place live, and no one knows where the story will go or how it will end.

What makes this documentary special is how it’s being funded. Rather than rely on a traditional broadcaster to commission and pay for it, Mason is crowdfunding it.

As a long-time fan of his journalism, I didn’t hesitate to donate.

What’s happening in Greece right now has implications far beyond just the Greek economy, further even than just the future of EU. The outcome could affect the global economy and the social stability of the entire world.

How the documentary is being funded has similar implications for the future of broadcasting, and it’s just one of many challenges facing traditional models.

This evening I finished binge-watching Season 3 of House of Cards on Netflix. I did it in two evenings straight. An incredible performance (both House of Cards and my stamina).

Dodgy politics, corruption, intrigue, scandal. But enough about Greece for the moment, and back to House of Cards.

It’s created and funded by Netflix themselves – as they have with Orange is the New Black, Lilyhammer, and a whole range of comedy specials and documentaries – with many more productions due for release in 2015 and beyond.

The Netflix model is helping to shape the future of on-demand TV. Whole seasons released at once, programmes designed for a wider audience than just the US domestic market (Lilyhammer is a good example of this), and created without the pressure of conventional advertising slots.

By way of contrast, I’ve just watched Carl Frampton beat Chris Avalos on ITV (boxing is a weakness of mine – one of those areas where my commonsense is overridden by my raw enjoyment of a brutal sport). A decent fight, but ruined as a TV experience by the adverts between every round, leading to a lack of in-fight analysis.

In 1963, between the seminal events of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Kennedy’s assassination, Bob Dylan wrote “The Times They Are a-Changin'”.

It was a shot across the bows to the old guard who Dylan, and many others, saw as complacent, self-serving and out-of-touch. He spoke for the down-trodden, and especially the younger generation, who believed their time was coming. An anthem of hope for a better way of living.

But Dylan’s words wouldn’t have been so widely heard if it wasn’t for the desire for Columbia Records to make money. They didn’t release his songs for the message in the lyrics. They released them for the profit from the record sales. And without a record label behind him, Dylan would still have been playing to small audiences in Greenwich village.

Although he had the support of Columbia’s John Hammond, who signed him, Columbia executives didn’t share that faith and they could just as easily prevented Dylan’s message from being heard if they’d decided to. And of course this was only a few years after McCarthyism officially came to an end.

Publishing was historically the preserve of the rich. Newspapers and books were printed by those who could afford the huge investments in presses and distribution. And many publishers still give too much editorial consideration to advertisers, as highlighted by the recent resignation of Peter Oborne from The Telegraph.

But we’re now in an era when anyone can publish.

A good friend of mine, Dom Conlon, has self-published his superb children’s books which are every bit as professional as any produced by traditional publishers. Production and distribution are no longer a barrier. Marketing and promotion are now the key challenges.

Since the invention of radio, and then television, broadcasting was controlled, depending on where you lived in the world, by the either the state and/or the advertisers who funded the programming.

But in recent years the internet has helped to level the playing field. We’ve reached the point where more-or-less anyone who wants to is able to publish their views.

Of course, not every view is worthy of a wider audience, but social media (or word-of-mouth as we used to call it), has a natural way of separating the wheat from the chaff.

Technology has become so cheap and easy-to-use, at least to those of us in the developed countries, that we can all publish.

What really excites me though is projects like Paul Mason’s.

He’s producing this documentary with a small team and minimal costs.

As he explains on the funding page, “Even the best of the networks can’t tell this story in the detail it deserves. We have low-profile camera crews, Greek speakers, with unparalleled access. And we are shooting now.”

The really exciting aspect is the total lack of potential editorial influence from any owner whose business interests may conflict with the story. We are all the owners of this documentary. Every one of us who funds it. But none of us can control the content or demand edits. In Mason, I know we have a producer who will make the best, most honest, documentary he can.

At the moment, there are five days left to reach the funding goal of £35,000 (Update 3rd March – the deadline has been extended until 26th March!) A tiny amount by normal broadcasting standards. As I type, the figure has just reached 51%. But it’s a flexible funding campaign and all money donated will go to the project regardless of whether it reaches the goal. The documentary will expand or shrink given the funds available.

This project sums up what’s great about the convergence of low-cost broadcast-quality technology, the internet, and crowdfunding.

Experienced journalists can now break free from the control of state broadcasters worried about political funding, and from commercial broadcasters worried about advertiser funding.

I urge you to help fund this project, even if it’s only a small amount. Every little helps and you’re not just funding Paul Mason’s documentary on Greece (although I’m sure it will be superb), you’re helping to shape the very future of journalism.

The Times They Are a-Changin’ – and we can all do our small bit to help. Please donate here.

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