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Radically redefining TV

Holly Alexander and Ian Fowler
Fiona Milburn sits down with Ian Fowler and Holly Alexander of to discuss their ground breaking work on MSF.TV and how audiences are driving the future of storytelling.


Fiona Milburn sits down with Ian Fowler and Holly Alexander of to find out how audiences are driving the future of storytelling.

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Recently, I attended Semi-Permanent, Wellington, which is part of a worldwide network of creative conferences focusing on design, inspiration, & innovation.  Whilst there, I got to sit down with’s Ian Fowler, Managing Director, Australia and Holly Alexander, Executive Producer, Australia to discuss their ground breaking work on MSF.TV. is a global transmedia company that creates some of the world's most innovative content.

The company develops, produces and distributes television, feature films, commercials, live events, music programming, digital content and design.’s work includes the Academy Award®-winning documentary The Fog of War, the Academy Award®-nominated documentary Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, and the Emmy® and Golden Globe®-winning pilot episode of the hit TV series Mad Men.

Recent Australian projects include MSF.TV for Médecins Sans Frontières, the DGA nominated and AWARD winning Foxtel show Six Beers of Separation for Lion Nathan, and the online series Impossible Airfield for the RAAF.

The company has garnered numerous accolades for innovative digital initiatives such as The Johnny Cash Project, Arcade Fire's The Wilderness Downtown, the Sting 25 App and the Gagosian Gallery's iPad App.

 Here are the edited highlights of our conversation:

Semi-Permanent describes as a “global transmedia company” so could you start by telling us what transmedia means to you?

Ian Fowler:  In advertising, it used to be that you would book TV spots to get your message out.  Yes, there was print, radio, etc. but you would simply book TV spots.  However, media has changed.  You can’t do just that any more.  People are not only watching TV.   TV is still very dominant, there are big audiences for some shows, but people are doing all sorts of other things now … they’re online, they’ve got tablets, smart phones …

Holly Alexander:  It’s multiplatform.  People are doing more than one thing at a time so you need to be able to engage the audience at all levels, and all at once.  Now, if have a project, it’s online, it’s got a mobile site, and iPad representation. 

Ian:  It’s across multiple media, at all times.  That’s transmedia.  It’s reconnecting with the audience.  It’s not as if have invented this.  Advertisers have simply said, “where’s our audience gone?”  “We had ratings of ‘x’ numbers, five years ago, and now they’re half that.  How do we reconnect?”  It’s all driven by the advertisers.

That’s interesting.  One might assume that it would be you driving this approach, not your clients.

Holly:  It’s a bit of both.  Sometimes an advertiser really gets it, sometimes it’s the advertising agency, and sometimes it’s us saying “hey, this opportunity could be bigger than what we are looking at right now, you need some different angles.”  A lot of times it’s a collaboration.  It’s a bit of them saying, “lets do this,” and a bit of us saying, “that’s great, a really good idea, but you could also be doing this, and this, and this,” so we all kind of feed into each other.

So, it’s quite an organic approach?

Ian:  Some people get it and some people don’t.   There are advertisers who are ready for it, and others who are far more conservative.   Advertisers, who are locked into their TV deals and a more traditional way of doing things, respond with,  “yeah, I hear what you’re saying, but I just want to do this -” and they do it the way they’ve always done it for 30 years.

Holly This reminds me of a project we pitched on last year.  Our presentation was a typical TV commercial, plus an app extension, games, and some online content.  The agency were very excited about it, but they had no idea how to sell the extensions to the client, so they said, “yes, it’s really great, we love it, but can you take the extensions out of the treatment, because we don’t really know how to explain the value of that to the client.”  They were just not at the stage yet where they could explain the ROI [Return On Investment].

Ian:  And, with some clients it’s the opposite.  If you explain to them how it’s going to be of huge benefit, and add greater value, they say, “yup, lets go!”

Is it the lack of ROI metrics for new media which make it hard?

Ian:  Definitely.  The audience is now more diverse, but you’ve got media people telling advertisers that TV is the only way to connect, on one night, with a mass audience.  This is still true, to a large extent, but it has diminished.  I think that what’s been thrown into doubt now is the whole TV ratings system.  In Australia, the sample on TV ratings is less than 0.014 percent of the population.  So, the combined 3 billion dollar advertising spend is based on a tiny sample made up of less than 0.02 percent of the population.  Whereas, we know with the internet, via Google Analytics, etc. that you can see every single person that’s been online:  what they’ve done, where they’ve been, and what their interests are.  Clients are going, “well hang on, can we have that system?”  Over the next few years, as TV and online merge, Google will apply their wider analytics and there may well emerge a few embarrassing stories regarding current TV ratings.

Can you tell us about a campaign that best describes’s approach to transmedia projects?

Ian The project that Holly’s just been running for MSF  [Médecins Sans Frontières] is probably the best example of what’s going on, right here and now.

Holly:  That was a really interesting project because MSF were a very well funded organization, but not necessarily well known.  They needed to create a platform that raised awareness of their brand: who they were and what they did.  So, in collaboration with MSF and an agency, we developed an online platform that combined live TV and play-on-demand content.  This hadn’t really been done before. 

Called MSF.TV, it was a month long campaign in October, 2012.  We did 19 live news broadcasts, one per day, and then, each week, we did two half hour shows which were also broadcast live to the internet.  Being live meant that the audience were able to approach the organization in a way that they hadn’t been able to before.  The shows were broadcast with all their imperfections.  MSF weren’t hiding behind the glossy sheen of perfection.  They were, “here we are, this is what we do, these are our stories.”  There was a truth in that live aspect that was really exciting.

As well as the live component, we also produced more traditional content.  There were 80 play-on-demand interviews and documentaries, four animation films, and we ran a global film competition.  MSF.TV became a combination of live content, play-on-demand, content sourced from filmmakers around the world, animated content, and written content.  It had a URL but it was much more than a website.  It was the merging of TV and online.  Audiences like to control their experiences on the internet, so having control of the experience was important and play-on-demand facilitated that.  But, there was also the immediacy of live TV that you don’t usually get on the internet.  It was a groundbreaking concept.

MSF had a wealth of content for us to play with, which was great, but the same concept could apply to any advertiser or any brand.  We will see more of it.  You can’t just post a film on YouTube anymore and hope that it goes viral.  You need to engage your audience and do it in a way that says you are paying attention to them.

Ian:  Providing depth of platform is a consistent goal with us and people were spending an average of seven minutes on MSF TV.

Holly:  It doesn’t sound like much but, in that environment, it’s a lot.

Ian:  I was surprised.  I thought two or three minutes would be about it.  To get to seven minutes meant that people were really engaging with the content, especially when compared to the average website stay of 13 seconds.   There’s a lot of people out there who want more. And that’s what we found, people would be looking at two or three episodes and really engaging with them.

Holly:  Yes, I think depth is important and also the intelligence of the content.  A lot of the MSF.TV  content wasn’t easy stuff to watch,  it wasn’t easy stuff to consume.  It was intelligent content, and it was entertaining …  just not in the traditional sense.

This campaign wasn’t geared to raise funds, it wasn’t about the immediate, “here, let me donate a couple of hundred bucks.”  The MSF.TV campaign was geared to raise life long supporters for the organization.  MSF needed to tell people enough about themselves, enough about the brand, for people to commit their long-term loyalty.  People needed deeper information to do that.  You can’t expect someone to make a long-term commitment to a brand, if you are only going to give them top level service

What happens to MSF.TV now?

Holly:  The live aspect of the campaign was only for the month of October, but the play-on-demand content still exists.  It went from being a hybrid of live broadcasting and play-on-demand, to a traditional play-on-demand platform.  However, MSF.TV is designed so that MSF could pick up that live aspect again at any time.  Obviously, as an NGO [Non-Governmental Organization] they can’t afford to run a live TV channel forever.  People can still go onto MSF.TV watch all the interviews, documentaries, etc. but the live aspect is down.

Was MSF aiming to expand their audience demographic by taking their campaign online?

Holly:  It was a compelling campaign so it got a lot of exposure in the broader media.  Younger audiences of shows such as The 7PM Project were exposed to MSF.TV at the same time as SBS and ABC’s slightly older audience.  As Ian said in his presentation, “if it’s a good idea, people will watch it.”  With this campaign, MSF didn’t expect to be attracting everyone from 17 to 60 years old, that wasn’t their intention.  Their audience consisted of people who were interested in finding out more about the work of NGO’s.  It was quite specific in that way.  However, in terms of the demographic, it was also quite broad.

Ian:  MSF.TV was designed so that if you only want to spend a small amount of time, if you only want to snack on stuff, then you can.  However, if you want to spend hours going through the documentaries, and following the stories of these wonderful people, then you can do that too.  That’s what you’ve got to do.  You’ve got to provide more channels, more depth, and give a broader experience to people.  Even with the commercials that produces, people love to see behind the scenes, to see how they were made.  They want to see more, they want a bigger experience.

Holly:  That’s just reminded me of those Choose Your Own Adventure books.  My brothers and I used to read a lot of them growing up.  There are parallels between those and what audiences are now demanding from content providers.  People want to be able to choose-their-own-adventure.  They want to be able to define on what terms, and what aspects of the campaign they look at.  They want to drive their own experience.

And where do you think audience driven experiences are taking us?

Ian:  I think it’s back to the future.  It’s about good storytelling and good ideas.  I think that over the last 10 years we’ve been through a reality TV cycle, which strangely enough doesn’t involve any reality.  This is now dying and we’re moving back to high quality storytelling.

With the democratization of filmmaking, everyone’s a filmmaker.  Everyone’s got a phone with an HD camera and a small editing system on it.  People can post content in minutes.  But , while everyone is a filmmaker, very, very few of them are good filmmakers.

Holly:  I think the future will be told to us, rather than told by us.  Audiences will tell us what they require and we will have to respond to that.  I think that’s what’s really exciting.   As I was saying, people are choosing their own adventure.  People will determine if they will watch or not and it requires us, as filmmakers and as a company, to make sure that the output is of very high quality.  We need to ask, “is it something that people will be entertained by?”  If they aren’t entertained then they aren’t going to watch.  Audiences have choices now, not only on the TV, where there’s hundreds of channels, but there’s the internet and a whole range of other platforms.  If it’s not good then they’re not going to watch.  The pressure is on us to make sure that we’re engaging them.

Is the consumer driving us all to become storytellers?

Ian:  Before television, people went to the movies.  They’d pay their money and they’d see a movie.  Then suddenly, you could have this at home.  And, it was free, so long as you watched the ads.  Everyone gathered in the lounge room and watched the TV.  If you wanted to change the channel, you had to get up and walk across the room, so people would usually keep it on one channel all night.  But, that’s no longer the case.  I think advertisers and TV networks have abused that.  They have effectively gone, “well, you can’t change the channel, so you have to watch this.”  “Even if I deliver the most unmitigated drivel, you have to watch it.”  But, people have gone, “you know what? No, I don’t.” Click. Gone.  Consumers are now driving things.

I hate to think what the numbers are, but amongst people under the age of  22 or 23 years old there’s an enormous percentage of them who don’t own a TV or watch it.  And, they’re demonstrating their power.  That, “I’ll consume what I want, when I want” power and, “if I can’t have easy access to it, I’ll download it illegally.”  Mind you, they’re quite happy to buy the box set of the TV show, we’re also seeing that.

Holly:  It’s about how they want to watch it.  The other thing that’s really interesting is that it’s allowed an expansion of boutique and cottage industries.  There was a time there when only big brands could afford to advertise on TV:  Woolworths, Coca Cola and McDonalds, etc.  Now, with this expansion of content online, smaller businesses and artisans have an opportunity to expose the world to their brand.  There’s no way that an NGO could have done a campaign and gotten the reach that MSF did with MSF.TV  on television.  We’re talking close to 2 million people, in just a couple of days, that’s phenomenal.  And, exciting.  Not just for us filmmakers, but for everyone.  Suddenly everyone has a voice, and an audience.  It’s pretty thrilling.

And, that’s a great place to finish. Thanks so much for your time!

Written by

Transmedia NZ

4 Dec 2012

Interests Transmedia NZ supports the ongoing development of New Zealand’s Transmedia production community, creating opportunities for collaboration and innovation, and the sharing of knowledge and ideas.