Archive for February 20th, 2007

Fighting Lost’s attrition rate

I was reading this comment by an advertising professional at IMDb (free reg. req.). He says that the main problem of Lost’s declining ratings is natural attrition (among four more reasons: 10PM timeslot, slow 3rd season, hiatus, 9 PM competition). Usually, for traditional TV series attrition is not a huge problem because as they lose old viewers, they usually get newer ones. But this is not true for “Lost”. The story is so incredibly complex and involving that having a random viewer start watching “Lost” in the 3rd season is impossible for him/her to understand what’s going on. He/she can’t be hooked.

All this got me thinking as to how ABC could “fix” this somehow. What needs to be done is for ABC to provide viewers with free access to the previous “Lost” episodes. Yes, there are DVDs available, but you don’t buy a DVD of a TV series that you have never watched! It must be provided at an accessible medium, free of charge and possibly without ads. It’s the only way to fight attrition on a show like “Lost”.

How a 176×144 encoded video in letterbox format would look like

So, my idea is that it should be provided in a cellphone-compatible DRM-free MPEG-4 format. The format should be letterbox (this is very important, in order to maximize compatibility with some cellphones that only support the exact resolution, e.g. some LG phones) at the 176×144 resolution (effective visible picture will be about 176×96), 15 fps, 192kbps video rate, 56 kbps AAC audio stereo. This creates a good-enough quality for watching on a cellphone or an iPod or other mobile video device (and even the desktop if you use VLC which has better resizing filters than Quicktime) and at the same time the resolution is small enough so it doesn’t cannibalize the DVD sales. In fact, the resolution is smaller than iTunes’ Lost episodes too. I calculated that a 45 minute episode (without ads) with the above encoding settings will produce an MP4 file of around 50 MBs. This is a totally doable download rate for any internet user with a cable/DSL connection.

There should be 1 episode per weekday available for download with the ability to download previous episodes too. The whole first season could be made available within 1 month, or if this is too slow for viewers, it can be made so they offer 5 episodes at once. Then, after the end of season 3 on TV, ABC can release on the web the season 2. Depending how well this plan goes for the ratings and the DVD sales of the season 3, the experiment can continue a month before the start of the season 4 by offering the season 3 for download. Because there are complex legal problems with sales of the TV series worldwide, probably this idea can be materialized only for US-bound connections.

The effective visual resolution remains 16:9 at 176×96

I know that ABC and Hollywood in general are afraid of such methods of distributions (in this case I see it as one big advertisement stand rather than “distribution”), but you know, you won’t know until you try. There are a lot of people who use the metro or the bus to go to work and they would like to entertain themselves with a way that doesn’t just involve audio entertainment. Besides, the iPod Videos are out there and awaiting free content! Most people don’t use their iPod Videos as video devices simply because they don’t know how to encode properly for their iPods, neither they want to buy stuff from iTunes (besides, iTunes’ movie collection is very limited). But if there was a way to provide absolutely free, easy to download/install MP4 video, people would definitely go for it. Because you see, everyone has such devices, be it iPods or cellphones or Zunes or Creative Zens! These people just await for video content and MP4 is the file format of choice to deliver it to them! The iPod’s QVGA 2.5″ screen is perfect for a QQCIF video for example.

ABC (and all other networks with similar attrition problems) are sitting on a big opportunity. All they have to do is realize that opportunity and embrace the new technologies.

UPDATE: There is one more thing they could do if the above idea is too radical. They could use the basic idea above, but instead of giving away all these too many/hard-to-work-through episodes, they instead give away this Summer a 2-hour recap of all 3 seasons via iTunes *and* their web site, for free (QVGA resolution for the iTunes DRM’ed version, QQCIF resolution for their DRM-free website version — QQCIF is more compatible with phones you see). I think this is a much faster, safer, cleaner and easier way to do things for both the viewers, the distributors and the DVD sales. No one loses with a free to download 2-hour recap version.