Southern California is an interesting environment for both technology and media, and in particular for the fascinating intersections of the two industries. One of the most interesting projects in recent months that combines the two is "It's Your Show", an online, Internet project created by NBC's Carson Daly. It's Your Show rewards users who upload their own user-generated video content with prizes, and with eventual broadcast of the winners on a television show. For today's interview, socalTECH's Ben Kuo spoke with Danny Kastner, CEO of FanRocket (www.fanrocket.com), the firm that powered the technology behind the social networking and user generated content on It's Your Show, and got his perspective on how Hollywood is now starting to think about interactivity in conjunction with its programming.
Tell us what FanRocket does?
Danny Kastner: FanRocket is an exciting technology company. What we do is we leverage user-generated content and online social networking within our software product where we combine the popularity of those tools with the sheer entertainment value of television programming. So, we're working with networks to bring their shows in an online form to bring true interactivity. One of the highlights of what we're doing is with a show for NBC called It's Your Show TV with Carson Daly, which is a user-generated content show. Users get to take challenges-such as Bare to Dare it, or Show Your Grandmother Technology, and they submit really great videos which get voted on by users and they win a prize every week. Eventually, this content is going to go on air, which is very exciting. There's a real convergence between the online medium and on-air medium.
How did you company get involved in this area, what's the background of FanRocket?
Danny Kastner: When I started FanRocket the whole design of the company was interactive entertainment. When I looked at the market, I saw what companies were doing was they were taking their videos, and putting it online. Even in any format, whether it's long form or short form, whether it's three minutes or even 30 seconds, that's not the kind of interactivity that creates the type of programming that users are going to want to be part of. With the MySpaces emerging, where it's friends and blogs and comments and everything that has anything to do with the social network aspect of popular sites like MySpace, that's interaction you should get out of a television show and video experience online. So that's what we're doing.
It sounds like FanRocket has come from the entertainment side of the world?
Danny Kastner: My background is certainly from the tech side; my first Internet startup was in 1994, so I've been in the business for twelve years on the Internet side, and this is my third startup. But, in terms of our mentality and approach, I've hired a great team of individuals who all come out of the entertainment-tech area. That's definitely our approach to the challenge of the market.
Tell us about how you landed the deal with the Carson Daly show?
Danny Kastner: We have a very dynamic team, and really a proprietary development process that allows us to bring an interactive show presence online very quickly. What they had done is they had created the show online, and were allowing people to upload videos and submit to the challenges for It's Your Show. This was in late August. What they realized was that they really needed a content management tool, and user-generated interaction tool. So something where people could become part of a network, they could log in, rate that content, and achieve status in the community. So, we'd already had a relationship with NBC through a project called Star Tomorrow, so they came to us and asked if we could create a user-generated content solution for It's Your Show. And, it took us less than 8 weeks from start to finish, from initial meeting to live launch, to get the solution fully implemented, and the good news is that it has been very successful. The site was live for about three months before our technology was added, and three weeks into deployment on It's Your Show - we already doubled the user base and viral video viewing increased significantly. In a fraction of a time, adding the FanRocket technology has helped the site immensely.
Is this something anybody--say another television producer--can do, or is this a one-off for the show?
Danny Kastner: That's a good question. When you think of social networking, aren't others doing that, and aren't they doing that right? We say yes, absolutely--but our focus is on working with programmers and executives that want to take a show and build that interactivity with an online audience. It's also important to think about how that video programming will be leveraged in advertising and marketing.
Tell us how FanRocket is different from the many interactive marketing and ad agencies?
Danny Kastner: Absolutely. When we look at the market of ad agencies building interactive solutions, like the Schematics and Digitas, or companies like that, essentially they are designing interactive marketing experiences. FanRocket has one focus. Our focus is building the ideal interactive television experience online. There's a big difference in expertise, our pedigree and the people we've brought into the FanRocket team, and our knowledge as to what works with an online audience to build a show. It's a very, very custom solution. It's same as a marketing agency is going to go to Akamai to stream their high end video, or they would go to an Eyeblaster for their interactive advertising content. We're very focused and very niche in our approach.
Where are the studios today in thinking about online as part of their shows--is it still an afterthought?
Danny Kastner: We're at a very infantile stage here. Everyone thinks that the YouTube thing is mature because Google bought them, but Google just got in early. Just like News Corp bought MySpace early. If you look at entertainment companies out there, they have such great content, there are so many directions they can go to build that interactive experience with video.
When you talk to studios--are they thinking about interactive now, or just the more progressive guys? Where does online and interactivity become part of the equation?
Danny Kastner: Everyone is thinking about it. They are slowly crawling up the hill of: let's make our website more interactive, we're NBC, let's mention go to NBC.com for a special feature for this show. And they're doing a good job of tying that in, as are other networks. But it's really in its infantile stage, as I said before, because the way that networks can position their content--and even do fresh new content, for instance pilots, is really exciting and will be a real big growth area. I think eventually as a lot of people will predict, a lot of the main new programming that comes into a network on air will come from its popularity online.
What's next for you? How many shows have you launched this with?
We've had two shows, we're working on a couple of new exciting properties right now, and what's next is we're rolling out some really interesting technology at the NATPE, the National Association of Television Program Executives in the middle of Vegas in January. At that show, we'll be rolling out some really cool affiliate technologies for affiliate programmers and a product called SNAP - Social Network Affiliate Plugin. We see the market as very dynamic in how you distribute a show. Every web site is a syndication affiliate for online content. So, our solution is very modular, and shows can create content and syndicate it all over the Internet.