The television series Battlestar Galactica, re-imagined for the twenty-first century, has consistently been at the cutting edge of television and cross-media, with executive producer Ronald D. Moore and the Battlestar team utilising not just blogs and production-side videoblogs, but also episodic commentary podcasts, making deleted scenes available online, putting up two full episodes free for viewing online and was one of the first shows available via iTunes. So it should be no surprise that the latest Battlestar-related venture is pushing the boundaries of television as we conventionally know it (and, no, I don't mean the inevitable spin-off series Caprica). The Sci-Fi channel is currently releasing two 'webisodes' per week until the US launch of season three of BSG on October 6th. As Moore mentions in his blog:
We're very excited about the Webisodes and I think they're unlike anything anyone has done in this arena to date, so I hope you'll all take a moment to check them out. It's important to know that these Webisodes weren't done haphazardly or on the fly in between takes of the regular show. They had to be written, produced, shot and edited by a very specific group of people.
While SF fans might point out that the latest Doctor Who series was accompanied by the Tardisodes, these 30-second teasers may have contained original footage related to upcoming episodes, but they were exclusively targeted to mobile phone users as a paid service. There were Real video versions released online, but these were of extremely poor quality and clearly illustrated that the media was created and intended primarily for small-screen portable media devices.
The BSG webisodes set a higher target, with the ten segments culminating in almost a full thirty minutes of original media or the best part of an original episode of one of the best written and produced shows currently being made. An article in the The New York Times, "Sci Fi Creates 'Webisodes' to Lure Viewers to TV", describes the webisodes thus:
The 10 Web segments, each just a few minutes long ... feature characters from the television show. And they have the same dark feel of broadcast episodes of "Galactica," a post-apocalyptic survival tale of humans on the run after their home planets have been destroyed. The mini-episodes will go online, one at a time, on Tuesday and Thursday nights until "Galactica's" season premiere on Oct. 6. ... These Web segments are a bit of a gamble. Sci Fi executives are betting that people who are only glancingly familiar with the series - whose story line may be too complicated to follow for those who don't know what happened in the first two seasons - will be able to follow the story told online.
"It was challenging on several levels," said Erik Storey, vice president of programming at Sci Fi. "Each of the Webisode chapters had to be close-ended, with a beginning, a middle and an end, and each of those chapters is going to be three minutes, four minutes. And there had to be a little cliffhanger ending for each one." ... The "Galactica" segments are part of a broader effort by NBC Universal, which owns Sci Fi, to make new, original video and audio material - content - available on the Internet. David Eick, an executive producer, has a video-blog, or vlog, that shows steps in the making of the show, and another executive producer, Ronald D. Moore, keeps a blog and prepares a weekly podcast designed to be listened to while watching the show. Sci Fi also has also posted podcasts of writers' meetings to hash out the plots of episodes of the television series and made it possible to watch entire episodes online. Mr. Howe, executive vice president and general manager of Sci Fi, said the network plans to augment online offerings for other shows in the future too.
The channel bills the Web segments move as a promotion to drum up interest in the third season of the series. "This is a way to get people talking about the show a month before it airs," said Craig E. Engler, general manager of SciFi.com.
The webisodes appear each Tuesday and Thursday on the Sci-Fi channel website. However, they only appear for people using computers inside the United States with a US ISP (or internet address)!
... and the Tyranny of Digital Distance
Clearly NBC Universal have elected to try and generate fan interest in BSG's third season premiere, but have decided to limit the webisodes to that segment of the internet nominally American (and only US, not Canadian, as pointed out by D'Arcy Norman). To some extent this might appear to make sense to the studio executives financing BSG since the release dates for season three will be later in other countries.
However, what they really seem to be failing to notice is that the very large and thriving fan communities built up around Battlestar (and similar shows) are global in nature. There may be arcane big media arrangements that mean the third season will debut later in the UK and later again (if ever!) in Australia, but the buzz about BSG, the communities which actively discuss and to some extent participate in the show (a sense heightened by Ron Moore's podcasts) and thus the interest is spread far further than the national boundaries of the US (or the ISPs located therein). By barring large segments of the BSG fan communities from seeing the webisodes is tantamount to a slap in the face to the very loyal fans in other countries who not only watch the series, but buy the DVDs, comics, soundtracks and other offshoots from the BSG franchise.
More to the point, denying the international fan communities (and others) access to the webisodes simply provokes the collective intelligence of knowledge communities in getting around such arbitrary (and difficult to maintain) restrictions in an age of digital distribution. Hours after its release, the first webisode appeared on YouTube, but have since been removed displaying this notice: "This video has been removed at the request of copyright owner NBC Universal because its content was used without permission." Less easy for police, each webisode is also rapidly appearing on filesharing networks and as bittorrent downloads. Rather than providing that little extra sense of community and loyalty to the show, the decision to restrict the webisodes to the US has those international fans who might not have been using peer-to-peer networks now turning to them in order to get content which is supposedly free!
Last year I suggested the term "the tyranny of digital distance" when talking about the oddity a number of geographically-based distribution decisions in the face of the potential for high-speed digital distribution. I cited Ron Moore's commentary podcasts as an example since I could get the podcasts within minutes of their release but had to legally wait almost a year for the episodes which accompanied them to appear on Australian television. I further described the tyranny of digital distance thus:
In the late 1960s, conservative Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey coined the term "the tyranny of distance" to describe how the geographic gap between Australia and the centres of the Western world (US, UK) played a fundamental role is shaping the Australian psyche and character. Fast forward thirty something years into the future, the world is widely considered a global village; the web, email and a million other applications have made realtime information-heavy communication and commerce the expected norm. Today, however, the event of the last few days have given me pause enough to think about what we might consider the tyranny of digital distance insomuch as the potential and, indeed, expectation of synchronous global culture (at least for English-speaking countries) leads to a constant state of delay and annoyance when the promise isn't met. ...
The tyranny of distance was geographic with cultural effects. The tyranny of digital distance occurs when the geographic has been by and large supplanted by the digital, but the age-old national boundaries to legal media distribution will very soon lead to more and more people circumventing those legal limits unless big media admits that dividing the pie up in terms of national licenses (or the ridiculous DVD region zones) no longer makes sense when information is moving at the speed of light!
I think the webisodes illustrate this point even more clearly, since an arbitrary decision by NBC Universal studio executives has suddenly made Australian and other BSG fans feel ostracized from the officially recognised BSG fan community. Thankfully, fans themselves will always find a way if studios won't. However, the Battlestar Galactica team have often shown insight when respectfully dealing with fans everywhere so it would do NBC Universal well to listen to Moore and the show's creative team and let the fans everywhere enjoy the webisodes, reinforcing an international sense of shared media fandom rather than the tyranny of digital distance.