April 6, 2007
Behind the Scenes: Super Deluxe

I posted this interview with the team that created Super Deluxe on my blog, but I wanted to cross-post it here on the C3 blog as well, considering Super Deluxe's involvement with the consortium. Super Deluxe's parent company, Turner Broadcasting, is a member of the consortium.

"We're Super Deluxe. And by God, We're going to make you laugh." -- taken from the Super Deluxe webpage.

Super Deluxe is a new comedy site launched by Turner Broadcasting in January of this year. The site promises a mix of original professional content with community tools which will allow people to share amateur produced videos. It might be seen as one of the first of what are likely to be a series of attempts by major media producers to create their own YouTube like sites which combine authorized commercial content with fan generated materials. In this case, the site is targeting comedy as a genre that is likely to support both commercial and amateur produced material of high quality -- with their understanding of comedy including a fair amount of animation as well.

As the press release announcing the service explained:

Original programming will range from short films and sketches to episodic series and more. In addition to being available online, SUPER DELUXE content will be available via cable VOD, wireless devices and personal media players.

Programming is just the beginning, however. SUPER DELUXE's community tools will allow fans to interact with artists and each other, adding an extra dimension of value for the consumer. Through these tools, fans can express their own unique sense of humor and interact with artists and others by creating their own profiles, uploading their own videos, rating and sharing content, making comments, sending messages and more. Fans can even join or create groups with other artists and users to share and discuss their favorite humorous topics, comedians or anything else that strikes their interest.

The featured content on the site at the moment is quirky, original, and engaging. Consider, for example, a range of shorts featuring somewhat fractured versions of American presidents, contemporary and historical (with the idea of failed presidents a strangely recurring theme across much of the content produced so far).

The Professor Brothers - Substitute
(Brad Neely) depicts what happens when a professor trusts his American history class to a friend who warns him that he will absolutely make a mess of things and then proceeds to make these words a self fulfilling prophecy.

"Don't Recognize Me" depicts U.S. Grant, riding across the countryside on his motorcycle, hoping to meet some folks who don't know he was once a less than spectacularly successful president.

"President's Day," produced by the fine folks at Fark, shows us what happens when a bunch of the guys -- all former presidents -- help Lincoln celebrate his birthday at the local bowling alley. Along for the ride are Taft and Polk, who are perhaps not the A List of former presidents, but they know how to show a guy a good time.

W's World (Kyle Boyd) features George Bush and his side kicks, Condy "Brown" Rice and a pot-smoking baby elephant, as they seek to deploy the same principles to the oil lands in Alaska that have proven so successful in Iraq.

These videos give you a sample of the range of commercially produced content being showcased on the site.

James DiStefano and Erlene Zierke, two of the young masterminds behind Super Deluxe, agreed to answer some of my questions about the site. (I mention again that Turner is a member of our Convergence Culture Consortium). In what follows, they discuss the nature of their site and its relationship to user generated content and the fan culture that is growing up around certain forms of comedy. Some people have described the site as an alternative to YouTube except that YouTube is a general interest site where-as Super Deluxe focuses on a specific genre of entertainment. That's where I decided to start the interview.

What do you see as the advantages of specialization over generalization?

The clearest advantage is the ability to create and maintain a brand. Sites that generalize lack a voice or a distinct feel. During our design phase, many of our potential users said they only went to these sites when guided by a link shared through email or IM. Many users cited a difficulty in separating the wheat from the chaff in such a large library of clips.

Early in the project, we decided to focus specifically on a certain type of comedy, and we decided to stay true to Turner's roots in aggregating and branding libraries of content by soliciting artists to produce material for us. We wanted to retain that open spirit embodied in the video-sharing sites, but we wanted to give our community something to talk about. Like this kind of content? Stay - we have a good sized and growing library to share.

Super Deluxe (http://www.superdeluxe.com/) is different in many ways because of this specialization. The artists producing content for Super Deluxe also give this site a distinct perspective. Our editorial staff does a great job of infusing the site with a voice, a feel, on a daily basis. We pick a mixture of Turner-produced content and user-contributed content every time we update the site, and this gives Super Deluxe a perspective on things that other sites lack. We're much more 'record label' than 'record store.'

And why this particular specialization?

Comedy is a genre that bends nicely to the constraints of the online medium. Short clips seem to work best on the Internet for a variety of reasons. If users don't like the video size, video quality, or content, they have the ability to move away to any other destination in the time it takes to click a mouse or search Google. With comedy, you can grab someone's attention in the first 10 to 15 seconds and have a pretty good shot of keeping them for the duration of a video. In other genres, it is difficult to establish compelling characters or interesting plot lines in the short amount of time we have to grab someone's attention.

What developments in the area of comedy are feeding into the development of Super Deluxe? Where is your content coming from? What trends in the culture are you tapping?

The culture we embrace places a premium on pursuit and discovery - it's part of an important ritual around this type of content on the Web. People trade funny videos, photos, comics and stories all the time. At launch, we emphasized the portability of online comedic content by including multiple tools to share and embed our video.

We're catering to the 'openness' of our audience's expectations and tastes. We encourage our artists by not imposing strict restrictions or lengthy approval processes; this approach lends itself to experimentation. In doing so, we've built a library of original and exclusive content unlike many other video sites. That's been an essential part of attracting interest in this space.

On Super Deluxe, it isn't necessary for our sensibilities to have broad appeal; we don't have to create a sitcom that appeals to the juicy part of the bell curve in order to gain an audience. A Super Deluxe viewer can construct their own path through the network, watch what they want, participate how they want, and discard what doesn't interest them.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas has argued that there is only a thin line that separates jokes and insults. How do you imagine Super Deluxe negotiating that line? Are there going to be occasions where you need to censor potentially offensive content? Are you giving the community ways to police itself?

We've already encountered these issues in the short period of time since launch. We've had situations where we've removed inappropriate content - videos that crossed the line from joke to insult (and, honestly, some videos went past insult and straight to offensive). It's not hard to see what fits with our ideals and what doesn't. Our editorial system allows us to promote like-minded content producers while still giving individuals the opportunity to define their idea of what's funny to them.

There is a flagging mechanism on Super Deluxe for our community to use. We review each flagged submission and decide whether it meets our standards or to to take it down. We retain an open dialog between us and our community. They help us police and message us or flag where appropriate. Our community helps Super Deluxe decide who we are and what we stand for. This level of openness helps us define the grey area, the thin line. Our sensibilities are strong but our policies are flexible.

Are you giving individuals ways to find content that reflects their own value systems?

We are. If we don't find something particularly amusing, well planned/executed, or indicative of the culture we have created within Super Deluxe, we don't promote it on any of our editorial pages; however, we still give the user several other outlets to publicize his/her creation. Our members can share their creation with their friends, embed it elsewhere for all to see, or direct people to subscribe to his/her RSS feed. While we may not find it particularly funny, there may be some users who will appreciate it.

There is starting to be a backlash against what some critics are calling the "cult of the amateur," arguing that mediocre content made by inexperienced producers is starting to push out professionally produced content made within systems of quality control because amateur content costs less to produce and distribute. How would you respond to this criticism?

When it comes to user-generated content, the medium is in the phase of experimentation. Every creative medium goes through a similar phase in order to establish norms around what's considered 'good' content. I couldn't cast out the "cult of the amateur" as invalid while it progresses through this phase. The distinction between user-generated video and independent film-making is only separated by a few degrees - not residing on opposite sides of the circle.

Recorded music is a medium that has professional, independent, and amateur productions co-existing in the same marketplace. Why couldn't Web-based video?

Can you give us a sense of the scale at which amateur content is coming into Super Deluxe at this point? What criteria are you using to decide which content to foreground on the site? What kinds of amateur content has impressed you the most so far?

Given that we're just finishing our 'soft launch' of Super Deluxe (a period with little or no promotion or marketing), we're extremely pleased with our level of viewership, of registration, and with our community participation. Our next phase is to roll out more original, exclusive content and expand the possible ways our community participates and interacts on Super Deluxe.

On Super Deluxe, when it comes to user-contributed content, we have a phrase that guides our vision: "created, not recorded." There's a huge difference between capturing a 'stupid pet trick' and writing/editing a script to produce a finished video. And while we accept submissions that encompass the former, we promote videos that encapsulate the latter.

We pick amateur content to promote based on a number of criteria. Does it fit with our voice, our theme? Will our users find it interesting? Does it have a shelf-life, or potential for future development? And, most importantly: as representatives of culture in this online world, do we find it funny or entertaining?

Cube is one video that met all these complex criteria. We love this video, and it got a great reaction from our community.

"Squirrel vs Marshmallows" is another one that really gets us excited about our users. It's well planned out and well executed, and I can't get the song out of my head every time I watch the video. It's a perfect example of what we're looking to promote on Super Deluxe.

Your blog has created a category called "Worst Damn Thing." Explain. Do you think the pleasure of user-generated content involves laughing with or laughing at?

We encourage our audience to upload the content that reflects them and their sense of 'the funny.' Some of it, though, tends to be more on the side of 'recorded' rather than 'created.' One particular piece uploaded to Super Deluxe was more appropriate for a standard video-sharing site than for an editorially-driven site like Super Deluxe. So we decided to give our audience a clear signal as to the kind of user contributions we'd promote while also having a little fun with it. We try to retain our sense of humor, both as creators of culture and as lovers of the genre.

We don't intend for "Worst Damn Thing" to stifle creativity; the designation is intended to help raise the bar for what user-generated content can be, in an effort to move the medium from experimentation to independent creation.