If you want to see the future of TV, go 35 miles north of San Francisco to the suburban wine-making town of Petaluma. Or just go to the web. There, you will find the TWiT 'netcasting network', begun six years ago as a series of podcasts by tech journalist and Emmy-winning broadcaster, Leo Laporte.
The 55-year-old dropped out of Yale to get into radio and TV, specialising in talks on technology. He stumbled into podcasting, even now an overlooked corner of the media world where some 150,000 regular shows are dispensed by the iTunes store.
Within a few years, Laporte was producing 30 hours of podcasts per week, with his flagship 'show' notching up some 250,000 of downloads. Now, his TWiT network ("The Week in Technology") is being downloaded more than 5million times a month. TWiT streams video all day long that captures Laporte's podcasting and a weekend show on computers, 'The Tech Guy', which adds 500,000 more listeners through 140 radio stations across the US.
It has all (seemingly) been nicely amateur with Laporte hosting TWiT from his old wooden California cottage. But there's nothing make-shift about the audience - and the profits. Laporte started out by eschewing advertising and asked listeners instead for contributions of up to $10 a month. But, as his audience grew, so did his ambitions. He took on a business partner and started selling advertising. Today, companies like Ford, Visa, Microsoft, and AOL, are paying a premium price (of some $80 per 1,000 viewers/listeners compared with the US average CPM of $15) to reach Laporte's loyal, tech-savvy audience. His revenue has doubled for each of the past five years. As one of the first to tap into the real business potential of podcasting, Laporte has been able to market a niche audience that advertisers love, 30% of it outside the US.
Revenue reached $6m in 2011, the year when Leo Laporte's true ambitions - and potential - became clear. He established a purpose-built studio (called the Brick House, to distinguish it from his cottage down the road) and declared his goal of becoming "a 24-hour technology news network, the CNN of technology".
Leo told his 'aw shucks' story to a TED conference in Dubai two years ago, where he spoke of " a little podcast network which I have built into an internet television and radio station in this little cottage in the middle of nowhere in Northern California. Now, we've decided to go with our 5million audience and develop it into a full broadcasting business."
TV professionals have long talked about the way that their content will weave itself through the web; and the latest internet-connected televisions point the way to computer integration. But TWiT tells us something else about how "alternative" TV might develop.
The TWiT network is significant because:
- The technology is relatively simple, highly-effective and brings together TV, the internet, podcasts and social media.
- The operations are, by TV standards, stunningly low-cost. Laporte has been making a profit since he hit 2,000 regular viewers in his first year. At $6m and rising, he could have pocketed more than $1m in 2011, if not for one-off investment in the new studio.
- This is dynamic, open-access TV where viewers Skype in and engage in dialogue online and on-screen. In the age of Twitter and worries about the way that "business" is taking over Facebook, TV channels operated by their viewers (sort of) could become huge. TWiT offers its viewers friendliness and also authenticity: controversial views are challenged and corrected in real-time in ways which might appeal to consumers reared on the untouchability of mass media.
Like the web itself, it is seamlessly international Laporte has been able to prove the viability of this real-life cottage industry TV because he is a geek discussing the technologies that have millions riveted. But it is easy to believe that there can soon be hundreds if not thousands of specialist and/or local networks operated just like TWiT. Perhaps it is the name which prompts the thought that someone, somewhere will right now be planning a Twitter-like TV, perhaps 'Mr Twitter' Jack Dorsey himself.
Just as the internet has been variously touted as both the future and the finish of traditional media, it is easy to believe that TWiT will become the inspiration for tens of thousands of networks. And a whole new way of doing TV. Just watch.