21 February 2006

You're making a mistake Ricky

News today is that Ricky Gervais (Comedian and Writer of the famous TV shows The Office and Extras, in case you live on a different planet) is to start charging for his podcasts, starting with the second series in a few weeks.

The first series has been a tremendous success, with download numbers that are unrivalled for a new podcast. In the last episode I listened to, I think Ricky mentioned there had been over 1million downloads, and it is popular across the English speaking world. He also, ominously at the time I thought, said he'd been a fool not to listen to partner Stephen Merchant who had suggested charging at the outset.

I came across this news first at MacWorld today. But there has been other coverage too. Just before I started writing this, I saw that Ars Technica had covered the story too. As usual, they have some interesting angles on the news.

I'm not against charging for podcasts per se - I think it is inevitable, and it will lead to more quality. Hopefully though the notion of free podcasts can also continue and thrive. I also don't begrudge Ricky making money from his talent. But I think Ricky is making a mistake to do it at this time.

1. Paid podcasts are not currently supported. Ars' coverage explains the intricacies. But essentially, you just won't be able to subscribe and download (unless an Audible subscriber) as RSS doesn't support some of the things necessary for authentication. So, it will be harder to download the copies than it is today. That is not good for usage.

2. Sure the program is successful - 1m downloads from nothing is great. But put it in the perspective of the TV shows which had at least 10x the audience in the UK alone. So, I don't think 1m is anything like saturation. (Also, the 1m downloads is presumably for 10 or so episodes, so I don't believe it is 1m unique listeners).

3. The program has no life outside of the first listen (imho), unlike the tv shows etc which can be watched a few times.

Put another way, if Ricky had charged for the podcast in the beginning, would he have reached 1m downloads? Or even 100,000? That's were Stephen Merchant's logic falls down. It is as successful as it is BECAUSE it was free (and funny too). To approach saturation it must remain free and simple for a while longer.

I hope it's not that Ricky thinks it has a limited life span and that by the time he's got to 10m listeners the formula will be tired (I think there are already signs of that - the formula relies a lot on the gross stupidity of Karl Pilkington with, in classic Gervais-style, apparently unscripted remarks. Once the audience no longer believe Karl's stupidity is genuine, it might be harder to pull off).

But I really think if Ricky is to exploit the show to his advantage, he would be best keeping it simple and free. Instead, increasing sponsorship (which must have gone up hugely) could be used to monetise the value. Ricky's direct product placement (currently for the Guardian and the site hosts) is very effective, and would be valuable to some companies. Even an ad or two buried in would probably be passable in a format that can't easily be skipped.

What do you think? Would you pay £1 an episode or whatever for these podcasts? Would you still do it if you had to go through extra steps to download it?

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