Knox Ivi Aims to Make a Business of Knoxville Webcasting

The Market Square studio is banking on a rising online viewership and the acceptance of local videos

Patrons of Market Square's Lunchbox location might do a double-take this Wednesday morning should they happen to look up and notice two motor vehicle-sized dogs crouched on the floor of the studio that occupies the latter half of the café—large dogs apparently having a conversation.

But there aren't any special intoxicants in the house blend; this is an on-camera comic sketch, the introduction to another episode of 11 o'Clock Rock, a daily event here at the Lunchbox, which has rented space with local broadcasting outfit Knox Ivi since fall of 2009. Victor and Addie are ordinary, albeit large and lovable, pooches, visitors from Smoky Mountain Great Dane Rescue, and their voiceovers come courtesy of 11 o'Clock Rock co-hosts Lauren Lazarus and Brent Thompson.

Just when the canine routine wraps up, Victor, an ungainly black fellow with sad, vulnerable doggy jowls, turns to his left and barfs all over the studio's varnished wooden floor. It's a moment of live broadcast improv that would have upstaged even Uncle Miltie.

After a commercial break, Lazarus and Thompson introduce the morning's featured local artist, all-girl punk-rock trio Dirty Knees, who proceed to pummel Ivi's big studio—affectionately dubbed "the fishbowl" by the many area bands who've played within its glass-encased confines in the last few months—with roughly 50 minutes of Ramones-esque rock infused with just a hint of the y-chromosome. As if to assert their rock 'n' roll credentials, each Knee has a Bloody Mary close at hand.

But while Knox Ivi (a conflation of "Internet Video") is in the business of live broadcast, it isn't about TV. Ivi is a webcast operation found at knoxivi.com, currently with one in-house program (11 o'Clock Rock), while offering the facilities, as well as the technical and creative expertise, to help outside clients produce their own shows.

Current client shows include the KNS Sportspage, a live webcast of the 99.3-WNML radio program featuring News Sentinel sports reporters; Sportsgate, a sports-themed show featuring roving reporter Oliver Wright on Thursday nights; The Dancing Spider, a children's yoga program; and live music streams from Market Square's Preservation Pub six nights per week. Several area high schools have also broadcast sporting events and extracurricular activities on Ivi, and the Knoxville Chamber now broadcasts special events through the webcaster.

And Knox Ivi programmers say there are a number of new shows in the production and preproduction stages. According to Ivi founder Joe Dickey, five new shows will premiere in the coming month, including a local gameshow entitled 5 o'Clock Somewhere, which will feature teams of players competing in a series of custom-designed games, in the setting of a different area restaurant or bar each week.

"The idea [behind Knox Ivi] was to create content from the ground up in a professional way, with full production house value," says technical operations manager Jessie Greene, "as opposed to an aggregate of pre-produced content a la YouTube.

"Our model is people can come with shows they want to create, and we give them the opportunity and the facilities to do so. We work with incoming clients creatively; you produce, we direct. And we also have a full production house for creating commercials from conceptualization to post-production."

Dickey, a former Tennessee Valley Authority engineer who later headed his own engineering firm, says he has had his business eye on webcasting for some time now, given the expansion of broadband capability, and given watch-at-your-leisure viewing trends such as TiVo.

"We've tried to focus clearly on local content," Dickey says. "It's not TV or cable or YouTube, but sort of in between those things, but very professional, with equipment you'd use for a very good TV show.

"I'm really more a business person than a technical person. What I've brought to the table is a business model and a plan that makes things profitable, whereas maybe other folks are doing them in ways that aren't as profitable."

Dickey was briefly involved in webcasting once before, joining after the fact in the ill-fated Cherries Internet Café, also located on Market Square. That operation was founded by controversial local entrepreneur Ingrid Gee, who closed the business after only three months in November 2008. Gee owned all but a small percentage of the business, and was heavily in debt and the center of a lawsuit after the closing.

Given that webcasting is still a relatively new frontier, maybe it's hard to say whether Dickey is chasing windmills or windfalls. At the University of Tennessee's School of Journalism and Electronic Media, Professor Jim Stovall is considered the keenest observer of Web-related industry, and he says the jury's still out.

"With the viability of video on the web, some companies may feel this is a good time to advertise online," Stovall says. "Most companies don't have the expertise to do that, so they'd likely turn to an outfit like this one. The market for this sort of thing is there, and it's growing. It's just a matter of whether it's growing enough. And whether you can convince clients that this is something they need."

That can often be tough for new media in small- to medium-sized markets. Currently, Knox Ivi has two chief revenue streams: its broadcast advertising, and its production house (producing shows for clients). Programming works like this: Individual programmers pay for the services Ivi provides in helping conceptualize, produce, and air weekly shows. But every one-hour show offers 12 minutes of advertising airtime. Two minutes belong to Ivi, while the other 10 belong to the programmer, to sell to recoup expenses.

Right now, the advertising content still seems heavy on the house ads—i.e. spots for Knox Ivi itself, usually a sign in media, be it print or broadcast, that an ad space went unsold.

Rock host Thompson, who is also Ivi's business development manager, says ad sales have slowly but steadily improved since the first Knox Ivi broadcast on Sept. 28. Thompson says there is much convincing to be done in a community of sometimes skeptical local advertisers; he and his Ivi colleagues find themselves having to sell the viability of webcasting as an industry, as well as that of their own enterprise.

"It's taking a while for people to wrap their heads around this," Thompson says. "I think a lot of businesses want to get into online media, but they're not sure about how. They want to see us grow. They want to see other advertisers come on. To an extent, we have to prove ourselves first. We have to show people the power of online media, how it can be something that's adjacent to their own online presence."

Dickey, for his part, says the sales component of Knox Ivi's revenue stream is on schedule. "I think we're in good shape, actually," he says. "I'm pretty satisfied at this stage of the game."

In terms of viewership, the numbers are sharply on the ascent, says Thompson. According to Thompson, 11 o'Clock Rock was watched by 20,000 to 25,000 unique viewers per episode in February, up from about 500 during its first week on the Web. About 85 to 90 percent live within a one-hour travel radius of Knoxville. Other shows experienced similar growth.

By way of comparison, viewership for a local noon news TV broadcast might number anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000, depending on the station. Though he won't discuss specific numbers, Dickey says Ivi ad space is much less costly than most TV ad space. "The value for the ad dollar is definitely there," he says.

And as impressive as February was in terms of growth, March was apparently even more so. According to Dickey, total advertising impressions—an industry measure of ads viewed—were 450,000 for all Ivi programming in February. For March, he says, the number nearly trebled, to 1.4 million.

But how does it all look from the vantage of an Ivi broadcaster, who has to deal with many of the same concerns as Ivi staff members, plus pay the bills for a webcast that offers little more than personal satisfaction? One of the mainstays of Knox Ivi came about when Dickey tapped host Oliver Wright, a 2007 UT graduate in communications, to do play-by-play for local high school football as part of Ivi's "beta test."

"I had done some radio at UT, and I was a sports nut," says Wright, relaxing in the smaller of Ivi's two studios on a Thursday night after a show. "I asked Joe if there was a chance of me ever getting to do my own program."

Thus came Sportsgate, a show devoted to high school and UT sports of every ilk, Ice Bears hockey, and any other relevant local events. Unlike many other current and planned Ivi webcasts, Wright's show is heavily dependent on off-site content. In season, he offered a weekly feature on a local high school basketball squad; he covered Bruce Pearl press conferences; and he airs a weekly Ice Bears segment.

He's also arguably the hardest-working man in local sports broadcasting, doing much of his own filming, editing, promoting, and selling. "I try to do most of my own ad sales, because people see you and associate you with the product," he says.

He admits that the ad sales haven't been easy: "It's an interesting dynamic. You can't sell until you have something to sell. So it's gone in spurts. You have to get a bit of an audience.

"I think we're finally getting to that point," Wright says, noting that the total number of Sportsgate viewers in February was three times the number in January. He says also that while ad sales haven't necessarily been easy, they have covered his expenses.

Rating his Knox Ivi experience thus far, Wright is enthusiastic, but he warns that it's not an endeavor one should approach with a cavalier attitude and an air guitar, like Garth and Wayne on community TV.

"I'm happy, though it's a bit more than I thought I was biting off," he says with a slight chuckle. "But sometimes the only way you learn is to jump in full-bore and get your hands dirty."