June 1, 2016

Chewbacca Mom

The future of TV is a funny place. Both funny ‘strange’ and funny as in ‘ha ha.’ At least that’s what I learned watching the Chewbacca Mom saga this week.

Texas Mom Candace Payne started with a talking Chewbacca mask and a smartphone in a Kohl’s parking lot. One week and one Facebook Live post later, she has 150 million views and is a household name, appearing on Good Morning America and The Late Late Show (where she met Star Wars’ director J.J. Abrams), and has visited both LucasFilm and Facebook headquarters.

How does this happen, and what does it tell us about the future of TV? Three things.

1. Video is a Democracy – The Viewers have the Vote
Online video evolves in steps, and each new step tends to bring out the skeptics. When streaming video first appeared online, the cynics were sure that “no one” would watch music videos or movie trailers (two of the earliest content types) in a jittery postage-stamp-size window on their PC. Then YouTube appeared and the experts were sure that “no one” would watch funny cat videos shot by amateurs.

This past year live mobile video streaming from smartphones appeared via Meerkat, Periscope, and now Facebook. Once again, content snobs were sure it was a niche service without mainstream appeal. Just some goateed hipsters on Meerkat at SXSW, they said. Chewbacca Mom put an end to that theory, and it’s important for TV types to not gloss over the cultural subtext of this story. Candace Payne is a 37-year old stay-at-home mom from suburban Dallas. The video was shot in a strip mall parking lot. How much more mainstream middle America could she possibly be?

Facebook clearly got it, which is why the Facebook Live team flew her to out to Menlo Park and gave her the hero’s welcome. And that team deserves some credit as well. Their small (but incredibly critical) contribution to the live mobile streaming space has been to auto-save the live videos to VOD as they stream. This feature allowed the Chewbacca Mom video to begin as a live post (to basically no one) and transition to a sharable clip that is still generating views worldwide. Candace Payne deserves credit as the first, but most certainly not the last, Facebook mom with more than 100 million video views.

2. The Remix Culture Rules
The Chewbacca Mom phenomenon consists of two elements. The first (as discussed above) is Candace Payne, the archetypical American mom. The second (and equally critical) element is Chewbacca, the lovable Wookie that has been a pop culture fixture for (a little) longer than Candace Payne has been alive. In other words, would Ms. Payne have rocketed to Internet fame if she had laughed hysterically while sporting a Cylon (Battlestar Galactica) or Klingon (Star Trek) mask? No way. Only Star Wars has the universal cultural currency that allowed every single viewer to get the joke and enjoy the laugh.

This appropriation of a cultural artifact to produce something new is the very definition of a remix, and the key to understanding what makes viral online videos work. From crying Michael Jordan to Darth Vader singing Adele’s Hello, the Internet is a giant swirling cauldron of pop culture.

In the early days of the Internet, fan fiction, song mash-ups, and other acts of appropriation led to endless hand wringing by content owners worried about their precious IP. Fortunately, the content industry has learned that remixing almost always enhances (and does not diminish) the value of the original work. In simple terms, being part of the cultural conversation is always better than being forgotten. To its credit, LucasFilm clearly gets this, which is why it celebrated Chewbacca Mom’s fame with good humor as well. They are the ones who licensed the masks in the first place, after all, and are laughing all the way to the bank at the product’s newfound popularity.

3. Legacy TV is an Extension of the Online Conversation
There was a time when TV originated and defined pop culture. Disney’s Davey Crockett TV show in the 1950s got an entire generation of kids to don coonskin caps. Today, however, legacy TV is itself increasingly an extension of the Internet remix culture. Ironically, it is some of the oldest TV formats of all (e.g., national morning shows like Good Morning America and late-night talk shows like The Tonight Show) that are the biggest beneficiaries of this trend. The daily live (or at least daily recorded live-ish) show turns out to be almost perfectly suited to react and respond to whatever is happening online.

Hence, we see James Corden remixing Chewbacca mom and his own carpool Karoake meme into a semi-sequel to the original video. Pretty much every Internet celebrity now gets a gig on a late-night talk show, even if you’re just really good at flipping a water bottle. Legacy TV shows have quickly become experts at validating Internet celebrities, but Internet celebrities are also validating legacy TV shows by keeping them relevant. It’s a two-way street that will only become more important in years to come.

The funny thing about the future is that you both can and cannot see it coming. It is possible to see the trends, and know that cultural black swans (large, unpredictable events) are out there, without ever knowing exactly where they’ll come from. Expect many more Chewbacca Moms ahead.

Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.

Joel is a Senior Advisor for TDG and serves as an advisor and Board Member to the video ecosystem and technology companies. He lives near Seattle, WA.

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