Howcast tries to make a living in the media torso

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I had nothing to do with instructional-video site Howcast making it onto TIME.com’s list of the 50 Best Websites of 2008. But I do know the company’s CEO, Jason Liebman. I met him last year when he was still working at Google, trying to sell professional videomakers on the merits of YouTube.

This was at a time when Chris Anderson’s Long Tail was still Topic A. As I wrote in March 2007:

The tail refers to one end of a statistical distribution, at the other end of which (the head) are the blockbuster hits that defined late-20th century media. But while the long tail has been very, very good to Google, the company is now too big and too ambitious to settle for the nickels to be mined among the Web searchers and bloggers and small businesses of the world. It has been moving its attentions up the curve, along what Google insiders call the “torso”–a territory of professionally-made content geared to niche audiences–toward the hit-filled head long dominated by Big Media.

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Jason Liebman

Liebman came to the conclusion that this underserved torso represented a business opportunity, which is why he and a couple of colleagues left Google last year to start Howcast. When I paid a visit to the company’s Soho HQ a few weeks back (which is where I took the lovely photo at right), he described to me a company trying to build a profitable middle ground between Big Media and user-generated content.

The first few hundred Howcast videos were made in-house, at a cost of $800 to $1,000 each. In an effort to bring that expense down (the goal is “a couple hundred dollars a video,” Liebman says), the company has switched to a new production model in which staffers in New York do the research and write the scripts for the videos, then hand them over to a growing network of wannabe directors (semipro directors, if you prefer) who actually film the things. Oh, and the New York crew has also lined up the rights to a bunch of music that their directors can use in the videos. “The whole question we’re trying to solve is how to scale with quality,” Liebman says.

The directors do get paid, so it’s not quite the Huffington Post model. But Howcast seems to be plowing similar ground between amateur and pro, old media and new. Which seems to be about the most fertile ground in the media business these days.

Not that Howcast has figured out everything just yet. As Liebman put it when I asked him about the touchy subject of, uh, making money, “This quarter is the quarter to think through monetization.”

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