Web Video's Search for the Holy Grail
The quest continues for hit shows and star power and the audience to sustain them
Have we seen this episode before? The Digital Entertainment Network in 1999? Warner Bros. "Entertaindom" portal of 2000? Last year's underwhelming "Gold Rush?" series on AOL?
Recent history is littered with failed attempts to generate serialized original programming on the Web. Even high-profile producers like Mark "Gold Rush" Burnett and Tim Burton (anyone remember "Stainboy"?) have missed that long-sought proverbial grail: leverage cheap digital production and distribution to offer niche audiences and advertisers alternative new media properties. And yet the quest lives on - at MySpace's new 130-episode "Afterworld" animated series and the upcoming "Quarterlife" show, VuGuru's 80-episode murder mystery, "Prom Queen," "KateModern" (teen angst), "Goodnight Burbank" (media satire) and scores more coming from countless digital studios. But does this new run at the old "Webisodic" entertainment model really vault the past hurdle of successfully aggregating loyal audiences advertisers want to buy?
This time around a critical mass of users are tuning, or clicking, into shows on the Web in much the same way they do on TV, say defenders of the format. Eric Hadley, the new CMO at Heavy.com says that ongoing shows like "Superficial Friends" and "Behind the Music that Sucks" helped draw users to the site. Average viewing time, he says, is a TV-like 22 minutes. "This is not just any old video," he says. "This is regularly scheduled and people come to watch it."
In fact, raw numbers suggest that an audience is present at times for some Webisodic programming. Michael Eisner's "Prom Queen" series claimed 15 million views by the end of its first season, with up to 200,000 streams a day. A Will Ferrell skit on FunnyorDie.com pulled 45 million views in five months. The infamous Lonelygirl15 hoax (a series that chronicled the life of 15-year-old "Bree," who turned out to be a fictional character played by actress Jessica Rose) claimed 70 million views, and 13 million in the first two months of spin-off "KateModern."
"With 100,000 [views] a month you are doing pretty well, and with 1 million a month you can call yourself a hit," says Mike Hudack, CEO of Blip.tv, which distributes the popular "Goodnight Burbank" and "Break a Leg." He instructs wannabe digital moguls from the big book of Webisodic failure: consistent look and feel and a regular schedule of new episodes are critical to building show loyalty. His "Goodnight Burbank" just secured a sponsorship from HBO. VuGuru's slick "Prom Queen" had support from the film "Hairspray."
Lost in Cyberspace
Despite these spot successes, however, advertisers are waiting to see how a reliable ecosystem might generate consistent audiences for original Webertainment. "A lot of these Webisodics don't have much traffic - 2,000 to 5,000 streams a day," says Michael Shehan, CEO of video ad network SpotXchange. "A lot won't make it."
The Web is already brimming with clever content no one ever sees because distributors lack the cross-promotion and marketing muscle that TV networks have traditionally exercised. "Goodnight Burbank" may be great but how many people know about it, asks Eric Bader, senior vice president and director of digital connections at MediaVest. "The thing I worry about is the total leverage that is available to promote them. It's not the quality or the ad opportunity; it is just how much awareness can you possible drive?"
"I think it has a better chance," says Lars Bastholm, executive creative director at AKQA, because distribution mechanisms are now in place for good content to surface and thrive. Social networks like MySpace and video hubs Veoh and YouTube drove most of the traffic to "Prom Queen," for instance, and iPods or phones now let users snack on mini-episodes anywhere. "You aren't asking people to come to you; you are placing content where they already are." The social networks may provide the syndication and promotion machine online that TV networks built offline: persistent awareness, water cooler discussion and new episode alerts.
Sponsors on the Sidelines
Media buyers are starting to imagine ways into the Webisodic flow this time around. At Starcom, supervisor of the video activation team Samantha Tenicki says they are "keeping a close eye on" the new breed of serial programming because it offers select brands a place to experiment with online integration. Lonelygirl15 recently placed Icebreakers Sours gum in episodes and cut a deal with Neutrogena to turn a scientist character into a company employee. Bastholm muses that someday there may be "an upfront for Web-only shows. Show a few episodes and [a sponsor] comes on board to help them finance the rest."
But such a development remains in the future. Though AOL this spring announced an upfront-like "First Look" preview of online programming, the portal hasn't come through with the shows and was asking up to $5 million in commitments, according to press reports.
The real ad value and underlying cost structures of original Web programming remain unclear. Eisner has said publicly that VuGuru at least made back the $100-150,000 it invested in "Prom Queen." But bootstrapped Web moguls generally don't have the luxury of TV and film studio models where blockbusters underwrite the failed experiments. "I will be curious to see if there is enough scale for any of these things to cover the production costs," says Brian Monahan, senior vice president, of Interpublic's Emerging Media Lab. Many sponsors might prefer just getting into Webisodic production themselves. "Fifteen million views of my branded entertainment is great," he says. "Fifteen million impressions of my video ad is not."