We're not sure how many times both of the Web's largest and perennially struggling portals can claim to be getting behind video...again. But much like AOL, Yahoo continues to insist it is devoted to the format. Variety's Andrew Wallenstein reports this morning that Yahoo is back in the business of creating TV-like series programming for the Web.
Wallenstein says the company is shopping to advertisers a slate of new shows scheduled to launch this fall in tandem with the network's traditional rollouts. This time the company is relying on some star power and is taking a decidedly female slant on the programming. Morgan Spurlock, most recently of "Day in the Life" and "Greatest Story Ever Sold" fame is among the people on board. Also cited for new shows are actress Judy Greer and "Clean House" host Niecy Nash. Much of the programming will be lifestyle-focused. Spurlock will do a reality show about 10 people trying to conquer their fear of failure in embarking on new challenges.
The big challenge for Web series has always been retention. I have been watching these brave and sometimes good new programming ideas come onto the Internet since the late 1990s, and I can't recall a web series I ever felt compelled to watch all the way through beyond a couple of episodes except Joss Whedon's inspired Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. In this case, however, the series was not only better than much of what one sees on TV, but it was blessedly compact with a focused story arc. I am not sure why more video programmers online have not taken this breakout success in the genre as a lesson in how audiences want to absorb Web video. Are we asking people to treat this platform like TV simply because if fits the familiar business models?
From the looks of Yahoo's plan, they still want desperately for the Web to be TV. Unlike earlier models for branded entertainment that led with sponsor identity and integration, Yahoo is taking a TV model of financing and creating the shows up front and shopping them to sponsors. As Wallenstein rightly points out, the press and investor criticism of Yahoo is belied by the continued traffic power of the site. It generated more than 47 million video streams in July, with more original programming streamed (27 million) than Hulu.
The female skew Yahoo is pursing here is smart. Among the things the company has not been recognized for achieving is the launch of the Shine! lifestyle content portal, which made a big mark on the field. Likewise, Web originals like the TV recap show Prime Time in No Time and the relentless videos coming from their hugely successful OMG! celebrity news venue don't get the props they deserve.The Web still awaits a portal that can effectively market and distribute its Web only video programming with the precision and effectiveness of TV. One look at the current Yahoo Video page demonstrates the problem of how badly the portals have squandered the massive traffic they still attract. This barren set of thumbnails is dominated by brand-first videos of uncertain quality, "Butterfinger Comedy Network" and "Purina Animal All-Stars." The most compelling Yahoo video content is dumped into the bottom of a long and boring scroll that has none of the panache of the hulu interface and doesn't even merchandise as well as iTunes. Surely there is a way for a mighty portal such as this to leverage its traffic, back end user data and interface to make regularly scheduled Web programming more accessible and intriguing than this. I would prefer these big minds took bigger chances on changing the formats and content conceptions so that they match better the ways in which most of us really want to absorb online video. Dr. Horrible, where are you when we need you?