For every media outlet, there can only be one lead story. And, for all of the growth that’s happened in the online video industry over the last decade, there’s little argument that in terms of overall buzz, advancements in social networking regularly edge us out. Twitter facilitated revolutions throughout the Middle East; online video showed us the gritty aftermath. Facebook transformed the way people interact with one another; YouTube proved that one small child getting his finger bitten by an even smaller child could bring precious seconds of entertainment to millions.
Robin to Batman. Tonto to the Lone Ranger. Chuy to Chelsea Handler: important, necessary, but never quite the star of the show.
I’ll throw my name into the large pool of prognosticators who predict that all of that is about to change, and online video is poised to finally win the buzz crown. But it’s a tentative prediction. We’re at a crossroads, with two distinct trends developing: one that will take us in a positive direction and another that could take the industry down a misguided, and potentially fatal, path.
What online video is about to do right: Until now, the online video environment has been a wasteland -- an endless sea of mostly silly, one-off videos that anyone with a cell phone and an WiFi connection can post with ease. By its own calculation, YouTube has 48 hours of new content uploaded to its network every minute – that’s over eight years of video each day. If your first reaction is “Wow, that’s unreal!,” the second reaction should be, “So, what’s the point of that?” We can’t possibly watch all of it in a meaningful way, and even if we could, that much content can’t possibly be monetized.
Again, looking at YouTube’s own statistics, over three billion videos are viewed each day -- over 21 billion each week. Of that, only three billion per week are monetized. That’s a little over 14%. Maybe that’s the way YouTube wants it -- or maybe it’s because advertisers don’t want to run ads against every video of every cat climbing up a tree.
Lately, there’s been a shift in the curation of content, with network directors playing a more active role in what gets presented. These sites are gaining in popularity because of a firm resistance to the “anything goes” standard, and are instead focusing on a gated community of content that has passed through a filtering process for inclusion. The result is thousands of videos, rather than millions, with more concentrated viewing, a higher level of trust from the viewer in the worthiness of the available videos, and ultimately a higher marketing value.
YouTube’s recent investment in its channel properties shows that even it is looking to steer away from amateur videography. And while it will never be a gated community, its strategists are clearly interested in herding their viewers to an area of their network that provides greater value to them and their advertisers.
What we are in danger of doing wrong: With all that being said, there is a danger that as gated communities rise, there will be an over-emphasis on “quality” when it’s time to limit what gets through the gates. The definition of quality, of course, can be debated endlessly (anyone still remember “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”?), but in the online video space, chatter about quality increasingly -- and frighteningly -- seems to indicate Hollywoodesque production, writing and acting values. In a desire to bring online video watching closer to the living room TV viewing experience, more and more producers seem to believe the pathway to the Promised Land is paved with celluloid.
What these network directors and content producers are overlooking, however, is that online viewing behavior and expectations are so starkly different from those of television viewing that commonality between the two may simply begin and end with the fact that they both involve moving images, and nothing more. Online viewing is a solitary experience, shared through a Like button or embed code, and taken in smaller chunks of immediate gratification, with little emotional energy spent in getting to know new characters and plot lines. Conversely, television viewing is a more relaxed, communal experience, where shows are subject to day-after water-cooler conversations, and new episodes, characters and stories are looked forward to in advance. “Charlie Bit Me” can’t survive as a show all its own on television, just as “Lost” could never have built the following it had if it only appeared online. Quality, then, while always desirable, is only one element – and not always a necessary ingredient -- of the more important goal of “watchability.” Watchable programming, subjective in its own right, is what’s necessary for capturing online audiences.
Network directors will increasingly discover the value of filtering content, and focus that filter on content people want to watch, whether it was produced in a Paramount or Universal studio, or the back of someone’s car. The winners will be those networks that have a finger on the pulse of what people want to watch, and provide it to them in a digestible way. And while networks will improve their ability to reign in the content offerings, true value to viewers -- and ultimately, to marketers -- will heighten the relevance of the entire online video industry.