It is a commonly held belief among media historians that every new communications technology has to find its own native entertainment formats, usually after a period of rehashing the previous technology’s formats. The aspect of media history that is less frequently observed involves how often a new platform retrieves some of the failed experiments from the previous media technologies in order to find a new and better home for them.
I'm beginning to wonder whether the many attempts at creating what we used to call webisodic serial video programming on the Web actually have a better home on devices. I have little to no evidence to back this up, except some common sense and a bit of anecdotal evidence.
One publisher I spoke with recently is seeing a substantial rise in mobile visitors in recent months and also saw one of its video Web series gaining tremendous traction in simply a month. We are starting to see some of YouTube’s video channels get substantial traction. Motor Trend magazine announced the other day that its channel has reached 1 million subscribers. Whether all of this is attributable to mobile devices I can’t say for sure. We do know that ever higher shares of YouTube videos generally are being watched on devices. And all of this begs the question of whether the platforms in the usage cases are finally catching up with some of video programmers’ ambitions.
A new series at CBS Interactive also seems tailor-made for mobile distribution. The series, called Tin Cup, is a novel idea where famous musicians go incognito onto the streets to play for donations. It's branded entertainment in that Motorola is sponsoring the series, and even records each episode with the high-definition camera embedded on its new Droid smartphone. It's an excellent brand integration, by the way. There is only a short brand message at the opening of the episode and then a reminder throughout the seven-minute episode that all the footage is being shot on a smartphone.
The series comes to us from an old friend of MediaPost and of mobile marketing, Jordan Berman, whose company Shorn Entertainment creates unscripted programming for TV in the Web. Jordan's company has done a couple of series in the past, including "Cube Fabulous" and "World Office Sports." While Jordan doesn't have hard metrics behind it, he does say that anecdotally he is discovering many more people are watching the Tin Cup series on their mobile phones than he saw from the previous two series he has done.
In fact, the series works exceptionally well on CBS’s mobile Web site. They promote it well in the marquee position atop the site. And of course, since the series is sponsored by a mobile phone company and even shot on a mobile phone, the branding and the dimensions and scale of the video itself map well against the smartphone screen.
This makes perfect sense. The Web series was a pipe dream of early video programmers who really thought that the Web would become an alternate TV. I can't even count the number of stories I have written in the last 16 years of covering digital media about TV refugees creating so-called webisodic exotic series that we're going to take the Web by storm and finally show that the Web was really just a new narrowcast version of TV. For how many of these series did we watch the first or second episodes and then watch the traffic fall off a cliff? To be sure, there are some examples of series success online. But it taxes the memory to recall one.
One of the problems has always been maintaining a sustained audience. Although loads of tools like email were always there online to pull people back to a given series, gaining traction beyond the first episode or two of the series was always tough. Series that did not really follow serial progression, of course, worked better. And this Tin Cup episode is an example. This is the second in the series, but you don't need to see the first to understand what's going on here.
Still, the problem with Web video was always the circumstance of viewing. For many people, a decade ago the office was the main venue for viewing broadband video. But when that capability moved into the home it collided with the dayparts when people really wanted to work at their computer and do other things. Mobile devices allow people to fill daily nooks and crannies with content. And mobile also has arguably better push mechanisms like app alerts and SMS to pull people back to a next episode.
The 5- to-10-minute episodes that make up most Web video series simply fit better within mobile moments than they ever did on desktop sessions. Just as Netflix has tried to rethink TV distribution models with its "House Of Cards" series, I think it would be interesting to see publishers push their video properties forward a little more aggressively on mobile sites to see if series that were getting nominal attention on the Web grab hold on devices.
After all, most Web video series were conceived as bite-size streaming media content. Portability is in their DNA. Shouldn't mobile be the format either in app form on the mobile Web that finally maps against the creative format?