Logging In: Video Killed the TV Star

Distributed audiences could cancel programs

Everyone is throwing video content on the Web: Original video made by professionals, by amateurs aspiring to be professionals, by amateurs aspiring to nothing but attention - and that's not even touching on the sports, news and commentary out there.

With every click, fiction and nonfiction blend, shredding film-school definitions of documentary and entertainment. But more important, at least to networks, advertisers and their agencies, this is also shredding traditional models for monetizing content.

Web content creators share the same goal as their traditional media counterparts: acquiring viewers. Everyone just wants their content to be seen by as many people as possible. Unfortunately, the Web is a very different medium with very different viewing dynamics.  

Television content is, for the most part, rigidly scheduled. The 9 p.m. timeslot on any given night delivers a pre-determined group of shows. If a viewer misses the program, they have to wait for the rerun. Thus "Appointment Television" and "Must-See TV." 

DVRs, like VCRs, offer an opportunity to "time-shift" programming, and the former's ease of use has made an impact. Yet the value of television programming is based in the capacity to accumulate an audience of millions on a specific date and time.

These millions of viewers translate into dollars via advertisers' purchase of media at a CPM (cost per thousand viewers). Advertisers pay an average $30-$75 CPM for television viewers under the assumption that there will be many thousands of viewers delivered simultaneously.

Here is where the Web is a little different. Once programming is placed on the Internet, it can be viewed anytime. So short of notoriety or other buzz, there is no inherent reason for viewers to schedule Web content into their lives as we have traditionally done for television. We watch when we feel like watching, and are easily distracted by a newer, hotter piece of content.

Forget the huge amount of content available online and ignore arguments about quality. The Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick Web series quarterlife has failed in four months online with only 100,000 viewers for the 36 episodes available on both MySpace and YouTube. (Inexplicably, this performance was rewarded with a primetime spot on network TV during sweeps.)

The current 24/7 ubiquitous availability of video content is the most deadly threat to the old monetization model. Content that is available across the Web all the time has an audience that is dispersed across time as well as spaces. A program or video online takes   months to accumulate the number of viewers it would have found in one night on a TV network. That time-lapse shreds the CPM model along with all the long-established processes in the accounting departments of ad agencies and networks.

In this universe, the CPM cannot survive as the only valid currency. It won't accurately measure the value of an online audience; as it only tabulates large quantities. Critically, and ignored for years by many, it does not take into account all the other metrics, so accessible online, that determine the value of an audience.  The coming of TV to the Internet has initiated the Self-Destruct Sequence for the old monetization model.  

Now we need to build the replacement, or change what we are doing with video content online. It's hard to see which one will be easier.

In the meantime, it will be fascinating to see what size audience quarterlife earned on NBC as an hour series. It will also be streamed on - where another audience count will be taking place. 

The networks' and studios' current urge to create content ubiquitously available, may follow a Web model, but it also may run counter to more basic human motivators: Things that are easy to get are inherently less valuable. Quarterlife is as easily available as some tween's video journal and probably (and deservedly) getting just as many viewers.

Kathy Sharpe is CEO of Sharpe Partners, an award-winning digital marketing agency in New York City.

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