In Depth

Online Video Takes After Its Parent, TV

Video Providers Try Various Aspects of TV Model to Win Users

The older it gets, the more online video looks like its parent—television.

As the advertising model solidifies for Web video and as Internet users become accustomed to watching programming online, the medium itself is increasingly leaning on some of the best practices of television.

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Crackle has embraced a seasonal approach, Fancast is positioning its service as a day-after digital video recorder, TheWB.com says users want consistent scheduling and cable network Lifetime has found at myLifetime.com that online shows also need to develop an audience before advertisers pony up. These are all hallmarks of traditional TV.

While these efforts are not exhaustive, these four sites offer an interesting cross-section of how the future of this medium might look.

Sony-owned Crackle recently rolled out a series of original digital shows for its fall season and intends to release programming in four 13-week seasons per year, said Eric Berger, senior VP of digital networks for Sony Pictures Television.

“As consumers migrate to the Web, they like a more programmed experience,” he explained. “There are some pages we borrowed from TV that are important to consumers, and one is the promise of new content on a daily basis. If you like a particular show and we release it every Tuesday, you know every Tuesday it will be there.”

Search will remain a critical component in guiding online video consumption, but increasingly consumers want shows to be delivered to them, just as television networks program their lineups for passive viewing, he said.

Crackle emulates television in its content mix, too. The site includes original Web series, but Mr. Berger expects to add more TV series and movies to the lineup, similar to the way a cable network is programmed.

Then there’s Comcast-owned Fancast, a portal for Web programming. “What consumers are doing right now is [following] up with what is buzzing the next day,” said Karin Gilford, senior VP of Fancast and online entertainment for Comcast Interactive Media. She said 70% of Fancast viewing consists of catching up on video such as “Saturday Night Live” clips or full episodes of shows like “Heroes” the day after they air.

“I am a huge believer in the quality of TV programs and we are seeing people latch onto more show brands because as more content flows online, that’s where consumers will spend their precious moments,” she said.

Professional content has a higher pass-along rate on Fancast than user-generated material, she added.

Since launching TheWB.com in September, Warner Horizon Television Executive VP Craig Erwich said he’s learned online video viewers crave rhyme and reason. “You need some structure and organization, and we are still trying to figure out what that means for scheduling, promotion and navigation,” he said. “But most people watch eight or nine channels, and there are a few more Internet sites people probably go to, and they don’t want to pick from a vast pool without any orientation. It has to be orderly.”

That applies to both the original digital shows on the site, such as “Sorority Forever” and “High Drama,” as well as network content like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Friends.”

Some of Lifetime’s shows, including “Army Wives,” are on its Web site, but it also has original online content such as “Celeb Buzz,” a short celebrity gossip show that runs four days a week on YouTube and MyLifetime.com.

“It’s one of our leading stream-getters, but we haven’t brought advertising in yet,” said Dan Suratt, executive VP of digital media and business development at Lifetime Networks.

Launched in September, “Buzz” will need a few months of consistent audience growth before sponsors want to get on board. “An advertiser that’s going to back a program wants to know it aligns with the brand and has an audience that is stable or growing and the content is good and delivered on a recurring and scheduled basis,” he said.

Professional content plays a vital role in the online video ecosystem, too. Premium programming brings new advertisers into the medium, which can help all online programmers win marketing dollars, said Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey.

Traditional media companies will continue to earmark more dollars for producing original content, both original narrative and material that’s complementary to what’s on-air, predicted Omid Ashtari, an agent in digital media at Creative Artists Agency.

But big media firms also likely will buy up some of the smaller, venture capital-backed sites to help build their Web stables. “They’ll get those sites for original content for the Web, but they’ll wait until it’s cheap and then acquire those companies,” said Mr. Ashtari.