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Can Big TV Win With Original Web Series?

Jun 1, 2008  •  Post A Comment

When NBC debuts the Rosario Dawson science fiction Web series “Gemini Division” online next month, it will mark a return to a programming genre that broadcasters haven’t had much success with—the online original series.
Broadcast and cable networks are building hearty businesses streaming their TV shows on the Internet, but their track record in producing original scripted content for the Web is poor. Most of their efforts to replicate the success of smaller, scrappier Web series, such as “Ask a Ninja” or “Zaproot,” have fallen short.
Most recently, Turner Animation, Young Adults & Kids folded its comedy Web site Superdeluxe.com into Adult Swim.com, a fellow Turner company. In the past year HBO shut down This JustIn.com and NBC migrated Dotcomedy.com into NBC.com after Dotcomedy failed to reach 500,000 monthly unique visitors. Also, NBC’s online-only soap opera “Coastal Dreams” peaked last fall with a few hundred thousand unique visitors.
Meanwhile, Disney-ABC’s digital studio Stage 9 will focus on distributing original Web series via sites such as YouTube and Hulu rather than solely on ABC.com. Translation: ABC.com is a better fit for ABC network shows than Web originals for now.
“Major media companies’ spotty success rate in broadband-video-only initiatives reflects the challenges of this new medium,” said broadband analyst Will Richmond, who publishes VideoNuze. “Success requires learning new skills like low-budget production, widespread distribution and user interactivity. All of this can be learned, but it will take some time.”
The success or failure of TV networks in their original broadband ventures will to some degree determine the fate of the smaller, independent shops producing Web video. For now, the indies can breathe a sigh of relief because networks appear to be focused on full episodes, short series related to their shows and, in some cases, acquiring Web series.
That’s NBC’s approach with “Gemini Division” and with the network’s newly formed digital studio. The mission of the studio is to acquire original projects and to partner with marketers to develop branded entertainment for the Web. That makes the deals less risky financially.
As an example, when NBC acquired “Gemini Division” from production company Electric Farm Entertainment earlier this year, the show came packaged with Acura, Intel, UPS and Cisco on board as integrated brands.
“This business is growing up, and part of that growing up is the growing pains of making tough choices,” said Vivi Zigler, executive VP of NBC digital entertainment and new media. “You have to be calculating in terms of where you take your risks and what you try.”
CBS Makes Moves
CBS, too, has opted to purchase or partner with existing Web properties. Last year CBS acquired the Web show “Wallstrip”; late last month the network partnered with EQAL, the creators of Web hit “LonelyGirl15.” Under that deal, CBS gets a first look at new shows produced by EQAL.
“If someone has already been successful with the concept, it makes a lot more sense to partner with them than to re-create the wheel,” said Anthony Soohoo, senior VP and general manager of entertainment for CBS Interactive. “I don’t think all the new ideas or the best ones are necessarily going to come just from CBS, so we have to be ready for those ideas where they are.”
But the specter of big media, with its huge resources and production capabilities, is strong. As a result, indies focus on staying nimble.
When the comedy site MyDamn Channel.com partnered with rapper Coolio to carry his cooking show, the deal came together in a few weeks, said CEO Rob Barnett. Most of the shows on the site cost about $7,000 per finished episode, he added.
Producing cheaply is the only way to survive, said Joshua Silberstein, CEO of Full Turn Media, which produces online health shows, including SexHealthGuru.com.
But the reality is that creating original online content doesn’t make financial sense for a network, said James McQuivey, analyst with Forrester Research.
“They can get people to watch the shows they have already produced, so from a comparative standpoint it’s hard to see why they’d want to invest in these minor approaches,” he said.
NBC shut down Dotcomedy late last year, but all the employees from that project now work on NBC.com, which attracts about 16 million unique visitors each month.
HBO shuttered comedy site ThisJustIn.com last summer because the content—short features—did not play to the strengths of the HBO brand and the network’s series, said sources familiar with the situation.
Turner, likewise, did not generate strong numbers for comedy site Superdeluxe.com. But Adult Swim.com garnered more than seven times the visitors of Superde luxe.com with similar content.
“Rather than position them as competitors for the same audience, the smarter move is to consolidate the two brands to create a richer, stronger platform that builds on Adult Swim’s No. 1 position with young adults,” said Paul Condolora, senior VP of digital for Turner Animation, Young Adults & Kids.
(Daisy Whitney contributes reports to NBC stations in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.)

28 Comments

  1. We’ve been live with our 7 episode pilot series since Dec. 2007, and with next to no advertising, have been front page featured on Revver.com, Crackle.com, Veoh.com, Vuze.com and many other major video sharing sites.
    Please check out our series… we’re looking to expand.
    http://www.ladywasteland.com

  2. One fact I left out… we’ve accrued almost a million hits since December 2007.

  3. Online shows face a near-infinite number of competitors for attention. At least new TV series face a known number of other TV shows on a known number of networks battling for viewers at the same time slot across a measurable demographic.
    As big corporations wade into online show development, I have found that they are either a) accepting development costs as a loss-leader to find new talent or to market existing properties, or b) are just blindly experimenting to see what works (not a great plan, by the way).
    Everyone can have an online hit one time (hundreds of thousands of views, or even a million), but in order to continually bring in audiences large enough to stop relying on production favors, justify the corporate overhead, and bring in name talent, it will take a technical shift in the US population. A large percentage of us will have to stream internet shows on their televisions. That act will bring massive number of passive viewers to online media.
    Until then, I’m happy to be a part of the many people working with big corporations on online media. It’s like playing minor league baseball. You don’t get paid much, but you still get to play… and if you’re good enough, you might get pulled to the majors.

  4. @Alec McNayr – you make a good point, with no dearth of good stories to be told, abundant and willing non-union talent, low distribution costs, the barriers to entry into the interactive web series world are indeed relatively low and competition is high. However, I do think the ability to pull it all together into a coherent, exciting, commercially viable mix is still a rarity.
    James McQuivery is on target with his assessment, advertisers have yet to warm up to the potential of the genre as we are learning in producing our own indie offering http://www.deletedthegame.com. Until content producers can demonstrate a track record of consistently drawing large audiences, and I would argue that EQAL and EFE are two leading practitioners, advertisers would undoubtedly benefit from concentrating their ad dollars on more traditional media.
    That’s why it’s so important that Gemini Division puts on a good showing. This is the kind of innovative entertainment that exploits the interactivity of the internet and changes the passive viewing experience of traditional TV into something far more engaging. And with a hefty $1.75 million budget (i.e. $7,000 per min versus the typical $1,000 per min indie budget), Gemini Division can spend to educate audiences and build a fan base for the genre.
    I wish NBC, EFE and Sony all the best, indies like us are trying to catch a free ride on their coat tails!
    Deleted: The Game

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