On Wheat and Chaff: What’s “Good” Web Video?

In my post the other day, I used the phrase ‘wheat and chaff’ to discuss good web video (vs. not-so-good). A few people have taken me to task for this. One even compared me to Hitler. Far be it from me to say that using the Hitler analogy when we’re talking about something as petty as web video is a little much, but… dude, it’s a little much.

Anyway, the prevailing opinion was that I was wrong to doubt that “the cream always rises to the top”, in terms of good video naturally finding its audience. Well, I remember grade school, and I was taught that if a statement contains a definite like ‘always’ or ‘never’, than you can safely guess it’s false. But furthermore, direct experience has taught me: there are great webseries that have no audience, and there are terrible webseries with enormous audiences. A cursory glance at the landscape of the industry will tell you that, no, the cream doesn’t always rise, and the wheat frequently gets lost in the chaff.

Of course, one man’s wheat is another man’s chaff. Taste is subjective. And I won’t sit here criticizing the chaff-eaters for liking The Annoying Orange or anything like that. (And actually I have to admit that even that much-maligned show has been, at times, mildly humorous). So I thought I’d take the opportunity to explain what I consider to be the hallmarks of a good web production. This is what I look for when I’m evaluating shows. It’s what I aim for when I create my own (whether or not I succeed is a different story). It also happens to be the set of qualities that I think make good or great traditional television as well.

Great Content Should Be:

1. Chronic, not Viral. I talked about this last week, and it’s what the whole blog revolves around. But just to recap – it’s the idea that it’s video you keep coming back to, again and again, rather than seeing once. It’s myth vs. meme.

2. Episodic, not One-Off. Nothing against sketch comedy. Nothing against Funny or Die. I just want something longer form. I like long story arcs, developed characters. I like not only wanting to watch the next episode, but having to watch it to find out what happens to the characters or what they get up to next.

3. Quality, not Quantity. I would rather the show had 3 great episodes, like Timothy Cooper’s Concierge, than 12 mediocre ones. And I would rather the length fit the actual storytelling requirements, not an arbitrary 90-second or 3-minute cutoff like so many webseries I see. I don’t think you need to put out content every day, if it’s sub-par content (unless it’s your actual job). That said, I feel that 3 episodes is the bare minimum number to call it a series, and even then, that’s pushing it. I think 6 makes a first season. Otherwise it runs the risk of being just some sketches around a common theme.

4. Collectable, not Disposable. Similar to Chronic/Viral, but it revolves around the question of whether or not I would want to collect this show. If this were on TV, would I buy the DVD set? Would I pay for it on iTunes? Content collection is one of the big psychological factors of internet programming – that’s basically what our iPods and iPads are. Is this something that I’d want taking up space on those devices? Or would I erase it for something I like better?

5. Evergreen, not Hypercurrent. This requirement is what makes my work not so successful on YouTube. I don’t want content that is only relevant for one day or one week. To me, that’s news or talk show commentary. That’s not collectable, chronic content. I want to go back next year, two years from now, and still be able to laugh at it without trying to remember what now-obscure event it was referencing. I know I am in the minority on this one; Barely Political and The Gregory Brothers and even The Onion make their bread on the hypercurrent model, and pretty much every video portal that’s paying for original programming wants it. And any show wants to at least have some degree of timeliness. Still. I think a show should be evergreen at its core.

6. Specific, not Lowest Common. This is the big one. When I say ‘lowest common denominator’, I’m not being elitist. I’m not sitting here saying ‘so and so show is for plebians’. I’m not that guy who hates something because it’s popular (although I have been known to get jealous). My list of favorite movies would not be complete without entries from series as everyman as James Bond, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, the X-Men, and Lord of the Rings. I am not a film/video snob.

But I am a story snob. If the story isn’t good, if the characters aren’t on some level identifiable and believable, if the setting is generic, and if the pacing is off… I’m just not interested. For me, specificity is what makes good writing, and good film/television. I once had a network exec tell me that my show The Burg would never make it on television because it was ‘too specific’ in the location, the characters and the comedy. Uh-huh. Every great TV show out there is great because it’s specific, in character, in setting, in universe, in tone.

I’m using ‘lowest common’ to mean anything that is crafted specifically and calculatedly to appeal to the largest amount of people possible. We see this all the time in TV. A risky line that might offend a few hundred thousand is not taken. The edges are dulled down. The jokes are broadened. The storyline is simplified so that everyone can get it. The product is made to be so palatable that it has not even the whiff of flavor, and no one actually desires to consume it.

The internet has the potential to not need this type of desperate pan-pandering. A webseries can exist with an audience of 1,000 viewers or less; it can thrive with 50,000; it can launch its creators into Hollywood proper with 100,000. A show like All’s Faire will never bring anything close to television numbers, but its core audience is dedicated to it beyond belief. And this is why it’s so frustrating to see online shows that just recycle old TV tropes, or are one-gimmick riffs off existing memes.They don’t improve on TV, they just imitate it.

Ultimately, it’s a snack, and if I’m investing the time to watch, I want a meal.


Kickstarter Addendum 1: What Fred Seibert thinks.

After all that talking about Kickstarter and IndieGogo yesterday, Fred Seibert (of Channel Frederator, Next New Networks, and, originally, MTV) has summed up pretty well the argument FOR it. (Fred was also a part of the panel I was on with Yancey of Kickstarter). And I have to say, like most things Fred says, I tend to agree with his view.

In the world we’re living in, if you don’t get something made and in front of an audience there’s finally no one else to blame but the person in the mirror. If you’re talented, don’t wait for someone else to tell you so. Go out there, find your own audience. They’ll tell you what they think, and after all, aren’t they more important than Viacom, or DC Comics, or Random House? You’ll have satisfaction in doing what you think is right, and if you hit the bull’s eye you’ll make some money too.

[Full post]

This is, at its core, the argument for capitalism. Entrepreneurial spirit, equality of fundraising allowing for fantastic innovations to be made. Agree, agree.

Once I was giving a pitch to Fred, and it was going badly. I think I said something about pop music – how I didn’t really have much interest in it. He told me he loved pop music. And more importantly, “most people do”.

I’m all for giving the audience what they want… And if you don’t know the audience, making the damn show and finding it.

That said, and in defense of my previous post, we’re talking about a bullseye that is getting ever smaller and smaller in a sea of fragmented attention. There’s so much other stuff vying for space, and sometimes the ‘best’ stuff is the least ‘viral’ (often, I actually think). I don’t believe that just hitting the bullseye artistically is going to be enough. This mythical ‘bullseye’ has to encompass executional quality, genuine appeal, just enough money/resources for you to get it done, but most of all, two things to separate your work from the thousands of other series we see launch every month.

One of those is controllable: your level of tenacity and drive.

The other level is not controllable: luck.

And frankly, satisfaction is the ultimate goal of the artist, yes. But satisfaction doesn’t pay the bills. So sooner or later, someone who will has to come into the picture. That’s my chief concern as stated yesterday – the dual problem of creating more ‘snow-to-signal’ and of artifically deflating budget expectations.

(Thanks to Fred for being smart, and Zadi Diaz for posting it originally).

PS – Was this, historically, a problem? Talented indie filmmakers waiting for people to “give them permission” to make something? It’s the third time I’ve seen someone say that in 24 hours.

Are Kickstarter and IndieGogo ruining webseries?

I can feel most independent webseries creators already notching their arrows in my direction. How could Kickstarter/IndieGogo possibly be bad for webseries? It’s often the only way webseries can get funded!

Well, yes. That’s true. Often it is. And I have nothing against either operation. I use them both and have supported friends’ stageplays, records, films and webseries. In fact, I have sat on a panel with Kickstarter’s kickstarter, Yancey Strickland, and found him a great guy with a lot of great motivations and a really fantastic success story. He and his colleagues are doing wonderful, altruistic work for many, many people. Much better work than me, in fact, so I should probably just shut my damn mouth, right?

But what I’m most interested in is quality of web video. Let’s try that filter out.

It used to be (in the aulden dayes of 2008 and before!) that if you wanted to make a webseries, you either had to find some sponsor willing to pay for it (in which case, most of the time, it turned out crappy), or you did it yourself on credit cards (in which case, most of the time, it turned out cheap). Today, everyone can get their shit together, put together a pitch, and send it out to 100+ friends.

Everyone can do this. That is the benefit, and that is the problem.

ISSUE 1: Kickstarter pretty much funds everything. Because it’s social. If you are reasonably popular, you sell your pitch reasonably well, and your friends are not all reasonably homeless, you can count on milking 10 or 25 bucks from them each to do pretty much whatever you want. Extend that to your colleagues, your Facebook friends, the people on Twitter, and probably a couple of older and wealthier relatives, and you can pretty easily get your $5,000.

But just because your friends are willing to support you doesn’t make it good. (In fact, experience has taught me that sometimes folks are willing to support projects just to get their creators to shut up about it already). The money is now available – for everybody. Which means people who were too timid of spending money, too afraid of taking a risk, or too unsure of the quality of their ideas are now jumping in. Because what’s to lose? It’s not my money, and it’s not real money. Right?

I don’t mean to be aggressive or Randian on anybody here. But I do think that if you have a good idea, you know you have a good idea, and you do whatever it takes to make it. If it crashes and burns along the way, congratulations: you’ve failed, the most important step in success. If it doesn’t crash and burn, then congratulations: you’ve just taken one massive, exciting step towards your next failure.

With crowd-sourced funding of yet-to-be-produced projects, there is little natural weeding of poor ideas. It used to be a little easier to separate the wheat from the chaff, webseries-wise,  in that there was just so little of either. Now there’s a lot of both. The meritocrats believe that good content will naturally rise to the top. I don’t believe that anymore. I believe that a glut of chaff will continue to hide most of it, and we keep shoveling in that chaff.

(At least until we have better filtering, which will be the subject of several future entries).

ISSUE 2: These sites are unwittingly setting the standard rate of production for webseries. It seems to be, most people are asking for $5K to $10K for a 6-to-10-episode season. With most webisodes clocking in at 3 minutes these days, let’s do some terrible math and estimate that we are producing our webseries for a rate of about $300-$500 per produced minute.

Now, I’m all for low-budget video. I haven’t really done anything but. My highest budget for an actual webseries (excluding commercial projects) was a half million; yet, that was for about five and a half hours of broadcast-quality content (roughly 3 feature films). I love low-budget, and nothing makes me more angry than “directors” who think they can’t shoot a single frame without a crane, gib arm and pyrotechnics.

Except for being undervalued. That makes me madder. And I’m starting to get afraid here. Because we were producing The Burg for $100 a produced minute, and no one got paid. We shot 60 pages in 3 days for All’s Faire. But that’s supposed to not be the case anymore, in 2011. This is supposed to be becoming an industry. Kickstarter/Indiegogo is setting a potentially dangerous precedent here: 1, you have to have money, but 2, it should only be a little money. If this is defining what webseries are and which ones get made, then should we be concerned about the motivation for more professionals to really get into the business (and thus, real audiences)?

Now before anyone accuses me of being mean, elitist, curmudgeonly, needlessly antagonistic, or just a douche, I want to make it clear: I am indeed doing the online equivalent of throwing a bunch of darts into the air at the holiday party, and hoping they don’t hit me. Everybody loves Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and they’re making a lot of great stuff happen. I’m just asking questions.

Nor do I have alternatives to suggest. Although I do have interest in a different kind of crowd-sourced model: the audience-supported one. By which I mean, the actual audience that you know you actually have, because you made the first season on your own and built it up. Anyone But Me is the constantly cited example of this, but they’re not the only ones. Reason I like this is it combines the feel-good-social-video model (which we all love to embrace in theory) with the hardcore-objectivist-meritocracy model (that’s what actual business runs on). I, personally, think that’s a more viable longterm trend for web video.

What do you think? Does the good done far, far outweigh the bad? Disagreements? Darts? Throw ’em my way.

Speaking to Congress about Net Neutrality

Tuesday I traveled down to Washington D.C. with other members and staff of the Writer’s Guild of America East to talk to Congressional representatives about net neutrality.

It was a great trip. There were a bunch of great speeches from Michael Winship and Lowell Peterson of the WGA, and writers from the digital caucus and ‘traditional media’ as well. And then Julie Emery (Then We Got HELP!), Daryn Strauss (Digital Chick TV), Thomas Poarch (of the yet-to-be released Brosephs) and Duane Tollison (CBS Radio News) and I walked around D.C. for hours. Of particular satisfaction to me was finding out that Julie is equally as geeky as me about politics and politicians, if not moreso. Anyway, all of these people are natural born geniuses, and you should go check out their work and probably send them some money.

But back to net neutrality. What’s fascinating to me is that the WGA is, so far, the only major entertainment guild even talking about this issue (and please correct me if I’m wrong). What’s also fascinating is how little anyone in Congress, either liberal or conservative, actually knows about this issue. It’s just not been talked about and no one seems cognizant of the consequences.

I plan to get more into this issue on this blog. But first, I wanted to share my prepared remarks to the members of Congress and staffers we met with. This is close to what I actually said (I went off book a little).

Thank you, it’s an honor to be here.

I am a writer, and a creator of content, and as such, by necessity, an entrepreneur. What I’m going to talk about today are the business models of web video, how the open web allows creators to do innovative work, and the dangers that paid prioritization creates for that innovation.

In our discussions of net neutrality today, we’ve a couple of times heard the comparison of the internet  to highways. I’d like to expand that. Let’s suppose that a state decides adopt the prioritization model to their roadwork. This would mean they don’t pave roads in a certain area as well as other ones. We all know what would happen. The economy in that area suffers. Trucks can’t get to it, no one wants to drive along the bumpy, dirty road.

It’s the same online. Pavement equals streaming speed. If the streaming speed is slow, no one will watch. We don’t force the people who live on that road, the businesses on that road, to pay directly for paving the whole thing. But Internet Service Providers want to do that exact thing to content providers. If we don’t have net neutrality, ISPs could charge content providers money to deliver their content at a reasonable enough speed.

I am going to make the case that that is tantamount to killing a new industry before it has developed.

There is a business model of independent web video. There are a few. They exist, but they’re still nascent. And it’s very different from television or most other traditional economic structures.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Long Tail Theory of economics. I’ll just give a quick abstract. Say we’re in a book store. 80% of people who come into that store will tend to buy the same top 20% of books. The remaining 20% of people may also buy that top tier, but in addition, seek out products that are more diverse, less common denominator. When we chart these spending habits, rank of products sold against volume of sales, we get a short ‘body’ and a long ‘tail’.

Now, in a store, there’s a physical inventory. So it only makes sense to keep that top 20% in stock. Of course, for an online store, inventory is more vast. So you can open up the full 100% of products, and get that extra business. And here’s a hidden secret: people in this long tail will tend to pay more for the products they love, if they are perceived as rare.

How does this relate to television? TV has a fixed inventory of time that it is selling. As well as a great expense in broadcasting it. So it only makes sense to program shows that 80% of the populace will seek out. The same with movie theatres – a fixed number of screens. But web video has no fixed period of time. It has no fixed numbers of screens. Strictly speaking, it has no distributional limits, except for streaming speed.

That means that online, this long tail of specialized content is now open for everybody.

From an advertising perspective, we know that a message moves farther and more effectively when it is highly tailored to its audience. You are three times more likely to watch a video if a friend shared it to you. So advertisers have an excellent model here. Let’s take as an example, an award-winning and very popular series I participate in called The Temp Life. It is sponsored by a staffing agency who could never afford to buy TV time. But they could afford a more specified and tailored web production with Hollywood celebrities like Milo Ventimiglia and Illeana Douglas. And the show just finished its 5th season, which is longer than most real Hollywood shows.

Web video, due to its long tail nature, has the tendency to gather audiences of more specific demographics. These shows function with a smaller audience, but they become more valuable to the sponsor. My show The Burg gathered an audience of hipsters and influencers mostly based in New York. It’s the kind of audience TV shows desperately try to attract, but had not reliably done so. Sure, the show did not rack up the millions of views per episode that a TV show needs. That’s okay. We did not need it. We had a highly activated audience who, when we did do sponsorships, were much more accepting of our sponsors’ products.

Web TV will not be, in the future, about gathering the ‘most views’, but gathering the ‘best views’.

But it’s worth pointing out that putting any of this content behind a paywall, or tiered download situation where it didn’t stream quickly, that would have killed it. People would not have watched.

There are two more models I’d like to briefly discuss.

One is the audience-supported show. Take the show Anyone But Me. It’s a multiple award-winning show about a lesbian teenager and her struggles. It’s excellent. It tells a difficult story about a topic some would think is controversial. And it likely would never have been made on TV. They are able to make this show because they have an audience who is demanding it. Again, it’s a smaller audience, but they are so passionate about this show that they pay for it. Not per download – by donation.

But it’s tight. Profit margins are slim in both of these models. If we were charging Anyone But Me an extra fee to stream fast enough so that the audience can watch it, then they probably would not be able to make it.

Another model that is developing is even more interesting to me, as a small business owner: the local webseries scene.

Distribution is, at present, open to everyone. I can make a video and put it up – there are no walls between me and a prospective audience of millions. At the same time, the means of film production are accessible to everyone, with consumer-level editing software and digital cameras. This means that a webseries can be generated and created anywhere, for any audience. This is of course different from film and TV, where you have to be in LA or NY.

What we are seeing now is communities of content creators and webseries makers beginning to pop up in every state of the union. In places that never had any sort of film industry before, we suddenly see one popping up. And it can be sponsored by local advertisers. I point to one of the shows I’m involved in, Greg and Donny, which is about two guys just chatting about stuff going on in the small, post-industrial steel town Johnstown, PA. Now, that sounds like a very specific show that no one outside that town would want to watch, right? Well… stay tuned.

I believe in a few years, we will be seeing small town film scenes. Communities of  webseries creators and vloggers from Maine to Utah. Decentralized micro-industries of creative professionals from Alabama to Wyoming. I believe we will see this… down the road.

But not if the road is too expensive to travel on.

Net neutrality is vital to keeping the lanes of communication open. The creative economy of the future depends on it. Thank you.

What is “Chronic Video”?

What is Chronic Video?

I can tell you this: it’s not viral video.

‘Viral video’ is a term that’s come to mean anything from an America’s Funniest Home Videos style clip with tens of millions of views, to a comedy sketch featuring an SNL celebrity, to any digital work an ad agency is trying to sell to its client. It is an umbrella term that has come to mean anything and everything; thus, it means nothing.

‘Viral’ originally meant it starts small, and then it blows up. It hits a certain tipping point and its views increase exponentially. It makes the rounds from family and friends much in the same way a literal virus would.

Thus: If it doesn’t blow up exponentially, it’s not really viral. If it doesn’t start small (i.e. if it starts with a commercial or studio budget and tons of paid impressions), then really, we also should not be calling it viral.

The problem with viral is that, by its very nature, it’s unpredictable. We don’t know when or what will go viral (although we can guess pretty well). But throwing money at the makers of some random AFHV-style clip rarely gets an advertiser what they’re looking for. No one really wants to watch David Goes to the Dentist 2 (or buy the product attached to it). The initial magic, the initial surprise that hooked us is gone. It was a 24-hour bug.

Further, ‘viral’ puts the focus squarely on one metric of success: number of views. Is that really accurate? Is The Annoying Orange better than Break A Leg because it has more views? Is Total Request Live better than The Sopranos? Web video pioneers and the advertisers who want to love them get all hopped up about quantity… without stopping to question the quality. We should know by now that for any industry that wants to sustain and valuate itself, that is an untenable position.

For those of us that want internet video to be a real profession, a career and a valid artistic medium, we have to move past this idea of viral.

We don’t want a world full of only fragments, of aimless memes zipping around the noosphere. We want storyline. We want arcs. We want trilogies. We want new myths and legends. Dammit, we want something worth coming back to again and again and again.

And since we’re referring to web video as a disease (and I heartily second that depiction), then let’s go ahead and define what we want.

We want Chronic Video.

We want to catch a series and then feel like we have no choice but to catch it again. We want to come back to the site or the channel every week, every day even, and feel compelled to see what the new content is. We want an addiction, a chronic affliction.

Viruses are for kids. It’s time for the web to grow up.