Longer & More Popular (no, this is not about porn)

Last week the numbers for online video consumption in the U.S. came out from comScore (basically, the internet-video version of Nielsen, but site-specific). I found out about it through Marc Hustvedt’s great online video resource, tubefilter.tv.

Two key takeaways:
– 6.3 BILLION viewing sessions. Everybody is watching internet video, and watching more and more of it.
– The average video duration is 5.4 minutes. It’s been climbing steadily from December 2007.

Think about that second stat for a second. If you’re coming from TV land, 5.4 minutes doesn’t sound like much screentime. But if you’re coming from web video land, this is huge.

When my partners and I started The Burg way back in 2006, comScore wasn’t even around, but online ‘common sense’ was. This common sense told us, nay, SCREAMED at us, that a minute and a half was an ideal video length, and anything longer than 3 minutes was suicide. This frightened us, as a typical episode of The Burg was anywhere from 14 to 22 minutes long. So, we played it safe. We began to create shorts of anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes (yes, even our shorts were longer than most people’s ‘longs’.) We interspersed our normal eps with our shorts. We fully anticipated looking at our viewcount and having much less views for our longer eps.

The exact opposite happened. Our views actually went down every time we posted a short. Why? We don’t know exactly. But after talking to fans, we have a pretty good idea: they were outside the chronology of the story. They were little jokes, standalone scenes, things that didn’t fit in the tightly plotted and structured episodes of The Burg. And so, people didn’t care as much. I knew right then that we had something good. People were hooked on the structure and the story and didn’t mind the length.

Ever since then, I’ve rigidly maintained that length should not be the top deciding factor when you’re creating your content. I’ve been mocked for this, as there are many creators who believe otherwise. In the early days, there were a lot of 90-second episodic thrillers. For me, even when well produced, the story jolted and jittered, because 90 seconds of a thriller is enough to get you to a cliffhanger, but usually seems to stop short of great character development. When working with other online portals, I’ve had to cut 5 minute shorts to under 3 minutes, and in the process, lost some of the best moments because they just didn’t fit. (This is not to say you can’t make a great episode in 90 seconds – of course you can. I just think you shouldn’t have to.)

I get why this happens in TV. You have a fixed inventory of time. 22 minutes for your sitcom once commercials are factored in. It becomes a surgical process (and to a degree, it should with all content). But on the internet, there is no such restriction. Yet content creators and programmers decided to all limit themselves to one anyway. It seems cynical, arbitrary, and a big underestimation of viewers’ tastes.

Well, it seems that common sense was wrong in this case. People are now, officially, measurably, watching longer and longer video. And 5.4 minutes is the average. Meaning, many people are consuming video that’s much, much longer.

As Hustvedt states, “If the same trajectory were to be taken forward a few years, which is probably a conservative estimate given the current market, we’d expect to see average online video duration at 10.4 minutes by 2014.”

Which means, by my shoddy estimate, people are going to be ready for The Burg by… let’s see… May 2017. Hm. Oh well. Better 11 years early than too late.


Soaps? Online? Hell yes!

Shortly after my show All’s Faire came out, I was approached by a gentleman who asked Dinosaur Diorama and I to make The Guidling Light as a webseries. To be clear, he was only a fan of the show, not a producer of any sort. He had seen our show, which starred both Robert Bogue and Mandy Bruno of that show, and likely knew about our casting of other soap stars (Kelli Giddish back when she was on All My Children, Tom Pelphrey) in the past.

I thought long and hard about this. Not because I particularly like soap operas or have any creative interest in The Guiding Light. But I was fascinated by the idea of turning an existing soap property into an online property. I went out and bought Dark Shadows and watched it to see. Could something like this be turned into a webshow? Creatively? Legally?

After doing the math, I couldn’t make it work. The most I would be able to produce might be a short scene per day. Ultimately, I realized that the people who watch soaps wouldn’t be satisfied with that. They watched soaps because they were hooked on the stories, but also to occupy time when they were at home or at work. Soap watchers are a mix of very active fans (buying magazines, talking on forums, following the actors) and very passive fans (turning it on and watching it with half your mind while you do something else).

That said, I loved the idea of the online soap. I loved the idea of event television online. I loved bringing a show to an underserved online audience. I loved the the discipline involved in crafting a daily storyline (even if it does sometimes revolve around amnesia and/or demonic possession).  I loved the absolutely seamless and meaningful integration of products into a storyline (they’re not called SOAP operas for nothing, folks). I thought long and hard about getting involved.

But I didn’t. Time went on and other projects swiftly took its place. And then today, I saw this:

Beloved Soaps to migrate online. All My Children and One Life To Live being bought by production company Prospect Park (they make “Royal Pains” among other things).

And I’m fascinated. This is a proven company. Buying a proven (if a bit faded and temporarily suffering) property. And aiming to produce for a thoroughly unproven medium. This is big. Very big.

Now that people all over the country have high-speed broadband, and people of all ages are much more used to watching video online, how will these soaps do? But the bigger question to me is, what will they look like? Will they be an hour long? Will they be a scene long? Will they be union shows (it looks like yes, the same cast and crew at least will be involved)? Will they be daily? Will they in any way resemble the shows that so many people knew and loved?

Further, they are “expected to be the first of a number of brand-name TV shows” to be programmed on a “new, as-yet-unnamed, TV-focused network”. Big. Very very big!

As some of you know, I have something sort of similar (but also completely different) in the works. But if Rich Frank and Jeff Kwatinetz can take this first massive step and make it work – and I have every reason to believe they can – then I want to be the first to welcome them to the sandbox.

Or should I say soapbox (and buh-dum-CHING and cut to commercial).

P.S. Kudos to Roger Newcomb over at We Love Soaps. This must be a big day for him. 🙂

The Death Spiral of Web Video

Not enough people are watching webseries.

I know, I know: Thom, that’s false. Look at how-so-ever-many millions of views were racked up by this show or that show… But no, stop. On the whole, nobody watches scripted, narrative, episodic webseries. Not really. Not in network TV numbers. Not even in cable TV numbers.

I’m not talking about vlogs and clip shows. I’m not talking about informationals or how-tos. I’m talking about sitcoms, about drama procedurals, about character driven epics, about straight-up Chronic Video. Episodic TV like HBO makes, like AMC makes, like the big networks used to make.  Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t find one that has a million regular, unique viewers. A million people that come back every single episode. I certainly know my shows got nowhere near that. An episode here or there might get up to that many views, but not consistently.

So in the television sense, in the we-need-big-numbers-in-order-to-justify-higher-production-costs-and-survive-as-a-medium sense… no. The audience isn’t showing up.

This thought is really disturbing to me as a creator, so I thought I’d ask why. That’s when I theorized:

Web video is in a Death Spiral.

I don’t throw words like Death Spiral around lightly. (But stay tuned, there’s a surprise happy ending!)

So, the problem.  Nobody watches webseries. Why?

Because they all suck. Or at least, by prevailing wisdom, most of them do. I remember the first Streamy awards. When everything was won by Battlestar Galactica, Dr. Horrible, and The Guild, a well-known agent was heard to remark (and I paraphrase) “This just proves what we thought. The best of independent web video is still massively inferior to what Hollywood is putting out in its spare time.” Ouch.

But yeah, as I’ve stated before, there’s a lot of chaff out there, and limited wheat (and yes, I’ve made both). So the problem isn’t that all webseries suck – there are great ones out there. The problem is no one really knows that the great ones exist.

Because it’s still hard to find great content. And YouTube is terrible at it. Just try to discover a great new series there if you don’t already know what you’re looking for. Sure, there are content aggregators and curated sites. Many of which I love. Many of which are laid out quite well and do a stellar job (i.e. My Damn Channel). But still, being a destination site and successfully sorting out the good content, while still having ENOUGH content, is a massive undertaking.

So in order to make the “cream rise to the top”, many of these sites take content from anywhere, and employ the Digg or Funny or Die system. They rate the videos. Your peers – or rather, random internet citizens – vote on whether or not they are good. The top-ranked videos end up on top of the page. Works like a charm, right? No.

Because the rating system doesn’t always promote the ‘best’ content. It promotes the least-hated content. It’s the lowest common denominator again. I can go to a site and reasonably expect the video on top to be the one that the most people didn’t find objectionable. Well, what if I want something objectionable? What if I want something nerdy, or violent, or offensive, or just really niche? Look somewhere else. Well why is this?

Because advertisers are addicted to viewcount. The people paying the bills (or will, some day, at least in theory) don’t really care about the quality of the content, in most cases. (I say this as an ad man, so ad/media guys: simmer down, you know it’s true). The sponsor just wants to know how many views it got. If it has more views, that must mean it’s better, right? Right??

As I’ve written before, in the future, it won’t really be about getting the ‘most views’, but the ‘best views’. It will be about fitting the brand to the content and the community, rather than building content around a brand. So why aren’t sponsors quicker to realize that?

Because they are still using banner advertising paradigms. Web video popped onto the scene when the dominant form of online advertising was banners. And, since media guys like nothing better than to swiftly assign old tropes to new technology in order to make it tame and understandable to clients, they approached web video like it was a combination of a TV show and a banner.

And somewhere along the line, sponsors realized that they could track whether or not people clicked on their banners and video. So now the sponsor thinks: “I’m able to track directly how many people clicked on that Tampax ad in the middle of The Burg, went to the Tampax site, and bought some Tampax. If not a lot of people buy it, well then, that must be a fault of the media planners, or the show itself for not getting enough views.”

Well… Yes, you can measure that. No, it doesn’t mean what you think it does. And no, no one is clicking out of the video to go to your product’s site.

Because fans don’t click out of great content. Look, if the cost-per-click model isn’t working for Hulu, it won’t work for the rest of us. That’s my personal feeling – but it’s no secret that Hulu has some of the highest CPMs in the business ($36 last I checked) and some of the worst clickthrough rates. People know if they click on the ad in the middle of their show, then they will be taken away from the show to some godawful brand’s homepage. No thanks. I’ll keep watching the show I’m invested in.

Because it’s rare I find something I can really invest in. For all the reasons stated above. Plus, people are busy. They don’t want to just watch anything. And it’s hard to find quality that matches television.

Because for the most part, TV and Film professionals are not wasting their time in webseries. Yes, some are. But with a few notable exceptions, the professionals are dabbling, in between pro gigs. Meanwhile, you have a big class of web-only creators, talented but unknown outside the IAWTV. And again, as talented as we all may be, with a few exceptions none of us are really making our livings through web video. Which, in my book, should be part of being a professional. The fact of the matter is, the people who make the best television are not making original webseries.

Because there’s no money in webseries. The business model is too new. There’s no guarantee of ROI. The content is too short for a lot of people. Financiers are skittish. The money is just not there.

Because nobody watches webseries.

Thus, we see the spiral.

The good news?

This is a circle that can be broken. If you were to interrupt this circle at any point… with a solution to any one of these problems… you could conceivably become the entrepreneur that raises the bar. Can you make it easier to find great content? Can you break the CPM model and get sponsors hooked on something better? Can you lure more TV pros into making webseries?

If so, you could be the solution. Now get to it so the rest of us can have an industry already.