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.


4 Comments on “The Death Spiral of Web Video”

  1. Jack Ferry says:

    Terrific post, Thom. Couldn’t agree more.

  2. Susan Miller says:

    Not sure there is good news to be gleaned from this, Thom. Not unless you also provide something, some germ of an idea or answer to the last questions you pose.

    • thomwoodley says:

      You’re right, I’m not exactly giving suggestions. I plan to do that in another post – but my intent is not so much to state what I personally would do about this, because I do have an idea and will share it when I can, but hopefully to give some other people ideas about what stage of this spiral they can interrupt. I just thought that understanding that there’s a disconnect between hopes and reality for web video is key, and then approaching it not as one big unsolvable problem, but as a thing composed of many small problems that impact each other, also might help.

  3. David Nett says:

    Yes. I mean, I agree with Susan in that this looks bleak, but yes nonetheless. That graphic says it all. Yes.

    Not that I’m taking my camera and MBP and going home, mind you, but this accurately portrays the odds we face. Someone very close to me said, after a recent even in which several terrible, just terrible (terrible!) shows were screened, “After seeing that, I’m not sure I want to do this anymore. It isn’t special.”

    My reply: doing “this” (indietv, just like indie film or indie music or any art, frankly) *is* special, but only when it is good. Thanks to the internet and streaming services and digital video, anyone can make a show. A *good* show is rare. A *great* show rarer still. Especially in an indie space where you can’t abandon your day job to dedicate yourself to it.

    I hope we can figure out a biz model that really, actually works. I think, given time, we might. I’ve stopped believing it will be anytime soon, but I’m cynical by nature. I’d be happy to be wrong.

    But until then we work to break the parts of the circle we can attack on our own by making good stuff and busting our asses telling people about it. By trying to educate people about how *quality* of view is more important than *quantity.* And by encouraging each other to focus on quality, to not be satisfied with “good enough.” When you’re the underdog, “good enough” is never good enough.


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