It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but with good reason. Webseries have taken a break to feature writing, ad writing, novel writing, video game writing, and of course, vacation. But as we sweep back into Fall next week with the official kickoff of the New York Television Festival (in which my pilot “Powerless” is a selection!) it seems an excellent time to talk about the web again. Especially because, within the next month, I will have some extra-special news and quite possibly the launch of something very cool that I’ve been working on for a long time.
Anyway. I recently was talking to somebody who congratulated me on my many successful webseries (his words, not mine). I nodded my thanks, but then started to reflect on my career. I allowed myself a brief moment to accept that I had had some (small) successes on the web. But more than that, I had had tons of failures. And that’s okay. Repeated failure is the only path to success, after all (unless you’re born Kardashian).
But I realized that I do probably have a wealth of knowledge about webseries. Specifically, what not to do. Take the following list to heed. I have made almost every single mistake on here.
If you want your webseries to be a failure:
Don’t promote it. Sit and wait for people to write about you. Don’t bother contacting blogs or press directly – surely, they’ll find out about your show on their own. If you manage to get a little bit of press, pat yourself on the back and consider your job done. No need to compile your press into a package to send out as PR; everyone will remember that one article in AM New York a year from now.
If you must promote it, promote it like a movie. Spend six months just driving people to a splash page and a teaser trailer, with the inability for them to watch anything but that. Keep information sparse! The buzz will create itself. And then, when the show comes out, put all of your dollars and energy into that first week. As opposed to four or five weeks in, when audiences can come and see more of your work in one place and get hooked. Really, this is just like the movies. It’s all about opening weekend.
Don’t build a specific audience. Don’t bother reaching out and finding your audience; let them come to you. After all, your show is good, right? Not like the rest of the crap out there! Well, you can just sit back and relax and trust in the fact that the cream always rises, and if you pop your show up on YouTube and send a link to your Facebook friends, that’s enough. It’ll definitely always snowball and go viral from there. And if you have a niche show – like, say, about people from Johnstown PA or the Renaissance Faire – don’t spend time figuring out where people in that niche congregate online. Don’t reach out to webrings or Facebook groups that your audience frequents. Don’t target people on Twitter and get them to tweet about your show. Just post and pray, baby!
Do everything yourself. Dammit, you’re good enough to write, direct, produce, star, edit, compose music, design the webpage and plan the launch party. Just because that kind of raging egoism is usually the kiss of death for a movie or TV show doesn’t mean it’s the same online, right? You don’t need any help. Besides, other people will just screw up your vision. Who cares if by spreading out the workload, you create a tight-knit family who will all work tirelessly to push your show. This is your show, after all. You could probably hold the boom while doing all the above too, because a sound man is expensive. Speaking of…
Don’t worry about sound. Sound men cost money. So it’s not even worth asking. Don’t post an ad seeing if anyone will work for free. And if you can’t find someone, don’t dig deep and find $200 to pay them. Just use your on-camera mic and relax. Because no one really listens to the sound anyway. As long as the writing is good, who cares, right?
Don’t worry about writing. It’s just the internet. People want flashy-flash, zombies, a hot chick, and cats. Just give ’em that.
Don’t worry about lighting. It’s a small screen! That means you can make do with an incandescent bulb, especially if you’re shooting on a DSLR. It’s much better to just shoot it and get it done. Grips and gaffers and lights are for TV.
Just cast your friends. For whatever parts you’re not going to play, of course. Because all your friends are actors, deep down. Even if they’ve never acted before. They just “have it in them”. So don’t hold auditions. That will be a waste of your time, and you definitely won’t meet new people, expand your circle, and find better options for your show. Your web series should be first and foremost a showcase for you and your roommates.
Totally lie about your content. Does someone in your episode say ‘it’s hot out’? Is it a woman? Then grab a screencap of someone in a bikini (doesn’t even have to be her!) and title the episode HOT GIRL TAKES IT OFF. Believe me, you will get people to click. And then when they do, they will totally be won over by your snappy dialog and your well-formed character arcs, and they will forget all about the fact that they were searching for boobs. They’ll be so impressed with your witty lie that they’ll share with all their perv friends. And it absolutely won’t get you any flack whatsoever from fans!
Disable comments on your homepage. You don’t really want comments anyway. They’re nasty. You don’t want people telling you your writing sucks, or your show isn’t funny, or listing the things they’d like to do to a particular actress. And besides, spam. Approving comments is a chore. And if in the process of stifling that stuff, you also stifle legit fans who want to be part of a community, want to spread your show, want to feel like they’re crucial to its growth, or God forbid, want to start their own conversations on your site… well then, so be it. It’s worth it not to have to read criticism.
If there’s money, spend it all on production. And the launch party, of course! Do not under any circumstances keep any for promotions or buying banner or Facebook ad space to publicize your show.
Put all your emphasis on the screening. Once you watch your first episode in a bar in front of 20 people, your job is done. You’ve worked hard. Now’s the time to kick your feet up, pat yourself on the back, watch your friends laugh or cry, hopefully at the right places, and let the ensuing ripples take the entertainment world by storm. Because nothing spreads a web video like a bunch of people standing around chitchatting, not in front of a computer.
Follow everybody’s lead. There’s a show about World of Warcraft players, and there’s a show about Dungeons & Dragons players, and there’s a show about Dungeons & Dragons characters, but there’s no show about World of Warcraft characters!!! That’s clearly an oversight that you must correct. Because the internet is just like TV, only with nichier topics.
Autotune it, just because. Instant hits!!
Ignore copyright law. Use any old music or film clips you want. No one will care!
Don’t get releases for locations or people. There is no possible way this could ever come back to haunt you. Not even if you try to release DVDs.
People are really impressed with Streamy awards. This, obviously, speaks for itself.
You don’t need to know Wilson Cleveland. Or Paul Kontonis. Or Dina Kaplan. Or Josh Cohen or Jenni Powell or George Strompolos or Amber Lawson or Kathleen Grace or Marc Hustvedt. All those people are optional.
Don’t make season 2. This is a biggie. If you have a show that’s a success, by any measure you choose to define success, be it monetary, artistic or buzz-related, than stop after Season 1. Better to quit while ahead, right? Better to not keep posting episodes. Maybe you’re tired, maybe you think your fanbase will be content with what you’ve already made, maybe you want to focus on other projects. All good reasons to give up! Forget all that hogwash about shows really finding themselves after the first season.
Stop after one series. The way you build yourself into a brand, the way you build yourself into a personal mini-empire, is by doing one thing, and one thing only. Don’t make spinoff series. Don’t jump at an opportunity to do something different, or to help with someone else’s series, or to shoot a music video. You want to be known as that guy who did that one thing, even 5 years after the end of its run.
Always remember: your show is just a calling card for TV/Film. If there’s one thing that big-time Hollywood people are impressed with, it’s webseries. It’s a well known fact that when staffing writers and directors and actors, everyone from J.J. Abrams to Robert Zemeckis goes surfing through the latest webseries and finds the best diamonds in the rough. So, feel free to make one or two episodes and call it a day. They’ll get the idea; you’ll get the gig!
Always listen to the web network. If you get your show on a portal, capitulate to everything. If they don’t want to publicize your show, then don’t you tell anybody either. If they want to cut all the jokes so that it’s a dry 2 minutes when you wrote it as a hilarious 5, fair game. Better short than funny, I always say! Oh, and make sure you sign a contract granting them exclusive rights.
Always listen to your agent. If they won’t take the time to set up a meeting for you, then, well, it’s probably because they know it won’t be worth it for you. Not because they’re too busy dealing with celebrity clients and people already working in TV. And if they don’t want you to do a deal because there’s not enough money in revshare/mobile licensing/what-have-you, even if it will give you a ton of eyeballs and new fans, it’s not because they won’t make their money – it’s just, you know, not worth your time.
Always listen to your sponsor. If you are integrating products into your show, then by all means: take every bit of advice from the ad agency or the brand as gospel truth. Because ad agencies are creative geniuses, and brands always know best. Absolutely get rid of every edgy bit of dialog. Absolutely agree to throw your plot out the window to squeeze in a product. Absolutely agree to drop the product name wherever you can. Remember, you are no longer creating a piece of art or entertainment – you are in the business of shilling for Expedia.com.
Never listen to your fans. After all, this is your show and your story. If you are lucky enough to get fans, that must mean you are good enough to ignore them. If they don’t like your favorite episode, then clearly you have stupid fans. Post something they’ll hate, just to spite them. They’ll be back.
Okay, I think that about sums it up. Anything I forgot, ye veterans of the web video world?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.