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Networks Killed Viral Video: Machinima and the Maturation of Web Video

Aymar Jean Christian August 9, 2011 uncategorized 3 Comments

As if we needed any more proof the term “viral” was a relic of 2008, the team behind Machinima.com’s Bite Me gave us one more yesterday at their International Television Festival panel.

The panel was called “Bite Me: How to Go Viral,” but in the first few minutes, Andy Shapiro, Machinima’s vice president of creative development, flatly said: “We’re not viral.”

It’s a common refrain these days. As web video becomes as serious business — and Machinima is one of many content-focused networks at its forefront — the “viral” is increasingly an out-of-date term.

Why? The answer is pretty simple. As a number of video networks build up credibility by delivering original content consistently, they’ve earned the trust of their viewers, the kind of trust major TV networks spent decades earning. From Funny or Die and My Damn Channel to YouTube-based Machinima and the former Next New Networks (so successful YouTube cut out the middle man and ate them up), networks don’t need to count on virality. Millions of users watch their programming based on brand alone. Machinima promoted Bite Me in-network, with no outward advertising, also a conventional practice.

Having millions of followers brings greater opportunities, and companies like Machinima already have the ear of major TV networks and brands like Microsoft. Networks like College Humor and Funny or Die likewise have their sights on television and film.

Today marketers and scholars are veering away from “viral” toward more practical concepts like “spreadable,” a term purported most cohesively by media scholar Henry Jenkins. The focus is less on the size of web popularity — views — and more on how information accumulates scale: through sharing.

What’s becoming clear is web-focused companies, from Netflix to Machinima, have already acquired the scale necessary to corral viewers and establish franchises. With viewers in their pocket, they can then approach brands and advertisers and guarantee a certain reach. This is, essentially, what TV networks do today.  “It’s more like a traditional network than you would think,” Shapiro said at the panel.

There are differences, of course. While Machinima makes money through ads run on YouTube, it also produces content through branded entertainment. The low-cost nature of their programming — Bite Me cost “under $400,000″ — and their focus on a core niche — gamers — meant Machinima could integrate the Microsoft/Capcom brand organically, arguably more so than in traditional media.

“We needed a great game. We needed a real video game that these guys played. Dead Rising made a lot of sense,”  said Shaprio, adding that Machinima’s audience “can smell bullshit five miles away.”

“Ultimately the conceit of the show is these guys know what they’re doing [killing zombies] because they play the game,” he said.

Machinima’s development process can also move faster than the traditional media. Bite Me was a roughly six-month process from start to premiere. The series took 10 days to shoot on the RED, with two weeks of prep, said Ralph Sanchez, Machinima SVP of production. Nine of those 10 days were all in one house, dressed up to look like different apartments. After six weeks of post-production, the series was ready to go.

The process is also more responsive to live audiences. Unlike the lengthy and arduous piloting process of television, Machinima, like many other web networks, “live pilots.” The first episodes were essentially a test for the show, in lieu of the labyrinth of focus groups and notes we see TV shows endure. And the producers say they do care what viewers think.

“We look at the comments even though we tell ourselves we shouldn’t,” Shapiro said. Fans are saying they actually want longer episodes, increasingly heard on the web these days as Netflix and Hulu push viewing times higher.

As for the future of Bite Me, Shapiro said they are working on more episodes and hope the show will be a franchise. “Our version of The Ghostbusters.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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