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Will This Time Be Different for Web TV?

Aymar Jean Christian February 23, 2012 uncategorized No Comments
Will This Time Be Different for Web TV?

Originally posted at Hacktivision.

In This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, economists diagnose an incurable syndrome in finance history: the tendency to believe each crisis is “different” than previous economic collapses. They show how, in fact, most debt crises have a small set of core similarities. This time is not so different.

The same could be said for the shorter history of web programming. We now have a largely unrecognized genre of reporting—often good reporting—about the “new television” lineup. The articles, mostly written in the trade press but occasionally in mainstream newspapers like the New York Times and most recently Los Angeles Times, start with a declaration that the television landscape is changing online, and then proceed to offered extensive evidence of new forms of TV. A list of programs is typically included.

Netcaster "The Sync"

I realized this when doing research on a broad history of web programming. The first of these could be a 1996 article in my hometown paper, The Record, which posited “cybersoaps” as the potential next form of television. Then it was webtoons in the early 2000s, with Variety‘s Marc Graser declaring that “the Netcasting game”—the pre-Netflix’s—”starts to look a little more like Hollywood every day…[W]annabe Webheads are jumping into the Internet content creation game, trying to feed Netcasters desperate for entertainment programming.”

Each new trend came and went, often within a year or two. By the time YouTube rose to prominence, widespread corporate interest in web originals faded. But now it’s back in a big way. History has taught us to be skeptical of the “next big thing,” but web originals really are different today. Will this time be different?

There’s a lot of evidence it will be.

Format: Web series today look more like television than previous periods of programming, which have typically been shorter in length or completely different in style (cybersoaps were mostly text-based).

Bandwidth: Nearly 70% of Americans have access to high-speed Internet, absolutely necessary for viewing long-form video.

Revenue: There’s real money flowing into web programming, based on solid business models. Hulu’s investing a robust but responsible amount of money acquiring and producing original series, given the company $500 million revenue; Netflix’s budget for originals is 5% of its overall content budget, the rest of it going to competing (successfully at times) with the likes of HBO and Amazon for syndication. Other networks like Aol, Yahoo, Crackle and YouTube are investing smartly, as a proportion of expected revenue. All are either owned by wealthy publicly traded companies, or, in the case of Netflix, is one. They’re relatively self-sustaining, not overly reliant on parent companies or wealthy producers.

Competition: Not only is there real demand for web originals from the audience—average viewing time continues to rise—but there’s a number of options, forcing the distributors above and content companies like CBS, Warner Bros. and Fox to step up their game.

Organization: While a “web TV guide” is still something of an illusion, notwithstanding the laudable efforts of Clicker and Sidereel, web companies are starting to streamline the market, through award shows and the much-hyped digital upfronts.

Not to mention: the programming’s pretty good. Not everyone agrees, of course. Variety‘s critic Brian Lowry is still not buying web originals: ”The bar ought to be pretty high for original online fare,” referring, not complimentarily, to Hulu’s Battleground. I agree. But Netflix’s Lilyhammer is quite decent—it’s other Euro-import, Tom Fontana’s Borgia, was not—and I have a hard time imagining the network’s Fincher/Spacey project House of Cards or its Arrested Development reboot will disappoint. On the short-form side, leading YouTube channels like Machinima and BlackBoxTV are churning out great genre series and finding consistent, dedicated audiences.  You’ll find plenty of great niche programs among the winners of this week’s Indie Soap Awards.

What’s wrong? There is the perennial “measurement crisis,” the inability of these web networks to come up with a consistent ratings system that will satisfy advertisers (Nielsen has an idea or two). I suspect this won’t be a problem for long.

The larger problem is one I’ve already started: a lot of the most recent “web TV” grabbing headlines looks an awful lot like traditional TV. Netflix’s Lilyhammer could easily be on TV, if not HBO then definitely Showtime. A lot of the creatives getting high profile development deals were already successful in film or television (David Fincher, Mitch Hurwitz, many of the YouTube channels). Last year’s announcement by Crackle of their long-form line-up had producers with credits in broadcast TV. In 10 years, it seems unlikely many of us will care Netflix and Hulu were originally broadcast over-the-top. They’ll all be apps on our Google TVs (or whatever).

What difference does a difference make? That’s the question we need to be asking in 2012.

Photo credits:
-Screenshot, The Sync (via, Archive.org)
-Screenshot, Netflix.com

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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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