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Newfronts 2012: Web Networks Take On Television

Aymar Jean Christian April 30, 2012 Video 3 Comments
Newfronts 2012: Web Networks Take On Television

Originally posted at Hacktivision.

“The new scarcity is content, content that is quality,” Digitas chief creative officer Mark Beeching said at the company’s fifth annual Newfront yesterday.

We all know about scarcity on television—or at least we think we know. There are only so many channels on television, and only a handful of them create the headline-grabbing or critic-worthy original programming most people care about. Of course, there’s a lot more television today than ever; whole seasons of television can now be made for $1 million or less. Still, channels don’t order hundreds of shows at a time. Selectivity gives television its power.

The web boasts much more programming, Beeching was saying, and that’s a problem for marketers. If the power of television is curation, web networks have been trying for years to emulate it. To get brands on board, companies like YouTube, Hulu, AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft—with Digitas, the five founding partners of this year’s event—need to prove to audiences original web programming is worth watching. To do that, they feel the need to be selective: pick a few programs and push them. They need, in the words of future Participant television chief Evan Shapiro, to “help people know what to watch.”

Hence, the Newfronts. The Newfronts are the digital answer to the broadcasters’ Upfronts, where they parade shows and stars in front of marketers, while ad buys and deals get done backstage. These are also a way to get audiences interested in programs. Such conferences have two directives: watch this show (to audiences) and buy this show (to marketers). Backstage at Newfronts, held in SoHo, advertisers met network execs hungry for cash.

But digital networks have an extra task. They have to sell the medium. Judging from the event yesterday, and the many side events taking place all week, every network seems to have a different idea of how to accomplish these tasks, to position the web as the new television.

Web Programming execs, from left to right: Janet Balis (AOL), Rob Bennett (MSN), Jamie Byrne (YouTube), Andy Forssell (Hulu), John McCarus (Digitas) and Erin McPherson (Yahoo!)

Of all the founding partners—the Big Five to TV’s Big Four—Yahoo! and Hulu might be going the hardest for “big content,” the theme of this year’s Newfronts. Yahoo is branding itself the “first digital network” and is marshaling Katie Couric to help it back up the claim. If Yahoo doesn’t want to be TV, it wants to be bigger than TV:  “This is not TV. This is what I call before ‘TV on steroids,’” said Erin McPherson, Yahoo head of original programming. The network is heavily promoting its much-anticipated, 90-minute, post-apocalyptic animated series, Electric City, written and starring Tom Hanks, with co-starring roles for Holland Taylor and Jeanne Tripplehorn.

Hanks chose Yahoo because of its global reach, McPherson said. Yahoo can distribute a artsy blockbuster around the world, Avatar via the web (Electric City comes with a green message, naturally). “The internet could embrace ambiguity in a way that television can’t,” McPherson said. She has past hits to back her up. Intentional or not, Electric City follows in the footsteps of early web video hits Afterworld and After Judgement, both post-apocalyptic, sci-fi dramas.

Yahoo is choosing to go big, but Hulu has no choice. As the primary site for watching broadcast TV online, viewers who visit the site expect traditional formats.  “The bar is pretty high,” said Andy Forssell, Hulu’s senior vice president of content. The network says its focusing on picking up shows from television and film vets like Morgan Spurlock, Richard Linklater and Seth Meyers who have an interesting idea they couldn’t get on-air. The network’s first half-hour show, Battleground, has received mixed reviews, with Reuters and The Wrap calling it TV-lite, but other respected critics saying it’s must-watch web TV. Forssell encouraged marketers to look out for its shows in the upcoming year, signaling a shift from the very recognizable Battleground.

AOL, now with the powerful Huffington Post in its corner, is aiming to be the CNN of the web, with a live 12-hour news and entertainment program, The Huffington Post Streaming Network. The promo shown at Newfront looked like MSNBC meets Current TV, with young, hip hosts and a lot of swerving cameras. The network will try to leverage Huffington Post‘s high social media activity to get a jump on the competition. AOL’s Janet Balis boasted the site logged its 150 millionth comment yesterday: “It starts with television, but we hope it becomes a social experience,” Balis said.

Microsoft and YouTube are, arguably, moving the farthest away from TV. YouTube, which we’ve covered a lot on this site, has 100 premium channels in the mix, many of which have already premiered and been variously praised and scolded for deviating and emulating television. At the event, YouTube’s content head Jamie Byrne showed a clip from one of their many Latino-targeted channels, this one a reality show about Sofia Vergara from her son on the network NuevOn from former NBC entertainment head Ben Silverman’s studio, Electus.

“We think we’re just getting things started,” Byrne said. “We’re taking the risk out of the scenario for the content creators, so they can think about business.”

What Byrne means is the site, historically known as “a platform about individual videos,” is moving away from promoting the mass of “viral” videos and showcasing what’s marketable. YouTube-approved content will now define YouTube, the quirks smoothed out. Content creators will have a lot less marketing to do, less worrying about making their videos spread. YouTube, like any TV network, will market its own programming.

Most famously known in the web series world as the distributor of Felicia Day’s indie hit, The Guild, Microsoft appears to be focusing on innovation and interactivity. It hasn’t let go of the past: Day, a charming and intelligent spokesperson for the power of the web to support producer-driven content, was a strong presence at the NewFronts this week. She is, with good reason, a strong supporter of her employer, which has supported The Guild for four years.

For the post-TV future, Microsoft is focusing on Xbox and interactivity. The company unveiled a promo for an Xbox-distributed “show” called Kid’s Kitchen, which is kind of an interactive game where kids pick ingredients and make a digital meal, which “mom” can then cook. In the promo, the kids playfully interacted with a television screen, yet what the audience saw was anything but. Microsoft wants to reinvent television, but Kid’s Kitchen is also nostalgic for early television: those days when families gathered around one screen, not four or seven, in the heart of the house, the living room. Make room for web TV.

All in all, the afternoon of talks, promos and stunts was exhilarating, and there’s clearly a lot of innovation in the space, despite the overwhelming popularity of brand-friendly reality programming, the mainstay of cable TV. Nevertheless, a quiet anxiety pervaded the event, an uncertainty about who really owns the future of TV, the old or new media.

The opening panel set the tone. Piers Morgan moderated a group of saavy women from across TV’s long tail: Michelle Phan, YouTube’s pioneer beauty vlogger and Lancôme spokesperson; Felicia Day, web series mastermind; and Kristin Chenoweth, Broadway diva and star of ABC’s GCB (which in my mind will always be Good Christian Bitches). Piers Morgan, after acknowledging with breezy British superciliousness that he’d never heard of vlogging, Phan or Day before prepping for this event, ended the panel quite enraptured by the mastery Day and Phan have of the web space and their audiences (geeks and young women, respectively). Both women have big numbers to back up their efforts — a consistent theme in the event, with nearly event network, show and person boasting millions of followers, views, likes, comments, etc.

Chenoweth, too, was impressed. The new media neophyte, who plans to vlog during her upcoming tour but admitted to lacking any expertise, ended the panel in deference to the smart, young web stars.

“Basically, you’re going to be my boss one day!,” she exclaimed with delight.

The Big Five are certainly betting on it.

Credits:
-Digitas, 2012
-Digitas, 2012

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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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