October 12, 2007
The Proliferation of Online Video Series

The future of online television continues to get brighter. Why? Not necessarily because any of the particular series that have launched are of such high quality that it will make a major difference. In fact, I'm trying to take a quality-agnostic approach here. I'm convinced rather by the proliferation of online video series. As the number of television series that launch online continues to skyrocket, the chance of online distribution becoming a viable market increases.

The learning curve requires industry innovation, an increase in quality, and viewer acclimation. The many online video series that have been launching in recent months encourage all of that. The first online video series are interesting just for their "gee-whiz-ness," the fact that they were an online video series being a novelty all their own. As these series become more commonplace, though, the industry begins to learn through trial and error what does and doesn't work, and series can no longer ride on that innovator wave, requiring the shows to have to stand on their artistic merit.

That's not to say that some of the online video series that have run so far aren't strong from a quality standpoint but rather that people were intrigued by them for reasons other than their storytelling and aesthetic strengths. Now people are getting used to online video content, or at least it is becoming more mainstream among those most likely to watch online video series, and we are increasingly seeing the networks getting involved.

I've been covering these trends for a while here at the C3 blog. At first, I was getting notices from lead users, telling me to pay attention to interesting new series like Soup of the Day. Online video was becoming a home for independent content. As I wrote in December 2006, in response to a New York Times piece on the subject, "As network offerings are going to the Web, it is becoming an interesting new platform to view both high-budget and independent situation comedies. And they also point out that the Web offers both interactivity and a quick reaction time to current events that is not possible to achieve with sitcoms on the networks considering that all that has to be done between editing and viewing is posting the video up." See that trend continuing more recently with The West Side.

Then came the potential for the online success of discarded online pilots like Nobody's Watching, which got renewed interest once it hit the Web, which stretched into network interest once again.

It was the tandem of Lonelygirl15 and Prom Queen that really got people talking about online video, though, and eventually the conversation moved on to spinoffs and product integration related to those two successes.

Then, with the launch of online series from noted traditional television creators such as Cafe Confidential and Quarterlife, a discussion of high-quality online content has arisen.

Some of the latest trends in online video have included official network content (see my posts on InTurn, L.A. Diaries, and Coastal Dreams, for instance) and branded online video series (such as Tide's Crescent Heights and Mates' Mates).

For more on these activities, see this recent Wired article on Nicholas Reville, who oversees the Participatory Culture Foundation's free open-source video player intended to help move television content online.


On October 13, 2007 at 1:56 PM, Eleanor Baird said:

Sam, do you have a sense of how these are funded, and how they are promoted? Is anyone measuring how many people view these and, if so, are they becoming more popular?


Eleanor, the business models for each are quite different. For the "branded entertainment" pieces like Crescent Heights and Mates, one would think that brand awareness, etc., is the ultimate goal and that the concern for a business model is much different than, say, the NBC or CBS innertube series I mention.

On the other hand, the indy-created content are likely more about expanding one's portfolio and getting discovered and are probably done either with some financial backing or at a loss, in order to get noticed. The failed pilots that launch into online series are about trying to get awareness for a property and in the cases mentioned here either have network backing or else a creator behind them whose stature and personal finances are such that they could back them.

Prom Queen and Lonelygirl15 seem to be both be considered some degree of successes, and I know that Lonelygirl15 was moving fairly heavily into the product integration side, but trying to do so in a way that was organic to the show. One of the posts I link to looks at this in some greater detail.

So I guess the answer at this point is that online television series seem to be created for a variety of different reasons so far, so the measurement for success and the business model behind them differs dramatically. We still haven't really left the experimental phase, but the proliferation of examples indicates to me that we are moving more and more toward more substantial effort in the field, and these are going to ultimately serve as "trial and error" examples.