Though still in its infancy, the World Wide Web has already become a significant feature in all of our lives. The majority of us now access the Web throughout the day, both at work and at home. It’s profoundly altered the way we conduct business, and how we communicate with family and friends. It’s also changed how we entertain ourselves, but this paradigm shift has only just begun. As I wrote in the conclusion of Part 1 of this article, the Web has the potential to become its own entertainment medium, sharing content with movies and television, but also providing its own unique programming. So where will this new content come from?
Like no other distribution outlet before it, the Web offers the independent, semi-professional or niche video producer an ideal venue for reaching an audience. This is great news for young filmmakers, new talent, and artists who want to concentrate on reaching viewers beyond the film festival circuit. With distribution access on the Web, screening in a theater is no longer necessary. The economics of this are a potential boon for independent producers because, even though digital technology has made filmmaking cheaper, it is still by no means cheap if you want production values that rival what audiences are used to seeing in a theater or on their TV screens.
The same is true of music on the Web: more artists now have the chance to be heard, but the business is becoming more fragmented as a result. Apart from the purely manufactured and heavily produced acts that the major labels distribute, it will be harder to achieve the kind of recognition and fame that was possible in the past. The critical and financial successes bands like U2 or Coldplay eventually achieved will be harder for new acts without the support of an industry marketing machine behind them. Likewise, though young filmmakers don’t need to worry about finding distribution, it’s doubtful that most will ever get the kind of budgets and recognition most Hollywood filmmakers take for granted.
With the Balkanization of entertainment comes a problem in terms of content visibility. Right now, there are so many independent Web sites around, that it’s easy to miss great work. Most independent, producer-driven sites have relatively low traffic, certainly not enough to generate interest from significant advertisers which is the only way such producers can see revenue from their efforts. Getting quality content out of the niches and into the mainstream will be the domain of a new breed of entertainment provider: the Web video network. Like MySpace and sites like it have done for music, the successful Web video network will find, aggregate, and distribute a wide variety of fresh content to both niche and general audiences. As they serve various demographics, these new networks will have the ability to connect programming and advertising in a way that isn’t practical for an individual producer.
True, this system exists to some extent already, and has for quite some time (Atom Films and iFilms come to mind), but these currently function more like magazine racks than dynamic media companies. The new Web video network will have to be more than just a library if it intends to enable the future of Web entertainment. It needs to provide a branding experience similar to television, but with all of the choice, flexibility and scale that I talked about in Part 1. It also needs to actively pursue great, original programming. In order to make Web video profitable for the network and content producer alike, it also needs to connect content, viewers and advertisers with precision.
One of the great features of the Web, and what has been so refreshing about it, is that we have less interaction with traditional advertising than in other formats such as newspapers, magazines and television. Having been bombarded with an ever-increasing number of ads for decades, the public is becoming resistant to them. This is especially true of younger audiences who, studies show, are distrustful of advertising and therefore harder to reach. Traditional commercial advertising is an area of concern for broadcasters because of this, and no doubt the way in which television programming is paid for will undergo radical changes in the coming years.
TiVo has allowed people the option to skip advertisements that in the past they’d be forced to sit through. Watching programs through video on demand allows the same bypass, as almost all VOD programs are either commercial free, or very nearly so. However, as video sharing sites have proven, good commercials can be as engaging as the best programs, and be as frequently watched if the content is compelling enough. What we may see happen with TV 2.0 is that commercials will be fewer but better, and more expensive for the advertisers to buy time for. Product placement will also become more ubiquitous, with name brands liberally spread throughout a given program.
On the Web, commercials need to be more targeted, more precise and for an advertiser to try to do this would require more time and resources than they would be willing to allocate to the task. Likewise, for an independent content producer to attract the attention of advertising that might actually generate revenue, they’d have to be able to attract significant traffic beyond the reach of most stand-alone websites. Enter the Web video network. By aggregating content from various producers, and creatively approaching advertising in a method unique to the Web environment, these content providers can make entertainment advertising profitable without losing the consumer-driven focus that’s so crucial to captivating an audience.
By its nature, the Web will continue to be a democratic entertainment medium, but this doesn’t mean the major media companies can’t have a significant role to play. Though it’s hard to envision now, given the structure and economics of the entertainment giants, the short form — which is ideal for the Web — has potential even for them. Few realize it today, but daytime soap operas such as “The Guiding Light”, began as fifteen-minute daily installments (the soap opera format coming originally from radio). It wasn’t until 1956 that the first half-hour soap opera debuted, later expanding to the hour-long format we’re now familiar with. The short form has continued to be common overseas, where networks such as the BBC routinely schedule short-forms like “Story Makers”, a fifteen-minute per episode children’s program. “Creature Comforts”, which many Americans are familiar with as a half-hour program on BBC America, originally aired on the British network ITV in ten-minute episodes.
Just as iTunes changed the focus of music from the album back to the singles of yesteryear, I would say that original Web content is — and will continue to be — about the short and not the feature.
Short programs can be both entertaining and profitable, and offer new creative avenues for writers, directors and talent. Imagine a series like “Creature Comforts” being produced specifically for the Web, or a soap opera or drama made compact. The idea of quality episodic programming is realistic, and presents new creative and financial possibilities for everyone involved. The programs can be self-contained stories, known in television as anthologies (think “The Twilight Zone”), or episodic programs with a stable cast of recurrent characters. Soap operas, reality and lifestyle programs are an ideal place to begin and are already appearing on the Web. The short form opens up great opportunities for motion pictures as well. Prior to the changes brought about by TV in the 1950s, movie theaters screened feature films, cartoons, newsreels, comedic shorts and serials. It was only after television borrowed many of these formats and made them more profitable on the smaller screen that the motion picture studios stopped making them for theatrical release.
Obviously, redefining entertainment to include the short form as a stable product would require a significant shift in the way the major entertainment companies do business. As with most innovation these days, the early pioneers of original Web programming will most likely come from independent producers. Over time, as these shows prove themselves to be profitable, the networks and studios will come on board, operating cooperatively in much the same way as the motion picture studios, television networks, and indie production companies do today. Far fetched? It’s not at all. It required the same imagination to take film out of the Nickelodeons and into the theaters. And what about television?
On September 7, 1927, Philo Farnsworth transmitted the first television image — a simple straight line — few could have realized how much this new technology would change our lives. Even when the first regular broadcasts began in the United States in 1928, with W3XK in Wheaton, Maryland, only the most visionary people could have envisioned the medium’s possibilities. Soon, however, television appropriated the news, soap opera, and game show formats from radio. Dramas came from live theater, and comedies initially followed the variety format laid out by Vaudeville. Over time, television refined these and it’s programming developed its own unique style. TV is now such a fixture in popular culture, that most of us can’t imagine living without it.
The Web as an entertainment medium has equally enormous potential, and can become something very different from the TV of today. It can provide a forum for amateurs and semi-professionals to share their work, and can also allow professional producers the chance to create profitable content. Just as television can take advantage of the computer screen and cell phone to make its content more portable, Web-originated content can flow in the opposite direction — from your computer to your TV. Web networks, functioning much like cable providers, can aggregate and monetize Web programming unlike individual producers. Where and how we view a program will be up to us, and the Web’s potential as an entertainment medium of the future will only be limited by our imaginations.