Studios could be missing a trick by not using the internet as a bona fide launch platform for consistent, high-quality, exclusive programmes. Fleishman-Hillard’s Digital Director Dean Russell makes a case for the web as TV’s new launch pad.
Original video for web is nothing new. YouTube long ago broke down video publishing and promotional barriers, spawning everything from niche channels like Howcast to mainstream broadcast sites like Hulu. Massive success stories, such as BBC iPlayer, have educated the public about how much online video content is at their fingertips and cult hits such as Joss Whedon’s “Dr Horrible’s Singalong Blog” have been downloaded by millions of people. Watching video on the web has never been so easy but there is still a dearth ofgenuinely good exclusive programming for the web.
With all the homemade stuff on the web, it can be hard to find the good through the digital soup and even harder to discern any opportunity for original programming. Be it cheap digital features or delinquent happy-slappers, the dramatic fall in technology costs has given the public access to the sort of filming, editing and special effects tools that were previously only in the hands of the studios.
Would-be filmmakers are now empowered to make and distribute their own original and notso- original “productions” in the hope that some shadowy studio figure will spot their talent. This has resulted in a huge growth in fanfiction — sci-fi in particular. “Star Trek”, “Star Wars” and “The Lord Of The Rings” have all produced a wealth of unofficial features and series, while fans also seem eager to lobby studios by creating pretty impressive trailers for movies that don’t even exist yet.
We’ve had “Superman Versus Batman” and “Thundercats’” — starring no less a star than Brad Pitt as Lion-O — and before Ryan Reynolds was cast in the new “Green Lantern” movie, fans posted convincing fakes starring “Firefly’s” Nathan Fillion in the green tights.
The fact that the recent full-length “Rings” fan film — “The Hunt For Gollum” — pulled in 6 million views, a figure any studio would be pleased with, perhaps indicates that amateurs aren’t so crazy to believe the suits might be watching their efforts. Surely this kind of potential audience can be exploited by the big boys.
Back in 2007, a new eight webisode show hit computer screens and was so well received that the US SyFy channel picked it up as a TV show in its own right. “Sanctuary” drew in more than 3 million viewers for its first episode, making it the highest-rated original series premiere on SyFy at that time. It’s now in its third season on the network.
Whedon’s infamous “Dr Horrible” was launched originally on Hulu after being borne of the downtime of the 2008 writers’ strike in Hollywood. Keen to keep working, Whedon wanted to create something small, inexpensive but professional — that would not fall foul of the protesters. Not only was the resulting super villain musical a huge hit online with more than 2 million views, it also was a massive critical success. It won an Emmy and ranked at No. 15 in Time magazine’s Top 50 Inventions of 2008. Such is its popularity, it’s now been rolled out on DVD and Blu-Ray.
In a global entertainment industry desperate to find franchises with existing word of mouth and in-built audiences, both “Sanctuary” and “Dr Horrible” are compelling examples of the power of growing an online audience for new programming.
With access to online video so much easier, and views in the millions for successful content, shouldn’t straight-to-web content be considered an option for programme pilots.
As yet only SyFy and “Sanctuary” seem to have learned the lesson from “Smallville” spin-off series “Aquaman” — the abandoned pilot was released on iTunes in the US in 2006 and went straight to No. 1. Surely that is the definition of finding an audience.
The times they are a changing
An online debut can also provide other incentives. Channels such as YouTube can track viewers incredibly accurately, mapping demographics and enabling much needed insight into whether the target audience is truly being reached. Such an approach, as “Sanctuary” proved, can not only create an interesting launch pad for shows, but also inherently creates the opportunity to build loyalty online before spending budget to go “mainstream” and secure a lucrative slot on the box.
Online fans of shows also can easily embed content in their own sites and allow conversations to spread, creating instant, valuable feedback on what audiences really think about a show, eliminating the need for expensive test screenings. It seems crazy that the success of a new show hinges on one squeezed time slot on linear TV compared to releasing it for anyone and everyone to watch at any time they like online.
Viewing habits have become less and less linear and devices like the iPad and Samsung Tab make the experience of watching content online so much more enjoyable that they will only become even more readily available.
That brings us round full circle — the platform is there; the question now is around content. We’re still in the realm of breakout amateur videos and second-hand, already-aired TV series. Online viewing has yet to be a true testbed for commissioned new content but the opportunities for audience reach, share-ability, measurement and cost are compelling.
Studios have dipped their toes in the water before. Disney-ABC launched Stage 9 Digital Media back in 2008, dedicated to creating straight-to-web content, but programmes like “Squeegies” were poorly received and nothing much has been heard of them since.
The studios, however, need to look beyond the web as a relegation and replay zone. People watch stuff on the web, so why shouldn’t they watch good stuff. It’s only natural that quality content would float to the surface of the soup. It can’t be too long until the success of pilot shows won’t just be in viewing figures, but also in downloads, views and comments.