What's a Webisode Worth?
Online shows are cost-effective and skew young, but don't make money
By Marisa Guthrie -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/25/2007 7:00:00 PM
Imagine watching your favorite sitcom on your computer or video phone–and it's over in 90 seconds.
Therein lies the allure of the Webisode. Still in the nascent stages of an uncertain life, the Webisode has nonetheless become one of the sticking points of the current impasse between the Writers Guild of American and the studios and networks. The conundrum: How do you monetize such content in a splintered media universe? And how do you make something worth watching?
The potential is appealing. More than 85% of U.S. households are connected to the Internet via broadband, according to Nielsen, while more than 30% of Web users view live streaming video (such as Webisodes or streaming episodes of television series) and 20% watch saved video files (i.e., content downloaded from iTunes or other consumer sites). And these numbers will only increase as technology continues to evolve.
Of course, a Webisode can be produced at a fraction of the cost of a network series. (Michael Eisner estimates that each 90-second episode of his Web series Prom Queen costs about $3,000 to make.) But it seems impossible to determine whether profits can trickle from this tiny stream.
“There are probably very few people who are having success yet in a money-making way,” admits Diane Robina, who, as president of emerging networks for Comcast, is in charge of programming at Fearnet, Comcast's horror Website and video-on-demand service. “From a brand and viewership success perspective, I do believe if you serve your audience and build your brand, then they will start coming, and once you get them there, you can figure out how to make money.” For now, many executives agree that streaming video and Webisode spinoff content is more of a promotional exercise.
Even successful Webisodes struggle with the right recipe. Web series Buried Alive, two-minute episodes that feature several unfortunate victims locked inside coffins, premiered earlier this month on Fearnet, racking up 100,000 viewers in its first week online. With more than 40 episodes premiering daily through Dec. 12, the Web series offers viewers a nonlinear horror fix.
The Webisodes' producers, John Norris and Aaron Sims, formed their own production company, White Rock Lake Productions, a little over a year ago—after working at the famed Stan Winston Creature Shop. “When we first started taking off on our own, we were looking for new markets and a place to establish ourselves as producers,” says Norris. “Everyone is scrambling right now to figure out how they can monetize content and how they can draw viewers. So, it's a new frontier and it's very exciting. It's like a gold rush right now.”
Besides their length, how different is a TV episode from a Webisode? “We were limited to characters in caskets,” says Norris. “To make those episodes dynamic was tricky because once your character starts screaming and banging on the walls, where you do go from there?
“Everyone is trying to discover which model is going to work best.”
Buried Alive follows Fearnet's Devil's Trade and 30 Days of Night: Blood Trails, a companion Web series to the feature film. The seven-episode mini-series—both produced by Sam Raimi's Ghost House Pictures—attracted 2 million views, according to the company.
Many believe the answer lies with more powerful hardware and software. “I think we're all beholden to technology and the speed at which technology can provide the solution for people to consume content the ways that they want to,” says Jane Hu, who runs Vuguru, the new media studio at Tornante, Michael Eisner's media investment company. “So, at some point down the line I imagine your computer is just going to be directly connected to your TV set, in which case the line is completely blurred.”
Vuguru produced Prom Queen, a high school-set noir about the perils of popularity. The 80 90-second episodes attracted more than 15 million viewers during the series' original run last spring, a success that spurred a 15-episode spinoff Prom Queen: Summer Heat. Those episodes premiered on MySpace in 12-hour exclusive windows before debuting on the Prom Queen Website (www.promqueen.tv).
Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick's Quarterlife recently premiered on MySpace (and was picked up by NBC).
Comcast's Robina says the 12-to-29 demo will decide the fate of Webisodes. “They are consuming media drastically differently than you and me. They consume everything in an on-demand fashion, whether it's VOD or on the Web or on iTunes.”
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