Monday, March 31, 2008

Internet Hype?

Lots of interesting comments on the last post thanks. I'm about to commit heresy. For the next twenty years at least, unless a HUGE player gets involved, TV will still be the primary method of delivering scripted entertainment. Forget all the 'let's do the show right here' bollocks.

There, I said it. Only small stones please and not the face!

Why do I think that? Because despite all the marketing hype, most people still like to sit down in their favourite armchair, watch their big screen HDD with dolby and tune out to their favourite programme.

Yep, to marketers the internet is cool and hip and trendy. But marketers deal in product, not entertainment or the reason why we like certain types of entertainment. With the marketers it's all about trends and statistics. They see a huge explosion in the use of the internet, a huge decrease in the TV viewer numbers on network primetime, put 2 and 2 together and get 17.

The internet is not the future of delivering scripted entertainment. It is the future of 'catch up' tv, 'dang I missed that' tv and 'I wonder what that's like' tv.

Watching TV is part of our social and cultural fabric. Prime time network ratings have gone down because people now have better things to do than sit down and make an appointment to watch shit. Pure and simple. Putting that same shit on the internet isn't going to make a whole heck of a lot of difference.

That's not to say that a ratings success purely on the internet isn't possible. Or internet streamed direct to the TV. And if someone has the balls to put up the cash for decent production values and promotion it might happen. But I think it will be the exception rather than the rule.

Sure, the networks can make a good deal of incremental income from the internet, but TV will still rule. Mass Entertaimnent has a lot more to do with why we view it than how we view it. But apart from porn and Youtube most of us don't want it huddled over our computers. So the Tv will still rule. The internet will be another way of feeding the TV, like another one million channels to surf. More fragmentation, more crap.

It's going to take a hell of a show to persuade the money men that a network level production value show on the internet can attract the same or more viewers.


Colin Donald said...

Hi Dave,

As I mentioned in my comment to that last post, my company, Futurescape, has been researching online scripted comedy and drama in the USA and UK, so I feel obliged to reply – but without stone throwing!

No-one's anticipating that broadcast television will disappear, any more than cinema did when TV arrived, so it's entirely possible that indeed "TV will still be the primary method of delivering scripted entertainment."

But that's actually a very narrow claim and the future - and 20 years is a long time on the Internet - is much more nuanced than an either/or scenario.

One of the US producers that we interviewed, Marc Campbell, CEO of the Independent Comedy Network studio, said that, "Our view is that there is a new rung in the content development ladder, and we fill that gap. We are creating a cost-effective portfolio of entertainment properties, each of which has the potential to migrate up the entertainment food chain."

There's a lot of innovation going on in the US market around how to finance and produce lower-budget Internet shows that can either recoup their funding directly online and/or be picked up for television. People with online experience are teaming up with Hollywood execs who know how to cut the deals, so you see someone like Kathleen Grace, who created The Burg ( getting together with Mike Eisner's Vuguru to make The All-For-Nots ( It's a mockumentary about an indie band on tour, but shot on the road with the band doing some real-life gigs, like at the SXSW festival. They've liberated the sit-com from the studio, so it's hardly a case of "putting that same shit on the internet."

At the high end of the budget range, you can see a production such as In The Motherhood ( This is now in its second season, completely funded by Unilever's Suave (shampoo) and Sprint (mobile operator) at a per-minute budget on a par with a broadcast sit-com. They've hired household name talent (Leah Remini from The King of Queens and Jenny McCarthy) and they believe that online TV is ideal for their very mainstream target audience of busy mothers, who don't have time for television but can find a spare five minutes for comedy directly based on their own lives. The show runs a competition for viewers to contribute story ideas that are polished by pro scriptwriters.

You wrote: "unless a HUGE player gets involved." Which KIND of huge player is missing? Some companies are further ahead than others in embracing online TV, as you'd expect, but all the sectors are represented.

Whenever people ask if online TV is working, we simply point to recommissions like In The Motherhood that are funded by major corporations such as Unilever. Much of this is simply bypassing the US networks entirely. Many of them are setting up their own online production outfits, such as Warner Bros Studio 2.0, but they could find it tough to compete with the more nimble start-ups , particularly when the talent and talent agencies see an opportunity to go direct to the public with their own productions. Meanwhile, News Corp and NBCU have set up Hulu at a distributor – and possibly a video search engine to compete with Google. There are huge players all across online TV, just in a range of positions in the whole business – production, distribution etc.

Perhaps the main flaw in your argument is that on the one hand you expect the Internet to deliver catch-up TV, but you’re also saying that much of broadcast TV is poor quality. If so, then what is there to catch up on?

An alternative view is that the Internet is going to be the ideal venue to pilot and incubate new scripted shows. You allude to this in saying, "The internet will be another way of feeding the TV."

In the US market, there seems to be a shift in favour of more reality programming, partly because of the writers' strike and partly because the networks like the lower production costs. It's easy to imagine a scenario for the 2008-09 season with a slew of reality on the TV and people looking online for comedy and drama, at exactly the time when the new online studios have a slate of shows up and running. Marc Campbell's ICN alone aims to pilot 40 shows and they're far from alone.

How about a future when TV is dominant, but in a vicious circle of stagnant or declining audiences and ad revenues that fund ever less appealing shows? And when online is in a virtuous circle of successfully incubating a new approach to production, across the whole range of budget levels, and innovating ways to engage the people that we should stop calling viewers? GM has just pulled out $1.5 BILLION dollars from TV in favour of online advertising. Which way is the wind blowing?

You're right about funding for top quality production values and promotion. If there's a particularly weak link in the chain at the moment, it's the production company being able to tell people that a new show exists and is worth watching. There's far too much reliance on online users telling friends "virally."

You say that "Watching TV is part of our social and cultural fabric." Yes, but ever less so as audiences have fragmented, as you acknowledge. If anything, online has the greater potential in the future to re-assemble those fragmented individuals into at least mid-size (not mass) audiences that have similar interests or outlooks. It's no accident that MySpace and Bebo have both emerged as commissioners and are closing sponsor deals. If larger audiences can be re-created, surely larger funding will follow.

In the UK, it's a slightly different picture at the moment, as much of the activity is between broadcasters, particularly the BBC, and major indies, such as Endemol. So far, we're seeing an alternative approach to the interactivity, with the Endemol teen drama Signs of Life ( including gameplay as part of the video. BBC Switch has commissioned several online projects from Lime Pictures' Conker Media and Channel 4 has gone for a third season of Dubplate Drama, which has a significant online element.

However, it's very likely that the US models will emerge here in some form. In February, we saw Mindshare, who put together the funding for In The Motherhood, presenting the show to indie producers at an InSync evening in Soho. They are already looking for producers to work with. Meanwhile, Unilever's Sure Girl deodorant is sponsoring Sofia's Diary on Bebo.

And it's also very likely that the highly innovative UK indie production scene will once again emerge with some more killer formats that go global.

The main difference for writers interested in creating online TV is there's a more immediate relationship with the audience and a particular need to take account of and gain experience of the various opportunities for interactivity.

And as for slumping in front of the big screen... Yes, viewers will continue to do just that, particularly for live sports and top-quality drama. But the same households are full of other screens – more TVs, PCs, consoles and mobiles...

To conclude, online is an ideal venue for scripted comedy and drama.

You can find us blogging regularly about online TV innovation here at Futurescape –

All the best,


Andy Conway said...

What he said. ;-)

Jaded and Cynical said...

Big subject, this.

Interesting to read the different points of view.

The challenge with the internet, it seems to me, is that the only model that works is the 'free' model.

Newspapers tried to charge a fee to online subscribers and have virtually abandonded that idea.

Youtube has more content than a thousand TV stations put together, but it can't charge a penny for any of it.

Yeah, we can produce the stuff ourselves now. But who's going to pay to watch it?

simon moore said...

Interesting comments and post,

Jaded, I think you're missing the idea that people will pay for highly specific on-line content that exactly fits what they want; they will, for instance, pay for access to the OED; universities will subscribe to on-line journals and so on. In his excellent book Reinventing Comics, Scott Mccloud puts forward the idea of micropayments for long-tailish cult web comics sites - as soon as paypal or someone gets an *easy* way together to click and pay 20p for access without really being aware of it, you're likely to move to that model.

Personally, I think the on-line TV issue is a distribution one; it's already fundamentally changed the way I and many others consume high quality US shows, and will move to a pay model, I'd think, as soon as TV industry thinking catches up with the music industry - people *will* pay the creators for content as long as the price is fair and the material desirable.

I think the ED's post is maybe a little too focussed on the monitor vs. spangly HD TV issue to. Given that many homes' internet and telly comes down the same cable anyway, I'd see nothing unrealistic in predicting the development of home servers that provide content for all of the terminals in the home - providing Excel for your work machine in the office, and live football for the plasma in the living room. Broadcast via internet rather than broadcast vs. internet is the real change.

Andy Conway said...

Yes, there is a 'Pay? No way!' culture on the internet, but people who are producing online content are getting it funded through advertising sponsorship. They are bypassing the networks and going straight to the advertisers, who are naturally interested in targeting very specific audiences with their products.

And this is the way writers are going the DIY route and earning a living from it.

English Dave said...

Interesting stuff. There is no doubt that in the next few years internet will be streamed directly to the tv as a matter of course.

So ultimately it comes down to content. As it always does. Colin I noticed the CEO of the company you mentioned said they were producing content 'each of which has the possibility to migrate up the entertainment food chain'

That seems to be pretty much the view on internet entertainment by both the producers and the viewers.

Until there is a recognisable branded porthole these programmes are always seeking to get 'recognition' in the mainstream rather than the internet. To 'break out' if you will.

Nothing wrong in the slightest with that, but unless we are looking at a fundememtal change in the type of programming people want to watch then internet tv will remain a niche.

Personally I think the internet explosion is a great thing. It gives talent a way to reach a potential audience. I've watched 'Quarter life' out of interest, something I probably wouldn't have done were it not for the novelty. [Didn't like it]

it is entirely possible that a programme may take off on the internet and become a cult favourite. It is also entirely possible and audience will pay to see it.

But as had been said before, without serious money to brand and market it, never mind the physical cost of production, who's going to know it's even there?

Colin I know you talk about Unilever and 'In The Motherhood' and point to that as an internet TV success. And it very possibly is in terms of the internet. I don't know the viewing figures. And clearly Unilever must be happy or they wouldn't have recommissioned.
Unless it is so cheap it doesn't make a breath of difference to their budget and they get more advertising from people talking aout the fact they are involved in it than actualy from people watching the programme!

When the first hour long drama series appears on the internet to match the best the networks can provide then I'll accept that internet Tv is a serious alternative.

It is possible. But it needs a whole new business model, and it's not there yet.

I also know how much some of the writers are being paid for the content of shows currently airing- so Andy those you mention must be doing a hell of a lot of work to earn a 'living'

Colin Donald said...

Very much enjoying discussing this with all of you - and a briefer comment this time!

In The Motherhood budget was at least $1m for 5 x 5mins and it may have run into “millions.” Much of this would be to get Leah Remini et al, but also to hire a large production outfit, Science + Fiction and also another company, FanLib, for the interactivity.

Car manufacturers are particularly active sponsors – I’ll be blogging about that sometime soon – and they’re used to big-budget ad campaigns, so that’s a likely source of sponsorship for well-funded productions.

“When the first hour long drama series appears on the internet to match the best the networks can provide then I'll accept that internet Tv is a serious alternative.”

That’s probably still some way off, but the producers we interviewed do envisage moving up from 5 – 10 mins to the 22-min half-hour show sooner rather than later.

For a bigger budget show, check out sci-fi series Sanctuary –

Completely agree about the need for new business models to emerge, but there’s a lot of experimentation going on and something will come out of it.

BTW – very good blog post on budgets by Kent Ask A Ninja Nichols here:

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