THE NEXT BROADCAST
by Ben Goldstein
March 2, 2008 — Web entertainment enters prime time, as Internet networks start modeling themselves on real-world broadcastersBY THE TIME you finish reading this sentence, a 15-year-old mall-punk in central Michigan will have clicked on a YouTube video, gotten bored within seconds, and then clicked on another. It’s that kind of insatiable thirst for the next bright, shiny Web-thing that’s both fueling and challenging an emerging wave of Internet TV networks.
But for these rapidly multiplying entertainment sites that present original videos, usually released on a consistent schedule, it’s also their greatest hope. Because although the audience that looks online for entertainment is fickle to the point of brutality, maybe their attention spans are so short because nobody has given them what they want yet.
Two weeks ago, actor-comedian Damon Wayans became the latest high-profile figure to throw his talent behind the still relatively unproven medium of Internet television, as he announced the impending debut of WayOutTV.com. The site will feature sketch comedy bearing the trademark Wayans Family mix of oddball pop-culture parody and provocative social commentary. Though an official launch date hasn’t been established, samples are being released weekly at YouTube.com/WayOutTV.
“There is no urban destination online,” Wayans says. “Everybody uses YouTube, but you have to dig deep and for a long time to find something that satisfies you. With WayOut, I’m the filter. I’m creating a brand of comedy as opposed to letting everybody just put up whatever they want.”Though the comedian admits that building a Web site’s infrastructure is new to him, he sounds like a veteran ‘Net-geek when he talks about his big ideas, which include using WayOutTV to create viral ads for corporations, and focusing on content for mobile phones.
He’ll need those forward-thinking concepts if WayOutTV is going to succeed.
As the Will Ferrell-backed FunnyorDie.com proved, it takes more than a big name to hold the eyes of an online populace in constant search of novelty. Pulling in about 2 million unique viewers per month, FunnyorDie may be a traffic success compared to other top-notch comedy destinations like SuperDeluxe and MyDamnChannel, but after drawing 4.5 million visitors during its April launch, FoD’s numbers crashed and have yet to recover.Besides the fact that the site’s videos lacked a predictable TV-like schedule, another reason for FunnyOrDie’s somewhat disappointing performance could be its insular nature. The old model was to guard your content vigilantly so that it wouldn’t fall into the hands of other video-sharing sites, where you wouldn’t benefit from the traffic. (If you want to see Will Ferrell have an argument with a foul-mouthed toddler, you have to come here.)
This may have been a mistake.
New networks are distributing their content all over the Web rather than confining it to a single site, but they’re doing so in a controlled way so artists’ rights are protected. 60Frames.com, which launched its first series in January, follows a studio model in which professional artists are given resources to create videos that are syndicated to sites like YouTube and MySpace.
Shows produced by 60Frames include “WhoWhatWearTV,” which has been theNo. 1-ranked fashion/beauty video podcast on iTunes since its debut, and the hilarious Jersey Shore-lampooning “Douchebag Beach” series.“We knew there were a lot of talented artists who wanted to work in this space, but they didn’t want to just upload their content to the ‘Net without any support, or sell their ideas to media companies where they would be forced to give up ownership and control,” says 60Frames CEO Brent Weinstein, who previously led United Talent Agency’s digital media department. “When we hear an idea that’s a good match for our company, we get behind it as quickly as we can, and once we’re in business with artists, we give them quite a bit of free reign. We’re the most artist-friendly option in the marketplace.”
Of course, you might consider bypassing artists altogether.
A totally different (and more conventional) model for Internet TV is exemplified by Joost, a five-month-old service that presents more than 20,000 shows plucked from “real” TV networks such as Comedy Central and A&E. Original programming is a potential goal for the future, but Joost’s main focus is on acquiring rights to existing programming and presenting it all in one place for free.But are more channels what people want?Though more than 5 million people have downloaded the Joost software to date, the company’s North American GM, David Clark, says that the biggest challenge in running Joost is “helping people find what they are interested in.
“All of a sudden, that “filter” thing that Damon Wayans mentioned is starting to make sense. If you’re lost in an abyss of options that aren’t directly aimed at you, maybe you’re in the wrong place. And Rob Barnett, CEO of MyDamnChannel, is even more critical of the repurposing strategy.
“I think there’s a lot of cynicism in this attitude of, ‘The kids are watching all this YouTube stuff, so let’s go make another buck off the s – – – we already have,’ ” Barnett says. “It’s rehashed, retreaded content that was made for a different medium. I’d rather say, ‘Hey, let’s blow their minds and give them something they haven’t seen before.’ “
Barnett managed programming and production divisions at MTV and VH1 for more than a decade before launching MyDamnChannel in July of last year. The site had 1 million unique users in January, and when we spoke with him, it was having its biggest traffic day ever thanks to a Harry Shearer-produced clip that showed candid footage of Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly during moments they didn’t know cameras were rolling.
Less is certainly more at MyDamnChannel. Instead of a mass of individual videos that require searching, MDC presents eight highly produced channels, created by artists ranging from Harry Shearer to Coolio, which release a new episode every week. It’s about as close to an actual TV network as you’ll find on the Web, right down to the consistent scheduling, and it runs proudly against the grain of the user-generated content approach (which ManiaTV.com CEO Peter Hoskins colorfully refers to as “loser-generated content”).
Like Wayans, Barnett realizes the importance of submitting to a higher power (i.e., YouTube) for exposure and distribution.“If you just drop [your content] onto the Internet, you’re in the biggest ocean in the planet, and you’re lost,” Barnett says.
Words of warning for the glut of new comedy-based Internet TV networks trying to follow the throw-it-all-at-the-wall approach set by FunnyorDie. Recent months have seen the launch of MyBlueCollar.com (Jeff Foxworthy’s comedy site), NationalBanana.com (Jerry Zucker’s comedy site), and the brand-new Comedy.com (Former UPN President Dean Valentine’s comedy site). We don’t necessarily recommend you visit any of them.Even though the trend is toward outrageous humor, not every Internet TV network goes for belly laughs. One of the most interesting new models is the development of a group of sites or channels that have nothing to do with one another, but are produced with the same aesthetic.
ONNetworks.com presents more than 20 do-it-yourself cooking, decorating, and green-living instructional shows aimed at the young and hip. The sites launched by the year-old NextNewNetworks.com, which is also led by former cable TV execs, have provided definitive destinations for everyone from vintage Corvette enthusiasts (VetteDog.com), to jewelry designers (MetalChik.com), to people who just like cute pets (UltraKawaii.com).
But there’s one thing all these sites have in common: They won’t ask you to pay a single dime for your entertainment.
With so much content already free on the Web, those who launch Internet TV networks know they have to be a little more creative when it comes to finding revenue streams. Hence, syndication deals, embedded ads, corporate brands integrated into programming and DVD releases.
Ultimately, Damon Wayans places his trust in the opportunity of the unknown that the online wilderness can be tamed and the pioneers of Web TV can eventually learn how to turn a profit.
“I personally feel that the Internet is what cable was 30 years ago,” Wayans says. “It’s like clay. Whatever you decide to make it, that’s what it will become.”
Channel guide: SURFING THROUGH the best of web tv
Concept: Hipster entertainment from the minds that brought you Vice Magazine.
Best Show: “Shot by Kern” gives viewers insight into the artistic process of New York-based erotic photographer Richard Kern and the thought process of his models.
Also Watch: “The Vice Guide to Travel,” “Epicly Later’d”
Schedule: More than 30 series are currently in rotation and are usually updated weekly.
Concept: An umbrella group of micro-networks aimed at various niche interests.
Best Channel: IndyMogul.com, resources and moral support for DIY filmmakers.
Also Watch: ThreadBanger.com (fashion coverage with a punk rock ‘tude), ChannelFrederator.com (animated comedy featuring Dan Meth’s brilliant “The Meth Minute 39” series)
Schedule: Generally in the video blog format, each of NNN’s subnetworks are on their own schedules, with daily or weekly updates.
Concept: Boundary-pushing alt-comedy videos and social networking.
Best Show: “The Professor Brothers,” wherein two bald, pompous community college lecturers try to make sense of the world.
Also Watch: “All My Exes,” Norm MacDonald’s “The Fake News”
Concept: An Internet entertainment studio focusing on eight professional-quality channels produced by well-known artists.
Best Show: In “Wainy Days,” writer/director/ex-State member David Wain repeatedly and hilariously fails to find his soul mate.
Also Watch: “Horrible People,” “Big Fat Brain”
Monday: new episodes of Wainy Days, Horrible People
Tuesday: Harry Shearer
Wednesday: Andy Milonakis, Cookin’ With Coolio
Thursday: Don Was, Carnival of Stuff
Friday: “Big Fat Brain”
Concept: Unconventional instructional shows for a range of interests, all produced in HD.
Best Show: “Dinner with the Band,” in which chef Sam Mason hosts his favorite bands for an evening of cooking, conversation, and live performance.
Also Watch: “Backpack Picnic,” “Stump the Chef”