Media Giants Chase Online Ads With Original Shows
Everyone wants to be in show biz, and these days — on the Web at least — it seems as if everyone is.
Digital and traditional media companies, including newspapers and magazines, have for years been building a video presence on the Internet. But until now the offerings have largely been low-budget, single-camera affairs featuring talking heads.
Last week, however, major media companies like Condé Nast, The Wall Street Journal and Univision presented ambitious slates of original programming to advertisers for the first time.
Companies that were already producing Web content, like Yahoo and Hulu, also announced greatly expanded offerings.
As a result, viewers are being bombarded with an array of new Internet programs — 11 from Yahoo, 14 from AOL and a whopping 30 from Condé Nast, including one that will let viewers watch a Vogue editor, Hamish Bowles, as he shops around the world.
Hulu’s four new original offerings include one called “Behind the Mask,” a show it describes as a “comedic docu-series,” which looks at the world of sports mascots.
These companies are moving rapidly because they believe viewers are now so accustomed to watching programs on devices like mobile phones and tablets that the lines between traditional television and Internet video will blur.
But the companies are also acting out of desperation because many of them can command higher prices for video ads than traditional online banner ads, which are increasingly being undermined by fast-paced algorithmic buying technologies.
Advertisers are also shifting dollars from traditional display advertising to sites like Facebook that can deliver huge audiences. Media companies were wooing ad executives in New York last week during an advertising event called Digital Content NewFronts that is trying to imitate the success of the network television upfronts, which are being held later this month. At lavish open-bar parties, companies not previously known for programming tried to convince advertisers to sponsor shows, or better still, whole channels.
Yet even with the amount of so-called premium content booming, it is not clear ad dollars are following. According to data from the research company eMarketer, spending on digital video — while growing — is expected to reach only $4.14 billion in 2013, a far cry from the $66.35 billion expected to flow into the television market.
Many advertisers say they worry that with so much new content being thrown at the market on so many different platforms, audiences for individual shows will become even more fragmented and microscopic than they already are.
“I don’t care how good your attention span is,” Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer of Group M, said of the crush of new offerings, “I think it becomes all a blur.” Group M is one of the world’s biggest media-buying and planning agencies.
Ben Winkler, chief digital officer of the advertising agency OMD, which represents brands including Pepsi and Nissan, called it “cable to the nth degree.”
“We are talking narrow, narrow television, niche television if you will,” he said. “If you are reaching just 100 people, is it worth our time and energy?”
AOL is one of the companies making a big bet on “premium video,” or video it hopes will generate greater ad revenue because of higher production values. Tim Armstrong, the company’s chief executive, said in an interview: “Consumers are adopting video very quickly: big investment in devices and networks, big investments by the most talented creative people to get involved in this medium; and big investment in measurement. So I think this industry is about to explode.”
Many online sites are citing the success of “House of Cards,” the Netflix series that drew critical praise this winter, as proof that the moment for video content has arrived. But “House of Cards,” with top-flight talent and sophisticated production values, was hugely expensive. And Netflix relies on subscriptions, not advertising.
For now, most digital companies are looking to produce programming that, while more expansive than one-camera fare, is still cheaper than TV.
Much of the programming presented last week was not plot-driven but followed more of a reality TV or cable channel model — topical shows about subjects like cars, parenthood and cooking, built around a charismatic host. Yahoo, for example, will be producing “Losing Your Virginity With John Stamos,” a series in which Mr. Stamos interviews other celebrities about their first sexual experience.
One potential shortcoming of these online digital video offerings is the wide variation in the way series are presented. Some companies offer a series all at once, while others deliver an episode a week. And some series have 10 episodes, while others have 20. To make up for these irregularities, some producers are promising that the videos will be accessible on demand across a constellation of Web sites.
Moreover, there is no guarantee that these competing shows will even find an audience. John Landgraf, president of FX Networks, pointed out that the television networks typically offered only about six new shows in one season. By contrast, the digital firms are offering dozens in what many advertisers describe as an overwhelming blast.
“It does create a very cluttered marketplace,” Mr. Landgraf said.
In something of an irony, online video programs are considered the most successful when they make the jump to cable, which assures a larger audience. Two examples of shows that have done that are HuffPost Live, whose news and commentary programming will appear on AXS TV, and Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze, which was picked up by Dish Network last fall and then last week by Cablevision, which gives it a New York presence.
Also last week, the popular YouTube channel AwesomenessTV was bought by DreamWorks Animation for $33 million.
Another lure for advertisers was the promise to make their product part of the show itself, a growing practice in the media business. This creates what is known as branded content, or branded entertainment.
AOL recently began a second season of a video show about car commuters called “Little Women, Big Cars,” that has had eight million views, in part because of the enthusiasm of one of its sponsors, Allstate.
For the second season, the writers included a new character, an Allstate agent who delivers lines like, “It is my job to take your bad day and make it better.”
Karen Cahn, general manager of AOL’s online video arm, says AOL monitors comments closely to see if viewers are uncomfortable at all with the brand placement. “So far, so good,” she said.
On the sidelines, television executives are watching the digital onrush with a mixture of amusement and incredulity.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if McDonald’s said they were getting in the scripted series business,” Mr. Landgraf of FX said. “Plus, Staples and Camper World.”