Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Year Of Episodic Web Content?

"2012 is the year of Web-based, episodic video content."
That’s been the buzz for who knows how long now.  We’ve all heard it, and for the most part, we’ve all pretty much accepted it as true.  But are we even really sure we know what that means?
People love to talk in generalities, because it’s safe.  But generalities don’t allow us to plan, or to
analyze data in a meaningful way.  So before would-be script writers start to head out to Starbucks with their laptops, and before VCs start opening up their checkbooks to the next creative genius with a great idea for a show, we should try a come to a more detailed understanding of what the future potentially holds in terms of content.

So let me set the playing field right off the bat.  Personally, when I talk about Web-based, episodic video content, I’m talking about the Web as we watch it on a desktop or mobile device -- not online video streamed to the living room TV set.  Yes, technically when Netflix or Hulu stream content onto our television sets, it’s Web-based content, in that it originates from a server.  But as far as the viewing public is concerned, it's TV.  Where the shows come from only matters as far as show and channel availability, price and image clarity are concerned -- outside of that, when the typical American family sits on their couch to watch their favorite shows on the large black console mounted to the living room wall, they’re watching TV.  So while it’s all very exciting that Netflix has gotten into original content production, and released the entire season of its new series “Lillyhammer” all at once, I’m not including this achievement as part of my discussion of online episodic content.

But to understand the root of the original prediction, and whether or not it’s viable, the definition of “Web-based episodic video content” needs to be broken down even further.  A cooking show is episodic, in that it has individual episodes, each with a unique topic.  A talk show is episodic, as is a variety show. And these work online.  They take very little emotional investment on the part of the viewer, who doesn’t need to get to know characters, or understand storylines.  They can be consumed in shorter segments, and don’t need to be watched in any specific order to be enjoyed.

Most importantly, though, they don’t need to be discussed.  Shared, maybe, but not discussed.  An engaging would-be chef creates a two-minute video showing you how to make double chocolate cookies. The cookies look good, seem easy to make, and it’s something you think others might be interested in trying, so you click the share button and post the video on your blog or favorite social network.  Easy enough.  The investment on both sides is minimal -- the producer can make the videos with relatively little time and money, and the viewer can enjoy them with relatively little time and energy.  It’s a narrow gap, so it works.

On the other side of the spectrum, though, is what people most likely really mean when they talk about episodic content: a series of shows that string together to tell a complete story, the types of shows we’re used to watching in prime time on TV.  This is where episodic content won’t work on the Web.

The problem is that the viewing experience is so dramatically different.  Our living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms act like small theaters, with the TV being the screen or stage. There’s room for more than one person to watch without anyone feeling too crowded, and the distance between our faces and the screen allow us to relax more, with the intention to sit still for awhile and free our minds.  And because TV gives us a schedule of when new episodes will air, we arrange our lives around our favorite shows, and look forward to discussing them with friends afterward.  That conversation, after the first airing of a new episode, is part of the viewing experience. few people, after all, discuss the cliff hanger between episode 6 and 7 of a TV drama when the show is in reruns -- what would be the point?

Online viewing of episodic content that follows a storyline lacks the ingredients necessary to maintain an audience.  The experience is uncomfortable -– there are so many people that can comfortably squeeze together around a monitor before you need some breathing room –- so viewing is a more solitary experience.  And what the Web gives us in terms of convenience -- we can watch anything we want, whenever we want -- it takes away in terms of urgency and the ability to talk with others about what you watched at a certain time.

Of course, much of this is conjecture and opinion.  So let’s look at some hard numbers taken from the analytics of my network from Jan. 1 through Feb. 29.   Looking at the most popular pages among viewers who started on our Home page, the most popular category was Food and Drink, followed by Health & Fitness and Women’s Interests.  Rounding out the back, behind even the About Us page and recent new updates, was Web Episodes -- episodic video content.  Even worse, the time spent on that page was among the lowest.

Content providers can find a home on the Web, and ongoing series are certainly primed to take center stage versus single, one-off videos.  But for Web-based episodic content to really take off, producers need to consider the differences in environment, and steer their efforts toward what really works.

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