Stream13: Top content creators on success in internet TV

Digital technology has broadcast and broadband players coming together in a delicate dance to produce interchangeable original series for a cross-platform audience (Vuguru's Larry Tanz pictured).
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Between internet-enabled TV sets and premium YouTube channels, it’s no surprise web drama and comedy today looks more and more like traditional TV.

As internet TV producers gather this week for the Stream conference in Santa Monica, digital technology has broadcast and broadband coming together in a most delicate minuet.

“We’re now in the world where the creative community and the audience is comfortable and eager to enjoy higher end programming through digital distribution,” Vuguru CEO Larry Tanz says of a digital space where TV shows reach audiences via the computer, smartphones and consoles.

“There’s a merging of TV and digital in that sense,” he says.

There’s also a new breed of content creators converging at Stream who, as the global entertainment industry hurtles towards an uncertain digital future, have forged new business models and ties to survive the industry disruption.

How? By targeting TV, computers, tablets and mobile platforms with compelling, cross-platform programming.

“Where a good idea is a good idea, we can think of traditional and branded routes, or non-traditional routes,” says Chris Bruss, vice president of branded entertainment at Funny or Die.

The online comedy giant launched in 2007 as Funnyordie.com with mostly user-generated content from a stable of maverick comedy writers, directors and comedians.

Now Funny or Die has done a quickstep with original content, including Funny or Die Presents for HBO, and even has a movie slate in the works.

What’s more, Funny or Die is clasping hands with brand marketers as it exploits a growing audience to make skits with big name stars as branded entertainment.

The trick is dancing closer at times to conventional or cable TV networks, and at other times to new and emerging digital platforms looking for their own original content.

“If a concept can be incubated to go to TV, then that feels right. But some things may never go to TV,” says Drew Buckley, COO at Ben Silverman’s Electus studio, a major producer of both TV and online programming.

An example is K-Town, a web-based reality series about Korea Town in Los Angeles from Electus’s YouTube channel Loud.

The first show was 11 minutes in length, and episodes doubled to 21-and-a-half minutes at one point, reaching into longer form content territory.

“We tried different things, and the audience liked the fact that we stepped up the production quality,” Buckley recalls.

The length of web episodes’ lengths varies as producers look to balance creative ambition, audience attention spans and varied digital platforms.

For Vuguru’s Tanz, structuring an original web series is like playing with Lego blocks where interchangeable elements can be snapped together or pulled apart to accommodate different digital platforms and audiences.

“We start with something that we think is a very compelling story that can extend over 90 minutes, and develop it so that it has 10-minute chapters, and those click together like Lego into 22 minutes, and some four or five click together to feature length,” Tanz explains.

An example is The Booth at the End, which ran on Hulu for two seasons as half hours, and was sold into Canada via an output deal with Vuguru minority owner Rogers Communications.

North of the border, Rogers aired The Booth as a late night movie on its conventional City network, as five half-hours on FX Canada, and offered the web series to its wireless phone subscribers as short chapters.

The tipping point for internet TV has come as SVOD players like Netflix and Hulu Plus get more sticky with original series, and Google’s YouTube moves from user-generated cat-playing-piano videos to premium channels.

Content creators are suddenly chasing deep-pocketed streaming players much as they would traditional media players, in a bid to out-HBO HBO with star-driven, event programming full of Hollywood tropes.

The budgets for web series vary.

Tanz reports the average budget for a Vuguru web series of up to 90 minutes or two hours in length is around $500,000 per hour.

Documentary maker Morgan Spurlock points to his web series A Day in the Life for Hulu costing between $60,000 to $75,000 per episode.

Spurlock adds a web series that is stripped Monday through Friday comes down in cost to $10,000 to $15,000 for every three- to five-minute episode.

Another emerging business model is AOL, Yahoo and other portals adopting a magazine model where they entice massive audiences coming to check their mail or news with high end original ad-supported fiction and non-fiction programming.

Ran Harnevo, senior vice president of video at AOL, explained the internet portal already has a massive video-viewing audience.

Now it has in AOL On a central hub to host a wealth of video content, much of it original or licensed.

“Unlike a lot of big media companies that look to bring people to their own video destination, we’re bringing the right content to the right consumer, wherever they are,” Harnevo says.

AOL On has original series like Little Women, Big Cars from Vuguru, and the Nicole Richie-starring series Candidly Nicole, inspired by the celebrity’s Twitter feed.

There’s also 14 verticals, including for news, entertainment and food, which includes branded partners like Martha Stewart Classic and Yumsugartv.

“I don’t care what food site you like, I want to help you find the right content on whatever site or device you prefer to watch,” Harnevo explains.

Internet TV these days is also TV going to the internet, as with TV producer FremantleMedia driving online into apps and social TV.

An example: viewers of talent shows like The X Factor and American Idol can vote via Twitter and Facebook to create a secondary digital life for their brands.

“We know people who watch the shows want to experience the content on digital, but in a different way,” Olivier Delfosse, vice president of interactive, mobile and digital content at FremantleMedia, explains.

Delfosse is also getting the Family Feud and The Price Is Right game show brands into the mobile gaming, iPhone/iPad and Facebook gaming arenas.

And FremantleMedia is entering the branded entertainment game, while eyeing original series for streaming players like Netflix and Amazon.

Other old media looking to web video to get it round the digital curve includes The New York Times newspaper.

The newspaper giant’s award-winning multimedia project Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, besides extending a print story, generated 3.5 million page views and a media sensation.

“It (Snow Fall) did in it a very innovative way and it wasn’t done gratuitously, and it added value to reading that story. It set a high bar,” says Rebecca Howard, general manager of video at The New York Times.

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