We are less than ten days into 2012, but here is a prediction that is easy to make: We are going to see a lot of original Web TV shows announced this year with big stars.
It’s already happening. Tom Hanks is making a cartoon TV series for Yahoo. Steven Van Zandt is starring in a Web-original drama on Netflix. House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, will also appear on Netflix, along with other original shows (it is also resurrecting Arrested Development for the Web audience). Yahoo is partnering with ABC News for Web video, and licensing original comedy as well.
Making TV shows for the web is nothing new. What is new is the level of commitment in terms of dollars and star power being thrown at Web video. Netflix viewers spend 10 hours a month watching streaming video, quadruple the time spent on YouTube or Hulu. Part of that is because Netflix shows feature-length movies, but part of it also is the quality of those movies and the familiarity of the actors who star in them.
Getting Tom Hanks to debut his animated series Electric City on Yahoo is a bold (and, no doubt, expensive) statement that Web video is entering a new phase. Web TV shows no longer have to be second-class citizens. Yahoo, Netflix, YouTube, and maybe even Hulu will increasingly compete for the best shows with cable channels. Could the next Mad Men be a Web TV series?
If the Web wants to chip away at the 130 hours a month people spend watching traditional TV, it will have to go beyond the experimental phase and start producing as many high-quality TV shows as cable and broadcast TV. Okay, maybe not that many. It depends what is your definition of “high-quality,” but in any given season there are only a couple dozen TV shows that count.
Netflix and Yahoo don’t need a full roster of 24/7 programming to compete with TV, but they do need more than one or two shows each. These high-profile shows are anchor properties, like HBO’s Boardwalk Empire or Game of Thrones. They only need a few hits to get people into the habit of watching on the Web, and then they can feed them all their other video.
It’s a risky strategy that depends on hits. But TV has always been a hits-driven business. Online will be no different, except that word of mouth (good or bad) travels instantly through social networks. We’ll know whether these shows can become hits much faster than if they were on regular TV.
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