Web Video Sucks, But Here’s How It Can Be Great

Editor’s Note: Jordan Kurzweil is Co-CEO of Independent Content, an agency that helps media companies launch new digital products and businesses. Prior to starting Independent Content, Jordan worked at AOL running original programming, and News Corp, where he helped bring its traditional brands to digital. You can follow him on Twitter @jordankurzweil.

I love movies. I love TV shows. I hate web videos.

They suck.

But let me qualify: An overwhelming number of professionally produced made-for-the-web videos are just not worth watching and barely hold a viewer’s attention for their miniscule run-time. Largely, they’re ill-conceived, poorly executed, poorly commercialized or downright boring.

Yes, there are a few individual standouts (maybe The Guild, some SNL Digital Shorts, La Blogotheque’s “Take Away Shows,” a few Funny or Die clips, and a never-ending line-up of “viral videos”), but you’d be hard-pressed to name a web program that has achieved irrefutable success — a sustained, engaged audience at scale, or more simply, a web series you watch religiously and recommend to others.

And the thing is, there’s no good reason this has to be the case. Web video programs DO NOT have to suck.

The industry has grown-up — the audiences are there, the ad dollars are waiting — and with advertisers and networks gathering for the Digital Content Upfronts Newfronts this week and next, we need to seriously define success in the world of made-for-the-web video, put into practice the mechanisms for creating those successes, and own up to our hits and misses.

Last week at the IAB’s Digital Video conference, a host of execs from media companies, ad agencies and technology companies tried to provide a definition of success and came up with two basic points of view:

1) Popularity – How many people have seen a video
2) Ad dollars – How much money is spent on ads in and around a video

Unremarkably, given industry-wide fear of failure, and consistently unproven ability, they missed a third, huge factor: Building real audience.

Since the advent of media, Audience with a capital “A” has been the core definition of success. Whether a newspaper, television show, film, band, book or blog, an engaged, active, repeat audience is what makes or breaks a media property. Audience — habitual, fervent, powered by word-of-mouth — builds value and drives all other successes: Ad dollars, box office sales, subscriptions, downloads, etc.

This is why Ted Sarandos at Netflix is investing so heavily in original programming (as is Hulu) with a focus on building “strung out” audiences, and why web businesses like Machinima are raising capital on valuations in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In the era of video everywhere, large audiences of hooked viewers for extended periods of time equates to success. Nothing new.

Taking an honest look at original web videos, most, if not all, have failed to build real audiences, and none have inspired the sense of awareness, fandom (or even bubbling fervor) that develops around an even mildly successful television show.

Not Battleground.
Not Lilyhammer.
Not ClevverStyle.
Not Failure Club.
Not The Gillmore Gang. (Sorry TechCrunch) :-)

But the thing is — and I never would have said this a few years ago — web originals can build Audiences. Here’s how.

Step one, promotion.

The web has proven it can drive viewership at scale, i.e. we can direct large audiences to a single piece of content. The web portals, iTunes, and ad agencies do this everyday via homepage promotions, media buys, content discovery widgets, social media campaigns and so on. This type of initial burst of promotion drives sampling, or as TV folk call it, tune in. We can, and should refine the use of these tools and use them in a coordinated and even bigger way along with offline promotion to drive eyeballs to programming.

Step two, make it f*cking great.

Easy to say, and hardest to do, but when viewers arrive, we need to entertain and provide immediate value. We need to make great content. To date, as I said at the top, we have failed as an industry to do this (Note: I am partly to blame. As the GM of FOX.com and then the head of original programming at AOL I have been responsible for the production of terabytes of original web videos — some good, a great many mediocre, but none building repeat audience).

There are a host of factors that have contributed to the problem — low budgets, short lead times, infinitesimal audience attention span and over commercialization forced by the industry’s desperation for ad dollars and instantaneous results — a self-fulfilling generator of poor quality. I have been in the meetings, and seen it all first-hand, and the biggest structural problem has been an endemic lack of focus and commitment to creative product.

What makes great content?

People and focus. Talented people executing great ideas that connect with audiences. Read Warren Littlefield’s oral history of Friends in this month’s Vanity Fair. It is all about talented people – from the show creators and writers, to the actors, to studio executives pushing and machinating to execute an idea that had been pitched around Hollywood by a number of different producers ad infinitum. But NBC and Bright/Kauffman/Crane made it a hit. What’s the primary difference between Battle Ground on Hulu and Veep on HBO?

Details. The actual creative execution of the concept.

Starting at the beginning of the creative/pitch process, established producers need to cut the crap, and the cheap tricks, and bring their A-level ideas, talents and (perhaps most importantly) focus to the digital game. Some are starting, but for too long, the web has been treated as a creative dumping ground, a home for regurgitated pitches that didn’t get bought by studios, networks and cable nets (and guess what kids, there’s generally a reason!), and producers have considered digital an ancillary business that naturally doesn’t get as much of their time and focus compared to higher paying TV and film projects. But, there’s a wave of new digital native creators coming who don’t differentiate between viewing platforms, and they are going to eat your lunch if you don’t wake-up.

Digital distributors and networks (Netflix, Hulu, AOL, Yahoo!, Amazon) — anyone buying original programming — need to hire creative executives, people with the right instincts, taste and knowledge of their intended audiences to help shape, improve and market programming. There is a reason these jobs exist at television networks, production companies and studios — great creative executives, like book editors, make content better by both pushing and protecting creators, providing audience insight and enabling great work.

Look at the careers of David Nevins at Showtime (and Imagine), Sheila Nevins at HBO (no relation), Kevin Reilly at FOX and FX, and you will see the rise in popularity and hit-making capabilities of those networks – and to a person they and their staffs have provided one very important thing:

Runway. Whether driven by the breakneck pace engendered by the dotcom “ship and scale” mentality, or the immediate and fickle expectations of The Street or advertisers, the digital content industry has never understood or embraced the basic idea that creative endeavors need the time, space and money to develop. Coming up with the right concept, writing the great script, CASTING the right talent, hiring the most appropriate director — all take trial, error, revision, time and money. Oh, and keep the advertisers out of it until it’s done and ready for them. Consensus is no way to produce anything actually creative.

Step 3, product.

We need to make it easy for people to come back to content they like. This is our biggest challenge, given the byzantine and organic structure of the Internet and services and consumer expectations we have created on top of it. We need to look at ways of solving this as both distributors as well as producers, considering everything from navigation and usability, marketing tactics, technology and platform functionality, and even the form and format of the content. Once the fish bites, we need to set the hook.