Where Does Online Video Go From Here?

Editor’s note: Nate Hayden is the vice president of AOL On Originals, a division of the company’s BeOn Branded Entertainment group. AOL also owns this publication.

I’ve spent more than a decade shooting, producing, and developing original content for TV and the web, and have seen both evolve in fascinating ways. In recent years, it’s become obvious that digital video has matured to a place where it can stand as a true peer of traditional media. The milestones speak for themselves: Netflix became the first non-TV network to win an Emmy; HuffPost Live, the first live-streaming online news network, launched; and “Gangnam Style” became the first YouTube video ever to reach a billion views.

And while there can be little doubt that all these developments are positive, it’s brought us to an interesting — and I would argue pivotal — moment in our evolution. For so long, the online video industry’s rallying cry was “We’re the same as TV!” Today, if you judge based on caliber of stars and creators, audience size or advertiser deals, many of the boxes can be checked off. We’ve knocked the proverbial chip off of our shoulders and have proven digital is far more than just the kid brother to the TV industry.

My fear, however, is that as we come closer and closer to this goal, we risk losing sight of what makes online video great in its own right and instead revert to defining our success on TV’s terms. Evidence of this is apparent in the recent discussions about where original web content should go from here (scripted! long-form!), most of which borrow a little too closely from the TV playbook. When series make the transition from web to TV, we trumpet it as a success, but setting these standards up as the pinnacle of our evolution misses the point and denies the video industry an opportunity to be something different — and potentially better — than TV. The bottom line is that it’s time to think about how we can maintain our own identity and capitalize on the possibilities that are unique to this medium.

Those of us who are producing content for the web have the ultimate creative freedom, and yet, there is always the temptation to default to what’s been done before, as opposed to taking the road less traveled. Episode length is perhaps one of the best arenas for this — the web isn’t subject to the same time constraints as TV, so why should we aspire to fit our content into traditional 30- or 60- minute slots? Why not let the content dictate length? Episodes now range anywhere from three to five minutes for Epic Rap Battles from Maker Studios, six to eight minutes for Disney’s kid-friendly Muppets Drive-On, up to fifteen minutes for AOL’s Emmy-nominated Park Bench, or twenty to thirty minutes for AOL’s docu-series Connected or the Yahoo! comedy Other Space — we can let the story determine how long any given episode is, not an arbitrary pre-determined length.

What is truly inspiring for me is that we have far more freedom when it comes to deciding who to create for. Unlike TV, where most shows have to appeal to the broadest possible audience, the web is a place to create the kind of leading-edge content for under-served audiences that most TV execs would laugh out of a pitch meeting. It’s an opportunity to push the envelope and take on topics that would otherwise be deemed too niche, too provocative or too over-the-top for TV. The web is a place where (almost) anything goes and we’d be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn’t take advantage of that. We saw a handful of great examples coming out of this year’s NewFronts — VICE’s F&*% That’s Delicious, AOL’s That’s Racist and True Trans with Laura Jane Grace, PopSugar’s #FullDisclosure — but I’d love to see even more shows that challenge conventional notions about what constitutes content “worth making.” Without the time, format and audience constraints imposed by the traditional TV model, there is a greater opportunity to try your our hands at a variety of different styles and formats to see what works. The doors are finally wide open for authentic stories of any kind, and the justifications for experimentation far outweigh the risks.

In a recent Variety article, Andrew Wallenstein asked a poignant question: “What constitutes a hit today?” I’ve been asked this question ad nauseam since I started in digital and I love it because it gets at the heart of why I’m excited about where we are as an industry. We have the opportunity to define what success means. But we need to move beyond the traditional, TV-supplied answers to this question. Success for online video can be defined in so many more ways — certainly audience size is part of it, but delivering something meaningful and new that delivers on the creator’s vision can and should be a part of the equation. We’ve already proved that we can measure up to TV on pretty much every metric that matters. The next step, and perhaps the hardest one, is to move beyond that comparison by forging our own path and allowing the industry to evolve in new, unexpected and exciting ways.

Image via Shutterstock user Syda Productions