The tipping point for made-for-web TV

31 08 2007

Cast your mind back just three years and the term ‘made-for-web TV’ was usually greeted with derision by broadcast execs (it still is in some circles), suggesting the reason why it was made for the web was because it wasn’t good enough for more mainstream distribution, on a grown-up medium like telly.

Fast-forward to the last 15 months and it’s easy to see how far made-for-web TV has come:

  • lonelygirl15 came from nowhere and generated 50 million views, attracting product placement deals with Hershey’s and Johnson & Johnson.
  • Its star, New Zealand-born actress Jessica Lee Rose became a United Nations ambassador, landed a role in a Lindsay Lohan movie and was named biggest internet celebrity by Forbes magazine.
  • Sam Has 7 Friends ran for 80 x 90-second minisodes, with 10,000 downloads a day via iTunes, and got nominated for a broadband Emmy.
  • Michael ‘Disney’ Eisner took the wraps off his new media production house Vuguru, following up a month later with the MySpace debut of Prom Queen (a co-pro with Big Fantastic, producers of Sam Has 7 Friends).
  • Now Afterworld, the new sci-fi web series produced by Electric Farm Entertainment, and presumably basking in the halo effect created by Heroes, has created a number of firsts by: i) breaking the cost barrier [the overall production budget was US $3 million — still small beer comparative to linear networks, but a watershed moment for web TV]; ii) international TV, gaming and mobile rights have been licensed to Sony Pictures International; iii) the first linear TV distribution deal is already in the bag: the Sci-Fi Channel in Australia will condense the slate of minisodes, webisodes, whatever you like to call them in to 13 x  30-minute episodes for linear broadcast. Superficially, it’s cheap linear telly, but this really is a breakthrough moment.

Just to get the shock-of-the-new back into perspective, on the U.K. side of the pond the BBC has been experimenting with this area for years, even further back:

In 2002, its ‘utlra-local’ broadband TV experiment in a small region of the north of England took Thunder Road, the BBC’s ‘first interactive drama’, a piece originally conceived by local playwright John Godber as a single 90-minute film, and segmented it in to 30 three-minute minisodes, releasing these on a daily basis over a month, also assembling an archive of back episodes simulatenously. Despite the rudimentary approach, with the benefit of hindsight, the show exceeded even Auntie’s wildest expectations and delivered substantial audiences — all because it did two things really well: it had the production values of network output and combined this with a resonance which touched people on a very local level.

So where is this all going? Some nimble indie producers have been quick to seize the opportunity that open distribution represents. Others have been waiting on the sidelines, worried about the ripple effect they’ll have on the main (linear) buyers on whom they rely. Disintermediation etc.

If you’re a producer reading this, wake-up, this is the beginning of a truly global distribution opportunity opened up by the connected age. Don’t be intimidated by linear precedents, the world is truly now your showreel. Seize the moment.