Web TV: Even the Wild West Got Tamed

My previous column briefly laid out some of the challenges facing the nascent Web TV industry. Among the challenges discussed was the scarcity of meaningful funding, largely from advertising, and the commercials themselves, aka "pre-roll," which generally run immediately before your selected programming. It is this advertising which is often at the center of debate.

Today, Web TV is often defined by short-form programming -- serialized shows whose episodes generally range from 4 - 7 minutes in length. And though viewers believe that pre-roll commercials result in free programming, and accept them (as long as the Shows they want to watch remain free), doesn't mean they like them. And they don't.

Viewers don't like commercials largely because they're trying to get somewhere else -- like into the Show they came to see. The commercial slows us down. And, unfortunately, many of the commercials are repurposed traditional television spots which can run 30 seconds in length - an eternity in Web TV time. Even 15 seconds can feel like an eternity when you're waiting to watch a four-minute episode. Nonetheless, unless a Show can be financed by another means, the pre-roll commercial may be here to stay. And that's where the opportunity lies.

The debate over pre-roll advertising can be ended by forward-thinking agencies and advertisers. Here's how. They should:

  1. Set aside everything they know about creating traditional television spots - this is the web.
  2. Learn more about the online audience - their psyche is totally different from that of a traditional TV viewer - they'll click away in the blink of an eye if you don't respect them.
  3. Create web-savvy commercials that are flat-out entertaining.
  4. Cut! Cut the length of each spot down to 5 to 10 seconds max.
  5. Lose all the fancy-schmancy demographic requirements - age, sex, education, etc. These demos don't rule the day in the online world. "Common Interests" are the new demographics. Comedy Shows, SciFi Shows, Drama series, all the genres, are watched by people with a common interest, no matter their age.
  6. Spend far less money, than they do now, creating and producing commercial spots - there are thousands of web-savvy filmmakers capable of producing highly-effective spots, on a new media budget, that will resonate with entertainment consumers.
  7. Get wildly creative - develop serialized commercials, and/or other diverse groups of commercials. The same old, repetitive commercial is an interest killer.
  8. Invest in the filmmakers pioneering the industry. There are many ways to do this, but a good first step is by paying ad rates more akin to those of traditional TV. Eyeballs are eyeballs. There is a genuine golden opportunity here.
  9. Plant their feet firmly in Web TV and never look back. There's no reason to be afraid. By embracing it, they will be rewarded by your patronage.
  10. Be open to entirely new business models. The web represents the holy grail of advertising opportunity. Where else can you close a transaction at the point of viewing? (Bonus) The same as #2. I can't say it enough.

So where does this leave us? With viewers who prefer ad-free TV, in an industry fighting to find its financial foothold. And, short of converting made-for-the-web entertainment programming to a cable model, where you'll pay-as-you-go, commercial advertising will be with us for a long time... or will it?

In the "Wild West," which our industry has so often been referred, watch for the development of paid subscription models for serialized programming. It's a viable hedge. The sheer numbers of online viewers, large numbers of which are willing to pay a few bucks to watch a favored show, without commercial interruption, create some very interesting economics for filmmakers. This door was opened long ago, and entertainment consumers have become pretty comfortable with the concept. And it's easier now than it's ever been. Make no mistake about the success of Netflix, Amazon, etc. Viewers are already pre-disposed, and they are only one click away from PayPal at any time.

So unless advertisers grab the bull by the horns, free online entertainment programming will become a thing of the past, and you'll be down to the following options: (a) pay-per-view, (b) pay-per-subscription, and (c) pay sites. Sound familiar? I think they call that cable TV. And by the way, how much is that costing you every month? Oh, that's right, you cancelled your cable service because it was too expensive; and other than for Californication, Weeds and a few HBO shows like Entourage, there just isn't enough there to justify the $100+ monthly cost. Now wait a minute! If you're saving $100+/month on cable, you're now better able to afford pay-as-you-go Web TV after all, with all the diversity it offers. Now just imagine if we can keep Web TV free. Hey, even the Wild West got tamed. We'll get it done here, too. Stick around.