The scene: Pro skateboarder Jerry Hsu is demonstrating his death-defying skateboard stunts to several young men on a relatively quiet street in an undisclosed city. An elderly gentleman comes out of his house to kick the boarders out. A five-minute documentary follows, profiling Hsu and his legendary skateboarding prowess.
This intergenerational incident could easily live among the millions of user-generated videos on YouTube and MySpace.
But instead, the video is part of a new skateboarding-oriented video series dubbed Epicly Later’d, one of more than 50 original, episodic series airing on video broadband site VBS.TV — financed by MTV Networks.
VBS.TV is one of an emerging group of cable network owned-and-operated broadband video Web sites featuring unique, brash, cutting-edge and often uncensored content targeted to the equally brash, unique and tech savvy 18-to-34-year-old Web-head.
Original, exclusive Web content serves not only as a brand extension for the network to reach young viewers, but also as potential incubators for future content on existing TV channels.
“You can’t just sit in your office, be lazy and ignore the way consumers are consuming content,” MTVN Music & Logo Group president Van Toffler said. “Where we want to thrive and win is to find the intersection between professional content and user-generated content.”
A number of networks are putting their original video stamp on cyberspace: Only on Oxygen’s shedidwhat.tv Web site can you view an episode of the ode-to-womanhood comedy skit series Our Bodies, Myself, in which the host, comedian Lauren Weidman, discusses the virtues of listening to and talking to one’s vagina, among other things.
Turner Broadcasting System’s comedy video site, SuperDeluxe.com, is the exclusive home for live-action series, as well as animated shows such as BabyCakes, about a 30-year-old manchild living under his father’s roof.
And coming soon to Sci Fi Channel’s “The Pulse” broadband channel is Starcrossed, a quirky half-hour show about life behind the camera at a long-running sci-fi space soap.
Other networks like MTV Networks are outsourcing some original Web video productions: the network teamed with urban-targeted Vice Magazine to support VBS.TV, which offers a very diverse lineup of some 50 video series with subjects ranging from the experiences of an Iraq-based heavy metal band to candid and revealing interviews with models who pose nude.
With 54% of all U.S. Internet users watching downloaded video clips or full-length programs from the Web, according to a recent Associated Press and AOL survey, just about every cable network is offering some form of original video content specifically created for the Web.
Just two years ago, a handful of networks such as Comedy Central and MTV were offering behind-the-scenes footage, star interviews and the occasional Web-exclusive original show to complement text-and-image-driven Internet content.
Fast-forward to today and you can find a broadband media player on just about every major network’s Web site. But most of the fare consists of repurposed episodes from popular network series or original content derived from such shows.
MTV Networks alone has launched nearly 30 of what it calls “vertical” niche-targeted Web sites since last November — part of a strategy, launched one year ago, to offer online channels across a wide range of niche topics that consumers can interact with.
But VBS.TV represents one of MTV’s first sites to offer exclusive original content specifically created for the Web, according to Jeff Yapp, executive vice president of program enterprises for MTVN Music & Logo Group.
In an effort to reach out to 18-to-24-year-old Web surfers not watching its TV network, MTV provided an unspecified amount of seed money this past March to the VBS Web site — an offshoot of New York-based Vice Magazine, a monthly youth-targeted magazine with a global circulation of nearly 1 million.
With film director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) serving as executive editor of the nearly 50 series featuring numerous episodes that range in length between 2 and 20 minutes, VBS.TV is reaching young adults looking for programming unique to the Web that’s counter to what’s traditionally seen on networks like MTV, Yapp said.
TV FOR THE WEB
VBS features such shows as Bolivian Marching Powder, a documentary which tries to track the origins of cocaine; Inside Sudan, a first-hand look at the troubled African nation; and Shot by Kern, an interview show that follows photographer Richard Kern as he snaps images of nude women. The mix of travel shows, documentaries and scantily clad females is expected to help the site draw as many as 2 million unique viewers in a single month by the end of the year without major marketing or promotional efforts, according to Yapp.
Though that pales in comparison to the approximately 51 million unique visitors each month for video-upload site YouTube, Yapp said that the site has developed a very loyal niche following.
“Vice has a long history of creatively driven content in the print world and they had a great eye for content that speaks to a young, very urban audience,” Yapp said. “They believed that the younger audience — particularly college students — aren’t necessarily connecting with what goes on with the world around them, so with our particular approach from the broadband end, we might be able to connect with them.”
In fact, MTV’s relationship with VBS.TV represents somewhat of a shift for networks seeking to have a video broadband presence. Instead of creating original Web content to run alongside short clips of shows on the network, network executives are looking to work with sites already steeped within the online culture.
“A lot of people are saying that the networks are dinosaurs and don’t want to change, but I’m seeing a lot of change in the business,” said Paul Kontonis, president of For Your Imagination (www.foryourimagination.com), an online content aggregator company which offers several original Web series.
“We’re starting to see Comedy Central and [Turner] with Super Deluxe create separate Web sites to create original content,” he added.
MTVN Entertainment Group executive vice president of digital media Erik Flannigan says it’s imperative that a network create a Web identity and brand distinct from its traditional TV brand to reach Web users. It’s not enough to put new original programming on comedycentral.com, alongside shorts from The Daily Show With Jon Stewart or Drawn Together: Flannigan says original Web content will gain greater exposure and acceptance on a brand that’s known in the Web world, rather than in the traditional TV arena.
That’s why beginning in first-quarter 2008, Comedy Central will transition such original Web fare as Baxter and McGuire, which follows the buddy-buddy relationship of two testicles, from Comedycentral.com to its Atomfilms.com service, which features short-form, independently produced content.
Flannigan believes that its originally produced Web content will find more receptive eyeballs on a site with an established Web identity for original fare, rather than on comedycentral.com, which is generally regarded as an online extension of its original cable shows.
“I think you can create a [network-branded online] destination and have a certain confidence that everyone who likes the network’s shows will find their way there,” he said. “But if you’re offering content that basically hasn’t found its audience yet, you need to take that to where the audience lives already.
“With Atom, we have a built-in base of folks who are always looking for some kind of original content created first for the Web.”
Reaching young online viewers with a somewhat quirky sense of humor is what drove Turner to launch Super Deluxe (www.superdeluxe.com), a Web outlet for original and irreverent comedy programming separate from its TBS.com site.
Drew Refeinberger, senior vice president and general manager of the service, which features such comedian-produced short skits like Derek & Simon — which follows the misadventures of two friends who unsuccessfully chase girls around Hollywood — said that creating an online destination for its content outside of its network ties has had strong appeal among Web users. Launched this past January, the network is averaging 1.3 million users a month.
“We created Super Deluxe as a complete recognition of the fact that today’s audience, particularly young adults, are using broadband and the Internet for full video entertainment,” Refeinberger said.
Flannigan says the teaming of established cable network brands with Web-grown brands such as atomfilms.com provides unique advertising and sponsorship opportunities.
“I want to be able to sell together the independence of the Atom Brand and the audience that’s already coming there with the halo effect of Comedy Central,” Flannigan said. “The ability to monetize that content is so much greater than someone who’s starting from scratch and only has the original content play.”
But such sites are more than just extensions of the brand. Oxygen senior vice president of marketing Cynthia Ashworth says shedidwhat.tv also serves as a “farm team” for the incubation of content that could migrate to the big leagues of television.
Oxygen’s Web series Our Bodies, Myself, which has drawn more than 400,000 video streams, will launch as a full-fledged Oxygen series.
“The [original Web series] are an opportunity — it doesn’t mean all of these will make it to the linear network, but we look at it as almost a farm-team approach,” she said. “We start some shows out in the minors and see which ones gain a following.”
Comedy Central will turn The Watch List into a pilot for consideration on the comedy channel, according to Flannigan.
MTV’s Yapp said MTV2 plans to extract episodes of VBS.TV’s skater show Epicly Later’d to air as 30-minute specials on the network — the first of several from the site that could find its way onto one of MTV’s linear channels.
Ultimately, Flannigan said he longs for the day when a Web-produced show becomes so popular that it forces executives to rethink the TV model to fit the Web show and not vise versa. It may not be Jerry Hsu skating down the metal handrail of a flight of stairs, but given the quickening pace of Web-created original programming, Flannigan may not have to wait too much longer.
“With what you’ve seen to date, most are still a bit guilty of creating things with TV in mind,” he said. “I want to create not only Web-first content but just Web content … then we can go from there.”
R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.
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