With backing from major studios and creative spark from Hollywood A-listers including Tom Hanks and Jerry Seinfeld, online platforms including Yahoo! Screen, AOL On, YouTube, Hulu, and Crackle are pushing into territory once reserved for traditional TV: long-form, scripted programming.
Online platforms are now targeting the most traditional and loyal TV viewers: soap opera fans.
Next month will bring the premiere of an online-only version of two of TV's most popular soaps, All My Children and One Life to Live, which ABC canceled last year. The Web soaps will feature the same casts and story lines as the TV versions. They'll premiere April 29 and run in 30-minute episodes.
"The word TV is no longer about a device anymore," said Andy Forssell senior vice president of content for Hulu, which plans to release four original shows this year, including The Awesomes, an animated superhero spoof created by Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers.
"What matters to viewers now, especially the millennials, is quality. . . . And it doesn't matter if you see it on the TV, xBox, tablet, or smartphone."
When it comes to HBO-level quality, Netflix quickly established itself as leader of the pack, announcing a slate of five shows last year, beginning with Lilyhammer, a mob satire starring Steven van Zandt as a New York mobster who moves to rural Norway.
Netflix won't say how much it's investing, but its second show, David Fincher's 13-episode political thriller, House of Cards, posted last month, reportedly had a budget topping $100 million. What's more, each episode was a full 55 to 60 minutes.
House of Cards flouted two rules of online programming: Keep it cheap and keep it short. It was a game-changer, says Larry Tanz, chief executive of Vuguru, a production company founded by Michael Eisner for Web-exclusive programming.
"Traditional TV critics paid attention" with glowing reviews, Tanz said, adding that mainstream publications had generally ignored online shows. "This year, you'll see a real ramp-up of budgets and much more long-form programming and of shows that people will acknowledge as real hits."
We've come a long way since the days when online video was limited to 90-second clips of cats on skateboards or that creepy CGI dancing baby.
"The quality of programming online has increased so dramatically in just the past three years that it is indistinguishable from much of network TV," said Drew Baldwin, one of the founders of TubeFilter.com a newsmagazine about online video.
"The industry has matured significantly and rapidly," spurred on by the increasing sophistication of smartphones, tablets, and WiFi connectivity, he said.
The audience base is growing exponentially. Online video providers "are reaching billions of people - that's billions with a B - every single month," Baldwin said. "Now that's impressive."
Viewers around the world watch nearly four billion hours of YouTube a month, its owner, Google, recently announced.
As of December, AOL's video platform, AOL On Network, had 53 million unique visitors per month. Hulu's new service, Hulu Plus, had more than three million subscribers by the end of 2012, twice as many as a year earlier, the company said, boosting annual revenue 65 percent.
YouTube's foray into scripted shows has been a big success, thanks in part to H+ The Digital Series, an ongoing futuristic thriller from X-Men director Bryan Singer. Launched in August in episodes of four to eight minutes, it is in its 43d episode.
Even though women are flocking to the Internet, men still dominate the Web video audience, said Bill O'Dowd, CEO of Web-exclusive production studio Dolphin Digital Media, which makes H+ and the cyber-crime-thriller Cybergeddon, created by CSI mastermind Anthony Zuiker.
"It serves a core audience of 18- to 24-year-old males," O'Dowd said, "and it has clocked more than 30 million views."
It's an audience well served by Machinima, one of YouTube's most prolific content providers, with more than 186 million subscribers across 6,787 YouTube channels (most devoted to video-game play). The company excels at video-game-inspired shows such as Mortal Kombat and the stunning, Microsoft-financed Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn.
Machinima partnered with Universal on Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome, an action-packed prequel. Shot as a feature-length story, it was initially posted on YouTube in 10 episodes. Last month, SyFy Channel picked it up as a TV movie, and Universal Home Entertainment recently released it on Blu-ray and DVD.
Once derided as a fad, online video is changing the network-TV landscape. According to Variety, 20 percent of the CW's viewership comes from streaming and video on demand. The CW hopes to draw on that fan base for its new midseason thriller, Cult, which will premier after the network introduces on YouTube a live, after-show recap program not available on TV.
Fox TV has appointed a president of digital programming and is going after the fast-growing female Web audience by cofinancing the YouTube channel Wigs. It features female-centric shows starring such A-listers as Julia Stiles, Jennifer Garner, Stephen Moyer, and Jeanne Tripplehorn. Over the summer, Fox will roll out Short-Com Comedy Hour, one of a set of new shows for cable and Internet.
The network was no doubt inspired by the success of Yahoo! Screen's Burning Love, a popular send-up of dating shows such as The Bachelor, which has just been picked up to be shown on E!
Audiences may love online programming, but so far, advertisers have been slow to follow, said Erin McPherson, head of original programming at Yahoo. Unlike subscription services such as Netflix, the majority of online video providers are ad-supported.
"Ad buys are slow," McPherson said. "We have shows that regularly outpace cable programing. We have the audience, the engagement level, the production values. What's lacking is the level of ad dollars, which continues to sit in TV."
Advertisers are hardly ignoring the Web: Ad buys for online-streaming content reached $2.93 billion in 2012, threefold growth since 2008. "But that's a drop in the bucket compared to the figures spent on TV advertising," said Mike Henry, CEO of Outrigger Media, which tracks online audiences for potential advertisers.
The push to create more scripted, long-form shows is a smart move by online platforms to attract advertisers, Henry said. "It's a very easy and natural place for TV ad dollars to flow because they feel comfortable with the [format] and production values."
McPherson is optimistic. "Hopefully, the next 24 to 36 months will be the watershed, and [ad buyers] will realize this is where audiences are consuming video.
"It's time they also migrated."
Contact Tirdad Derakhshani
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