So far 2011 has produced three “yowza!” moments, news so big I urgently retweeted them with a preceeding “yowza”: Google/YouTube buying Next New Networks, Netflix delving into original production and now this: Sony’s Crackle jumping in line with Netflix for long-form programming.
Variety‘s Andrew Wallenstein broke the news, delivered by recently promoted Eric Berger, now VP of digital networks at Sony Pictures Television. The network, one of the first to distribute professional short-form web series, have three longer shows in development, each from veterans of traditional TV.
While not as seismic as Netflix’s Oscar-tinged news, Crackle’s announcement is still huge news for web video and convergence culture in general — Marc Hustvedt called it a “bombshell” — representing the beginning of a possible game-changer for content production and one which may mark the twilight of shorter episodics.
“Short-form episodes had their role on sites like YouTube and other places as the market was developing,” Berger told Variety. “But we think we can create something longer with real talent behind it that can sit side by side with our great library.”
Those shows include a trio of solid-sounding projects, adventurous enough for the web but familiar enough for TV fans: “Monster Heist: a series from the Ghost Whisperer writer-producer team of Kim Moses and Ian Sander that focuses on a crew of thieves who happen to not be human; an untitled anthology series that tells paranormal stories in the vein of The X-Files, from Chris Collins, a producer on FX series Sons of Anarchy; and Strand Street, the tale of a rookie undercover cop who infiltrates a gang in his childhood town, from Heroes star Milo Ventimiglia.”
Crackle, it appears, is mainly done with short-form. Writes Wallenstein: “While Crackle still has some more short-form originals in its pipeline, that aspect of its business will be phased out as the focus switches to long form. The backend will still be the linchpin of Crackle’s new model, with series that will be ready-made for resale to everything from iTunes to Netflix to cable video-on-demand.”
So the question arises…
Are “Web” Series Over?
The short answer is “no, but…” Here’s the long answer:
When rumors first surfaced that YouTube might buy NNN, I asked if it signaled the development of a “real web video market.” What I meant was it seemed like the market was going to value short-form content in a concrete way — though the alleged price-tag appeared a bit low.
Still, after years of trepidation, some successes, and many failures, it seemed short-form content — indie- and sponsor-friendly — was going to get a sound endorsement. And it did.
For years web video companies ogled the power of traditional media, even as those companies whined about audience declines in the face of digital technologies. What did the traditional media have that web companies didn’t? An ability to consistently draw millions of viewers and command their attention for hours at a time. Coupled that with a refined ad sales system, ratings everyone could agree on, content tailored to advertiser/audience expectations, traditions around media events re Super Bowl, set schedules, etc., and traditional media looked real nice. So companies like YouTube courted feature-lenth films and old TV shows. Hulu arose to replicate contemporary TV online. Netflix replicated the best of syndicated cable and rental stores (movies when you want).
What web companies couldn’t quite do is convince users that the web too was a destination. But with ad revenue online rising along with broadband speeds and, most importantly, average time spent watching video, the time seemed ripe to compete with traditional media on its bailiwick: long-form content.
Hence, Netflix/House of Cards. Netflix, well-heeled from subscription revenue, felt secure enough to invest the risky world of production (increasingly less risky too, with AMC, HBO, Showtime, FX and the like showing there are clear ways to get critics and buzz. The secret? It’s not cheap!).
Now, Crackle. Backed by Sony and with many years online under its belt, Crackle can afford to dabble in production. With more ad space, revenue will likely go up. Moreover, years of experience distributing short- and long-form content across devices and around the world has proven to Sony there’s value in its library: users want more video, especially on a range of devices. Crackle, I imagine, is banking on its ability as a new media company to leverage its flexibility to gain an audience: people will grow used to getting Crackle everywhere and anywhere (like they now do Netflix) before the broadcasters and most cable networks can catch up (though HBO is moving fast).
The Value of Short-Form in a Long-Form Market
This is a game most web series creators simply can’t play. In the end, that might be a good thing. Seemingly every network from Netflix and Crackle, BET and Liftetime, Starz and IFC is getting into producing long-form series — I wouldn’t be surprised to hear similar moves from the likes of College Humor, YouTube and other web video networks owned by publicly traded companies.
But there might be a window of opportunity for the short-form folk. 22- and 44-minute series are great, TV-friendly and offer the potential for higher ad revenue (more time = more slots), but it can get overwhelming. It takes a lot of commitment from viewers; I know I can’t watch every show I’d want to. There’s simply not enough time.
In this landscape, a 1-12-minute episode might just be the antidote, especially for the oft-mentioned “cubicle” crowd. This explains why sites like Hulu (The Morning After), Yahoo (spending lots of cash) and YouTube (with NNN and NextUp) are investing millions in short-form. In a media-saturated world, growing ever more saturated every year, there’s still plenty of evidence that people are yearning for something worthwhile and brief.
For independent producers, this new marketplace calls on them to be very smart about their resources: if they don’t have the cash and talent to compete with the rising tide of content distributers across the web and TV, they’d best commit to telling compelling (and often funny) stories in bite-size nuggets. Numerous web video creators are perfecting the art of the short sell, in drama and comedy, and they’ll have to continue making that argument when the array of choices facing viewers reaches unprecedented heights in the coming years.
In this landscape, branded entertainment still might be attractive, both to producers and advertisers. Crackle appears to be going the other way: taking advantage of the creative freedom 15- and 30-second ads allow, perhaps throwing in some sponsorship if it looks attractive. But we’ve already seen that many brands are willing to give independent producers enough creative leeway to produce innovative and pleasurable programs. Time and again I’ve heard indie creators speak fondly of their brand partners.
The next few years are going to be very interesting! Stay tuned.