As long as we’ve had streaming video, we’ve debated the merits of scripted versus non-scripted video. First lonelygirl15 was popular, then Charlie Bit My Finger. LG15 producer EQAL bailed on producing pre-written programs, but then web series started to find success. It’s been years of mixed signals.
Generally, scripted content requires more attention: episodes are longer, narratives slower. Ratings—or views—for scripted fare tend to be lower than those for reality videos online.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that YouTube, undisputed champion of video views, has put most of its marketing muscle behind non-scripted video programming. YouTube recently announced it was adding over 50 channels to its roster of premium channels. As The Guardian reports, citing YouTube director (for Europe, Middle East, Africa) Ben McOwen Wilson:
…YouTube had seen a huge number of pitches for the new channels, but wanted content that exploited YouTube’s interactivity and could respond to comments and shares among viewers, rather than lengthy pre-written series.
By the end of the year Google will have invested $300 million in production and marketing for the channels, with more surely to come now that it is expanding (many channels, however, will fail). The vast majority of its financing will go toward short-form reality programming. Of course, there are premium channels with scripted programs—at least one-third of last week’s top 25 channels have scripted shows, by my count. Online soap network WIGS has been a strong player. Better-capitalized channels like Machinima.com and AwesomenessTV have built their brands with these shows, along with creator-centric channels like YOMYOMF (Justin Lin) and Geek & Sundry (Felicia Day).
Culturally Americans are used to sharing YouTube videos mocking or revealing funny real-life situations. The site wants to make sure it keeps that market cornered. This is especially pressing since nearly all of its competitors are moving into scripted entertainment, which they hope will capture loyal audiences and higher ad rates.
Amazon Studios, itching to break into television for years, is currently calling for TV and film scripts from writers across the country. The 22- and 11-minute (for kid’s shows) pilots will be added the company’s development slate. It’s not a completely new program; two years ago, writers dismissed the open call from “Scamazon Studios,” because of Amazon’s complex rules managing rights and permissions.
Amazon’s effort to “crowdsource” scripts is hardly new—you have always been able to send your script to a studio. But the campaign reveals how many of the non-YouTube networks have perceivably given up trying to compete with the Google subsidiary in the spreadable, non-scripted series market.
Instead the likes of Hulu, Netflix and Yahoo! believe scripted programs are best suited to launching brands and channels. They may be right. After all, HBO was not HBO until The Larry Sanders Show, Oz, and The Sopranos. Queer as Folk reinvigorated Showtime. Mad Men made AMC. Everyone knows about YouTube by now, but your friends are not likely chatting about the latest show on AOL or Yahoo!, though both have long distributed scripted shows.
It’s a tough road. Electric City and Cybergeddon have not been game-changers for Yahoo!. Neither Battleground on Hulu nor Lilyhammer on Netflix generated significant cultural interest. Both passed without much fanfare. These networks will keep trying. Burning Love managed to generate some buzz, and television fans are waiting with bated breath for Netflix’s Arrested Development reboot.
If there’s one rule for web video success, it predates the web: no one can predict a hit. Web networks are going to spend many years and millions of cash trying to build audiences, establish credibility and cultivate new talent. Flashy marketing campaigns are just the beginning.
Photo credit: YouTube.