Not All is Well in Online Video

This is a column that I wrote for Digiday Daily, published today.

As an avid online video watcher, pre-roll evangelist, and all around opinionated curmudgeon, I always get excited when the industry comes together to talk about business, pat ourselves on the back for how great we’re doing, and how our clients are all pushing the boundaries of the medium because of our brilliance. These gatherings (like the, ahem, Nov. 11 Digiday On Video conference) present an opportunity to hold the industry’s feet to the fire.

As the agenda for the show developed, there were some key issues that stood out to me as holding the industry back. Not just from a revenue standpoint, but as a consumer of online video. How are we going to make this medium better for audiences, advertisers and content producers?

First, where’s the quality online video? And by online video I mean “not TV online.” We already know that there’s plenty of good (and bad) TV – that’s why TV consumption continues to grow and why Hulu dominates in ad delivery and time spent per user. But outside the handful of “hits” – which is another sub-topic of its own – where’s the actual good stuff? Despite online video viewing nearing 15 hours a month, there’s a disconcerting lack of quality stories being told online. I’m disturbed by the lack of “must see” online video series, and what that means for the sustainability of our business. It feels like the last big creative spurt came when the TV writers went on strike, and that ain’t good.

When I talk to “webisode people,” they have a tremendous amount of passion for their projects, and seemingly no understanding or means to sustain it. The question I continually ask them is, “Is this a hobby or a business?” It primarily looks like a very expensive hobby, doesn’t it? Where is the high quality, reliably consistent entertainment that a few million people want to keep up with? The on-demand nature of the medium should make it easier, not harder, to build a fan base. So where are all the supremely talented writers with a Flipcam and mediocre lighting?

Second, where’s all the interactivity? Full disclosure, I work for an interactive pre-roll provider, and I see plenty of examples of what can be done when the creative juices get flowing. That’s why I’m doubly disappointed in where things stand overall. Its been more than four years since I saw my first truly interactive story, and I haven’t seen anything like it since. Interactive pre-roll is a step in the right direction – a very big step for the much maligned, revenue generating workhorse. Like rich media’s growth in the early 2000’s, advertisers are way out ahead of the content producers here. Unfortunately that means there aren’t enough opportunities for them to present an interactive brand experience within an interactive content experience. We’ve heard talk of the “choose your own adventure” style narratives, but there’s so much more that can be done – not just adding a chatroom or Twitter feed on the side of a program. Where’s the innovation in storytelling for this medium?

On the advertising front, market fragmentation is getting worse, not better. There are more devices and platforms, Flash vs HTML5, and new boxes and screens to consider when building a media plan, branded content, or any form of video advertising. Scale needs to be looked at in aggregate, figuring out how to reach millions of people regardless of the device – or devices – they choose to consume content on. Currently we’ve got plenty of new devices, only a smattering of new, original content, and the same age old problem of delivering scale effectively to advertisers. Isn’t it easier to follow the content across devices? I’ve seen mobile pre-roll, and it’s honestly pretty good. Is there a dramatic – or even significant – difference between a person watching a 30-minute comedy on their DVR or streamed from a broadcaster’s website? Which leads me to my final point of contention du jour….

Online video conversations sound like the Tower of Babel. All online video is not created equal and we need to stop pretending like it is. Comparing the typical Hulu experience to the typical YouTube experience is not only inaccurate, but it does the industry as a whole a disservice, making it harder to develop appropriate ad formats to monetize content appropriately. Moreover, as we introduce new devices into the mix, we shift our focus to the new shiny objects and away from the actual user experience. Does the box that delivers the content to your screen of choice define the experience? When I watch a sitcom on my MediaCenter, or Boxee, or GoogleTV or AppleTV that is plugged into the big screen in my living room, I’m “watching TV.” What do you call it? What should advertisers call it? What about mobile? If I’ve got that same episode on my phone, purchased in HD from Amazon, and I plug it into that same screen via HDMI, what do you call it now? Mobile video? Maybe, but I’m still watching TV.

Before anyone comes out swinging, yes, I’m making some sweeping generalizations. I’m well aware that there are a handful of examples to point to as successes here. Many of them will be honored at the DIVA Awards. But why aren’t there more? This isn’t a condemnation of our industry. It’s a kick in the ass. These are opportunities to be wildly creative, not excuses for inaction. But we need to move a bit faster, take a few more risks, and be willing to fail a little bit more. If not, we’ll be stuck with a pocket full of digital pennies while those TV fat cats go back to their multi-martini lunches, laughing at us in a YouTube video.