If the folks at FreeWheel are right, then the above video might just have a chance.
The video is the first in a new series from writer-director-producer Brian Singer. In a nutshell, H+ tells the story of a post-apocalytic future where humans struggle through the aftermath of a virus that kills off one-third of the population. But the virus isn’t just any old bug, it’s actually a computer virus that spreads because many humans have implanted a chip into their bodies so that they can access the Web all the time. Sounds ambitious for a YouTube premium partner, right? Well, Singer is an ambitious creator. Rather than limiting the story to one narrative, Singer has baked in the idea that users may watch all 48 episodes out of order and, he hopes, choose to rearrange them for a second or even third viewing.
“As more episodes debut, the audience has the unique ability to rearrange them sequentially or by characters’ storylines or locations, so that they can retell our story in their own preference,” Singer has said.
Between the narrative twists and turns (something Singer knows how to do particularly well given the success of The Usual Suspects) and a decent special effects budget (something you don’t see much of on the Web), it’s fair to say that the series is Hollywood storytelling, adapted for the Web. In fact, if the episodes were longer (like an hour) and there were name stars, it would be a TV show. But it’s not a TV show, although it is produced by Warner Bros.
For almost a year now, Hollywood has been launching projects like Singer’s on YouTube. A big part of that partnership has been premised on the idea that — whatever digital video will become, whatever model it may develop — it will be the future of entertainment, somehow. It’s kind of a jump first, look second strategy. Or maybe it’s the absence of a strategy. Despite the fact that there isn’t yet a true business model (or models) for online video, producers like Singer and companies like Warner Bros. have been lining up to do business with YouTube, and somehow, someone, somewhere will figure out a way to make content like this viable and profitable.
But back to the folks at FreeWheel. They think somebody already has figured it out. In a new report, they say that users are watching ads in long-form video. And over at AdWeek, that’s good news because it means digital content producers just need to dust off the old TV playbook (with a few modifications).
“[T]he online video environment is increasingly mimicking the experience of the age-old television ad model, as the standard pre-roll spot is giving way to a far more comprehensive break structure… So long as consumers continue to accept the inherent tradeoff of ad-supported content—after all, a few sponsor messages are worth the price of admission for what would otherwise be offered as premium content—content providers are more than happy to simulate standard TV loads in the digital realm. And while pre-roll remains the dominant paradigm, mid-roll is on the rise.”
While FreeWheel offers a ton of data supporting the claim that pre-roll is on the rise and that users are tolerant — maybe even accepting — of ads in long-form video, I’m not sure that’s what’s really going on. For one thing, digital doesn’t offer users the same kind of ad-skipping technology that you get with TV. Sure, you can skip the ad on YouTube, but that’s really about targeting more than anything else. Also, if you’re watching through a browser, it’s entirely possible that you just open up a new tab while the ad runs its course.
And then there’s the balance question.
“It’s all about striking the right balance, and our customers continue to play with all the levers in order to be sure they offer the ideal spot load,” JoAnna Foyle Abel, vice president of marketing at FreeWheel told AdWeek. “The trick is to monetize your content without disastrously eroding the viewer experience.”
Balance may not be a trait found among most content producer.
“Of course, that’s a trick that TV still hasn’t wholly worked out to anyone’s satisfaction, 70-year head start to the contrary,” AdWeek reporter Anthony Crupi wrote. “(Anyone who subscribes to basic cable can attest to the skull-clutching tedium of the Saturday afternoon movie—there’s nothing quite like investing two-and-a-half hours in a comedy with a 90-minute run time.)”
Ok, so right there we have three reasons why long-form may not be profitable on ads alone.
- Ad-skipping technology isn’t there yet on the Web, so we don’t have an apples to apples comparison.
- The Web experience allows users to tune out, even if they are tuned in.
- Content producers are naturally inclined to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.
But there’s a fourth factor that has me worried. The central thesis of the Web will be just like TV line of thinking is anti-innovation. Now, it may be that users do respond to ads in long-form. If they do, that’s great. But for some time now, we’ve been on the lookout for a new business model, not an old one. It’s nice to wish that the Web could be just like TV. But for a million reasons, it’s just not. So while reports like this are important, it’s also important not to see them as proof that we can somehow return to a business model we understood. We can’t.
We’re at the beginning of online video. We’ve seen the technology innovation. We’re starting to see creative innovation with shows like H+, but we have yet to see business innovation.