Why digital series haven’t hit it big

Entertainment & Technology Summit 2012

This should have been the year that digital original programming finally made its breakthrough.

In terms of both sheer quality and quantity, 2012 had all the makings of an annus mirabilis for a category of content seemingly stuck in a state of perpetual not-quite. With at least $200 million in backing from Google, YouTube pivoted away from user-generated submissions to a channel-centric showcase for premium fare. Netflix and Hulu launched the first fruit of their first development slates. Household names like Jerry Seinfeld, Tom Hanks and Larry King unveiled their own Web-only series this summer, all within the space of one week.

But if these and so many different other episodic productions have one thing in common, it’s their failure to capitalize on whatever attention they mustered at launch.

In a world where the Web effectively evens the distribution playing field so that Web-delivered content is perfectly capable of reaching TV-size audiences, shouldn’t the attention gap between TV and online at least be beginning to close?

At the beginning of this young century, pioneers like Icebox and Pop.com attempted to launch modest originals on a pre-broadband planet ill-equipped to soak it up via dial-up. The burst of the dot-com bubble wiped them out, but a new wave of players have been clawing their way back ever since.

The primary problem now seems to be reticence: Those responsible for original programming largely go silent after the programming launches — particularly when it comes to touting the number of viewers who watched — leaving the impression the results are better left unsaid.

The conventional wisdom holds that reporting digital metrics like they are Nielsen ratings doesn’t make sense in an on-demand world. Unlike shows on broadcast networks, which must prove themselves quickly, a series on a subscription VOD service like Netflix can maximize its audience long after launch and make financial sense.

But regardless of that rationale or the lack of a standard metric for online traffic, the web content biz is ill-advised to go without any indicator that its programming is making an impact. Even if the numbers are low, there’s got to be some way they can be spun positively.

And no digital original should stand alone. There’s no better way to demonstrate traction for the genre than to crow about their reception in aggregate. A rising tide can convey that this is a fertile field.

There have been some encouraging signs. Netflix did not release “Lilyhammer” numbers but it did give its first original series the ultimate validation by ordering a second season. Hulu’s first comedy, “Battleground,” drew some appreciation from critics.

If any part of this scene is showing some fizz instead of fizzling, it’s actually at the low end of the budget pool where self-styled YouTubers like SxePhil and RyanHiga amass cable-sized audiences on YouTube pages where there are lots of zeroes in the view count.

So let’s hold out a little hope for the latest efforts that can lift this sleepy niche. “CSI” creator Anthony Zuiker just launched an espionage thriller “Cybergeddon” for Yahoo. Several news networks have begun streaming. And perhaps the biggest player in digital originals, Machinima, launched what its calling its most ambitious live-action Web series to date with Microsoft, “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn.”

“Forward Unto Dawn” is a fitting rallying cry for a sector that’s going to have keep pushing to get its long-awaited day in the sun.

10:30 a.m.: Variety TV Editor Andrew Wallenstein moderates a panel on the global pay TV biz; TV execs and service providers will address multi-platform viewers.

Noon: panelists from Facebook, StumbleUpon and USA Network discuss how social media is shaping the future of TV.

12:25 p.m. :

2 p.m.: A chat with Nerdist Industries founder Chris Hardwick, now co-president of digital content for Legendary Pictures

2:30 p.m.: There are more web series than ever, but how can they be monetized? A panel with Google and CW execs will explore the options.

3:30 p.m.: A look at cloud, streaming and subscription models for entertainment content. What’s working? And what isn’t?

4:15 p.m.: creators and stars of popular Web content share stories on this fast-growing new medium. With Jon Avnet, Jennifer Beals, Rodrigo Garcia and Ken Marino, among others.

5 p.m.

Entertainment & Technology Summit 2012
Benchmarks for buzz? | Video growth drives network upgrade | No neutrality on Net