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A New Name to Describe Online Content (Guest Column)

The year was 2004. Facebook was launching, “Friends” was airing its last episode, Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunctioned, and in the midst of an actual presidential election, Napoleon had everyone pumped to vote for Pedro. And, notably, Gretchen Weiners found it impossible to make “fetch” happen.

Yes, I just proudly referenced “Mean Girls.” Because it’s a great example of how it is really hard to coin new jargon and make it stick. That reality holds true as we struggle to put labels on the output of a more-diverse-than-ever media business.

Over several decades, without needing a primer, we’ve all come to understand that “film” is not that translucent strip upon which moving images are recorded and through which they are ultimately projected. Similarly, as streaming has busted onto the scene, we all get that “television” is not the thing that hangs on your wall.

In both cases, we are talking about form factors. A “film” is something that’s around 90 to 120 minutes and is designed to be consumed in one sitting. “Television” is episodic scripted and non-scripted programming, typically in half- and full-hour installments.

And guess what? It is all “digital.” Either because of the tools and processes (few feature films are shot on actual film these days), or because of the distribution platform, or even the way digital distribution technologies have infiltrated the theatrical model.

Everything is now “digital” to some degree or another. So can’t we come up with something more specific and nuanced to describe the new content formats that are the very reason more than 25,000 fans, creators, and executives are in Anaheim this week for the seventh annual VidCon? In a world where we (hopefully) agree that “Camp Takota” and “Electra Woman & Dyna Girl” are “films” (even though they were distributed digitally), and “House of Cards” and “Transparent” are “television” (even though they never appear on a traditional network), let’s agree that we will come up with a new name for the short-form, highly sharable, new-in-the-last-decade formats that define both a new generation of content creators as well as their audiences.

My suggestion: “community programming.”

For three days, thousands of fans will pack the VidCon signing hall to meet online video stars. They will congregate in the outdoor festival area, fill every panel and keynote, and show up in droves for every performance. In each case they will be celebrating creators who have chosen full-time careers in online video, and whose content is mostly different than the film and television formats that have persisted for decades.

“Let’s Play” gamers. Unboxers. Beauty gurus. Vloggers. Comedians who have mastered the art of short-form viral laughs. These, and other formats, have grown to define online entertainment, and what they all have in common is that they depend on a real-time, authentic, persistent, and participatory relationship between each creator and the community they’ve cultivated.

Community is the key. Film and television have fans, but deeply passionate, connected, and engaged communities are what make online video different, and why it has resonated with a global generation of consumers that often choose authenticity and connectivity over big budgets and production value.

So there we have it. The distribution mechanism will no longer define the content or the form factor. Film is film. Television is television. And community programming is what fans are celebrating this week in Anaheim, and why VidCon has become one of the world’s most important cultural events. No clue if this new jargon will stick, but I, for one, think the notion is totally fetch.

Brent Weinstein is partner and head of digital media at UTA.

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