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How to Deliver Online Content That Delivers Viewers

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What is content? Is it a hard-hitting edition of PBS’ Frontline, Will Smith’s latest multimillion-dollar film extravaganza, or the video streamed from a teenage exhibitionist’s bathroom webcam? The answer, of course, is "Yes."

The citizens of the world harbor a wide variety of interests, and content works to the extent that it appeals to those interests. The annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show works, as does an online video detailing the intricacies of a successful open-heart surgery. In either case, enough people have to watch to justify the effort and expense of producing and delivering the content. Because of the breadth of the internet, myriad content types will find their niche audiences. However, to achieve commercial success, those audiences must be substantial enough to pique the interest of advertisers. Two offerings from different corners of the media universe, Rocketboom and Quarterlife, are attracting big audiences, and both are hoping that big ad dollars will follow.

Rocketboom, a 3-minute daily video blog produced in New York City, is successful under almost any criteria—the prototypical minimalist viral phenomenon. With minimal production equipment (a consumer-level video camera, a laptop, two lights, a desk and a map, and Final Cut Pro) and no promotion budget, Rocketboom has spawned a massive audience through word-of-mouth. Founded by Andrew Baron in 2004, Rocketboom now streams in most available formats and generates hundreds of thousands of unique views each day. Rocketboom employs a single anchorperson (the charming Joanne Colan) and stringers around the world to cover a wide range of information, from top news stories to quirky internet culture.

Rocketboom’s tongue-in-cheek take on current events evolved from Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update by way of The Daily Show. Keys to its success have been its lack of self-reverence and a 3-minute length that doesn’t abuse internet users’ notoriously short attention spans. Rocketboom’s challenge is to generate a steady flow of content that is original and compelling enough to draw people in. "What it comes down to is our ability to curate," says Baron, now the company’s CEO. "The one skill that’s essential is just having good taste."

In contrast to Rocketboom’s up-from-the-basement origins, Quarterlife, a new web series that debuted on MySpaceTV.com in November 2007, emanates from two of Hollywood’s most successful film and television veterans—and sports a budget of more than $400,000 per the equivalent of one hour-long TV episode (i.e., six 8-minute webisodes) to prove it. Partners Marshall Herskowitz and Ed Zwick (Thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, Blood Diamond, Legends of the Fall) created and financed the first six hour-long episodes of the series, which was originally shot as a pilot for ABC and rejected, before being reconceived as an internet series. Ironically (or perhaps not?), soon after it debuted on the internet—and shortly after the onset of the writers’ strike—the series was picked up by NBC for broadcast as an hour-long midseason series, the first time a web series will air on a major network.

Quarterlife tells the stories of six creative twentysomethings, one of whom sets the narrative in motion with her own tell-all video blog. MySpaceTV.com streams two webisodes each week with a 24-hour window of exclusivity, after which the webisodes stream on quarterlife.com, a social networking site tied to the show. The series streams a week later on other partner sites, such as YouTube, Facebook, and Imeem. Quarterlife claims 2 million views for the eight webisodes that streamed in the show’s first 3 weeks.

Differing Styles, Common Goal
Where one or two people produce each Rocketboom episode using a single camera, Quarterlife shoots with a crew of 50 and a street-full of camera, wardrobe, lighting, and grip trucks. (In a concession to internet budget constraints, the series uses two Panasonic HD prosumer cameras in lieu of 35mm film cameras and edits using Final Cut Pro.) And where Rocketboom puts a new show together each day, Quarterlife works on a 12-hour, 7-day shooting schedule for each hour-long episode. Quarterlife has been edited into 8-minute webisodes to conform to the producers’ notion of how long a show internet users will tolerate, but in fact Quarterlife is an hour-long television episodic drama—similar in tone to Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. "When we say ‘episodes,’ we mean the hour-longs," says Herskowitz. "That’s how we write them and that’s how we shoot them."

Although Rocketboom and Quarterlife are distinct in both scale and focus, ultimately they will share a common measure of success—the accumulation of online video ad dollars. The extent to which they capture those dollars, in proportion to the expense of making their respective offerings available to the public, will largely determine whether or not their models "work." With its minuscule production costs, the bar for ad sales success is clearly lower for Rocketboom. The show has opted to form only nonexclusive ad partnerships, and it is forming its own in-house ad sales team (Baron claims CPMs that match TV CPMs).

With production costs many times higher than those of Rocketboom, Quarterlife is playing in a different league. When the show airs on television, it will share network-size ad revenue via a licensing agreement with NBC, which has an equity stake in the series and website. (Herskowitz notes that the licensing fee is lower than it would be for a "normal" television show.) Today, the significant ad money is still in network television, and like successful TV shows that earn ancillary income by repurposing on the internet, Quarterlife will recoup most of its first season’s costs from its broadcast on network television. "When you get started [on the internet], you have no traffic anyway," notes Herskowitz. "So it doesn’t matter whether you have ads or not." Quarterlife’s twist is that the "repurposed" version will be offered before the network run and may in fact increase the buzz around the series’ network debut.

In many ways, Rocketboom and Quarterlife are playing different games on the same field—a field that is rapidly changing. Not surprisingly, the creators of these shows have divergent views of what the internet will look like in coming years. Andrew Baron is a product of the internet, and his is the more egalitarian vision. Demonstrating his faith in the integrity of users, he sees potential in the idea of voluntary micro-donations. "The beauty of Web 2.0 is the fact that you’ve got masses of [people] that show up and participate," says Baron. "If only they would each pay a little bit, in aggregate that could be a way of bypassing advertising altogether … If you’ve got 100,000 people, and they’re each paying $3 a month, that could work out pretty nicely. And 100,000 is not a huge audience."

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