What Works Now: Videos Become Quirky, Funny, Bingeable, Snackable

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Having just endured two grueling weeks of standing at open bars, hearing presentations hosted by minor celebrities, and eating an embarrassing amount of teeny-tiny desserts, it’s time for me to make sense of it all. I’m talking about the newfronts. When I wrote this column, the 2016 newfronts season had just come to a close.

If you’re not familiar with them, newfronts are presentations by websites (such as BuzzFeed, AOL, and Vice) that feature a lot of original online video. Newfronts, which are modeled after TV upfronts, highlight upcoming video series to agencies and advertisers. The hope is that newfronts will encourage ad sales.

While original video is ostensibly the reason for the get-togethers, newfronts are also well-catered parties, where open bars flow with million-dollar ad budgets. It’s fun to be a journalist there, a beggar at the feast, one of the few not wearing a thousand-dollar suit. You can always spot us: We’re the ones vacuuming all the appetizers from the waiters’ trays.

Premium online video has evolved a great deal in the last few years, and the newfronts offer a time to take stock of those changes. Back when marketing agency Digitas was the only company holding a newfront, online series were often spearheaded by Hollywood celebs looking to take ownership of a project. I saw Zachary Quinto, Ashton Kutcher, and Isabella Rossellini pitch ideas. Not all of them were made.

A few years later, newfronts typically promoted scripted series with storylines that lasted a full season. Both AOL and Yahoo were big on this model, but it hasn’t succeeded for either company. AOL’s series were always surprisingly difficult to find, and I’ve never met anyone who watched any of them. Yahoo’s fortunes have fallen with well-funded video projects. This year it held a closed-door newfront with a select group of advertisers. That’s quite a change from the Lincoln Center blowout it threw in 2015.

As our viewing tastes have evolved, the videos these sites make have changed considerably. We all stream and occasionally binge-watch favorite shows, but we do so from paid services— Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. No one wants to dig around AOL.com for the next episode of his favorite series.

What these ad-supported sites do well is create snackable videos—quick breaks in our day. BuzzFeed has created a strong angle here by making niche-targeted videos that resonate with different groups’ identities. Right after the newfronts season ended, BuzzFeed’s video page offered videos that reflect the experiences of young people, women, the transgendered, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans. When people view content that reflects their lives, particularly if they’re not used to seeing their lives represented in media, they share the video.

To get another view on the newfronts’ evolution, I spoke with Joel Espelien, senior advisor at The Diffusion Group.

The sites that are the most successful, he believes, have created a hybrid style, one that combines online-friendly short takes, premium production, and the compulsive watchability of the best subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) programming.

“They’re not trying to do Netflix-style stuff; they’re trying to do new-style, snackable stuff. In terms of the style, or tenor, of shows, a lot of the new stuff seemed like things that could have come from an SVOD provider,” Espelien said. “That sort of quirky, bingeable quality that people seem to be going for now, rather than being fully accessible to a casual viewer. Stuff tends to be almost self-consciously offbeat. At times it’s still trying to appeal to the superfan.”

Scripted short-form video isn’t over, but it mainly comes from less experienced creators. This year, I saw National Geographic, DailyMail.com, and Playboy announce ad-supported online scripted series. I wonder if they’ll all get made, and, if so, if they’ll get enough views to keep national brand advertisers happy.

I’m guessing the series most likely will not be made, or they won’t be successful enough to please the advertisers. If that’s the case, they won’t be mentioned when the boozy and excessive newfronts (how I love them) start up again in spring 2017.

This article originally ran in the July/August 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “Quirky, Funny, Bingeable, Snackable.”

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