Scene six, take two. Action. "I love the skulls on your shirt," says a snooty designer. "It's very Pol Pot chic." On a recent Saturday in Brooklyn, the 11th episode of Web sitcom The Burg is being filmed in the Bushwick Country Club bar. A satire about the hipsters of the Williamsburg neighborhood, the show in five months has developed a small but hard-core group of fans, many of them the same arty twentysomethings the show skewers. Cast and crew may be working for free, but they aren't rookies. One is All My Children actress Kelli Giddish, and this shoot has all the trappings of a professional production.
Welcome to the new wave of Web video. Far from the land of dogs on skateboards and Webcam yakkers on YouTube (GOOG), this online genre of scripted programs is attracting small but passionate groups of fans. The networks and talent agencies are watching closely, and the phenomenon is giving indie filmmakers new ways to get their works seen. At the same time, this emerging ecosystem is creating a tempting--albeit challenging--play for advertisers looking to cut through the chaotic mass of Web pages on YouTube and MySpace. "These scripted, episodic shows are great," says Eric Bader, senior vice-president of digital connections at media buyer MediaVest USA. "They create a defined idea in the minds of the viewer, and brands can get a halo effect."
One site, Channel101.com, just signed a deal with VH1. The site invites Los Angeles comedy pros to shoot five-minute sitcom "pilots," which viewers vote on. Producers of the top five then compete against new entrants to retain "prime time" slots on the site. VH1 will use Channel101 contributors to start a similar show called the Department of Acceptable Media that will air on TV and online. "The attraction was that the Web site may be as popular or more so than the show itself," says Brian Graden, president of entertainment at MTV Networks (VIA).
Filmmakers see Web video as a way to circumvent the system. After failing to get a distribution deal for Four Eyed Monsters, a film about two angst-ridden kids in New York, Arin Crumley and Susan Buice began a video podcast that was, in effect, a serialized documentary, charting the frustrations of making the movie, finding a distributor, and sustaining their four-year relationship. The podcasts generated a following. That prompted the filmmakers to offer a deal to fans: Get enough people to request our movie in your area, and we'll show up, do a screening, and throw an after party. So far the film has appeared in six cities. The podcasts helped create a niche audience.
LOCAL HEROES Given these webcasts' ability to generate dedicated followers, their potential seems particularly attractive to advertisers. The Burg, for instance, already has viewers paying close attention to the bars the characters hang out in and to the songs on the show's sound track, which are produced entirely by local Brooklyn bands. Advertisers, including Dewar's, have approached the show's creator, Kathleen Grace, about running video ads ahead of the episodes. The rates are competitive with those of rich media ads offered on other sites, she says, but since they're based on the hits a site gets and her audience is only about 10,000 per episode, any ad revenue generated won't even cover her bandwidth costs, let alone pay the cast and crew. (The show is currently self-financed.)
Advertisers are looking for a Google-like system that will tell them where and when to put their ads next to scripted Web shows. Another alternative would be a site that hosts many such niche shows, so it would have the economies of scale to serve up longer, higher-resolution videos and maintain an ad sales force.
One possible player: Veoh Networks Inc., which launches officially in December. Unlike YouTube, which limits the length and quality of video, Veoh will allow creators to upload videos of any length and resolution quality, including high-definition. Even better, Veoh will let those who upload decide on their own compensation model, whether it be via ads or on a pay-per-download basis.
By Burt Helm