Big backing for a Web series set on a fictional college campus may breathe new life into the budding industry for producing high-quality online programming
MTV viewers who tuned into the season openers of The Hills and The City on Sept. 29 got an unexpected glimpse of another series making its debut that night. Before The Hills got under way and just after The City ended an hour later—during what would ordinarily be a commercial break—Viacom's (VIA) MTV snuck in the first episode of Valemont, a teen murder mystery set on the campus of a prestigious university of the same name, sponsored by Verizon Wireless.
What's unique about Valemont is that it's destined not for TV, but the Web. Producers will air a small number of episodes on TV but continue the series online. In the past, most Web series have remained confined to the Web, often to support TV programming. But in a turnabout for scripted online series, Valemont is getting prime-time billing on a popular TV show before attempting to gain traction online. "We want to use on-air to promote the Web," not the other way around, says Valemont creator Brent Friedman, who's also the brains behind such other Web series as Afterworld and Gemini Division.
Valemont, with its high-profile premiere and heavy promotion, may give a boost to a budding, scripted, Web-series industry that, in spite of notable early successes, has yet to find a sustainable way to make money. It also underscores how companies can use the gamut of media—including the Web, TV, and online social tools—to pitch brands and products to highly targeted audiences. "This really graduates the format to a new level," says John Shea, executive vice-president for integrated marketing for MTV Networks Music and another Viacom channel, Logo.
TV Towers Over Most Web Successes
The Los Angeles-based Web-series industry had some early hits, including Lonelygirl15, Sorority Forever, Prom Queen, and Friedman's shows. But all were short-lived. Many independent online series go underfunded—if they get money at all.
Notable current exceptions include numerous network-produced series, such as the offshoots of NBC's Heroes that are sponsored by Sprint Nextel (S). USA Network also has a series featuring characters of its Psych TV show when they were teens. But these are extensions of shows, not wholly original series.
To be sure, there are also some high-quality, well-funded standalone Web series that are not affiliated with TV shows. Among them: NBC Digital's In Gayle We Trust, sponsored by American Family Insurance, and The Broadroom, written by Candace Bushnell of Sex and the City fame and branded by L'Oreal's Maybelline. The offbeat Web series The Guild, backed by Microsoft (MSFT) and Sprint, is distributed on various Microsoft vehicles, including Xbox Live. Even heavily branded shows such as Ikea's Easy to Assemble are successful. But unlike Valemont, none of them aired in prime time.
For Web series, sponsors often foot production costs of the shows and help get them noticed online. In Valemont's case, Verizon Wireless is also buying roughly 36 minutes of commercial time for two of MTV's most popular shows.
In return, Verizon Wireless gets prominent product placements. In the show, a teenage girl named Sophie Gracen enrolls at Valemont in hopes of solving the mysterious death of a person presumed to be her older brother. She's aided by a phone—from, you guessed it, Verizon Wireless—found among the belongings of the deceased. The device includes snippets of video and other content meant to show off the range of features available on Verizon Wireless phones.
The Critical Target: Young Consumers
As it gets easier for audiences to skip through commercials using TiVo (TIVO), "marketers need to embed their messages in new ways," says Ben Kunz, director of strategic planning at Mediassociates, a media planning and Internet strategy firm.
Winning over young users is key for Verizon Wireless, the joint venture of Verizon Communications (VZ) and Vodafone Group (VOD), as it battles for customers against AT&T (T), the exclusive U.S. carrier of the Apple (AAPL) iPhone.
To foster that pursuit, Valemont uses multiple platforms besides TV and Webisodes, including a Web site that is organized a lot like a traditional university site (fans "apply" for admission). The show also has a page on Facebook and characters send tweets from microblogging site Twitter.
The brands believe that Web series are a new way to connect with viewers in a more intimate and engaging way than TV enables, even if the audiences are smaller. Companies trying to get their message across need multiple platforms to capture the attention of a multitasking society that's typically online or on the cell phone while watching TV. "Producers are realizing that old TV broadcasts only capture a small portion of the viewer's total media habits, especially during commercial periods, and they want to gain more of a piece of the pie," Kunz says. "This helps both ratings and also the advertisers, who are the real target of producers."
The guiding philosophy for shows with sponsors is to target niches. The more specific and difficult-to-reach the audience is, the higher the premium for a sponsorship deal. "A show can be monetarily successful if it really owns and curates that audience," said Marc Hustvedt, founder of the Web series blog Tubefilter.
Don't Overexpose Product Placements
Gennefer Snowfield founded Space Truffles Entertainment in hopes of matching brands with Web-series creators. She starts with scripts, concepts, and produced shows and then tries to find brands that match the show's tone and target audience. The brands then work with the show's creators on plot and ways to integrate their label.
Marketers and series producers need to guard against too tight an integration or too prominent a product placement. If the brand is "associated with an experience that I really enjoy," it benefits the sponsor, Snowfield says. Products need to be woven in the narrative organically, so as not to tarnish the audience's emotional experience, she explains.
Overdo it and you lose your audience, says Ashkan Karbasfrooshan, chief executive of online video site WatchMojo.com. Overexposure of a product will be more glaring in a three-minute Webisode than a longer TV show. "Are users that dumb to sit through and watch something that is blatantly commercial?" he asks.
Probably not. But without some form of sponsorship, many online series won't see the light of day. "Now it's very rare for something to take off without any marketing," says Marshall Herskovitz, producer of the Web series quarterlife, which briefly aired on TV. "There's just too much competition."