Is This a Web-Series Model That Works?Jon Fine
The thing about Web video, of course, is that anyone can do it. Shoot it, edit it, distribute it on YouTube (GOOG) and other outlets—done. Assuming, of course, that "distribute" means "put it alongside zillions of similar things." This is partly why building a Web video business is tough, as even showbiz vets have discovered. Infinite competition and uncertain ad demand for unproven Web properties make the 21st century dream—a hit online video series, or at least one that pulls in steady dollars— all but impossible. Unless you invert aspects of the traditional model, as a two-year-old Santa Monica (Calif.) Web video outfit called Deca does.
Deca, an acronym for Digital Entertainment Corp. of America, is exploring several ways to produce Web series in unusually marketer-centric ways. It seeks extended sponsorships—generally three months or longer, the prices for which start in the six figures—for specific properties. Rather than attempting to import to the Web the scripted series model birthed by television, Deca capitalizes on existing bloggers' popularity to build properties that feature established online personalities and are aimed at specific demographic slices. It also enlists its talent to make and star in commercials for its advertisers. If this works, Deca will have found a way to fund online video—having a long-term sponsor or two significantly reduces the pressure to sell lots of ads—and bring chary advertisers into a new media realm.
Deca currently produces seven online series and has done business with advertisers as blue-chip as Target (TGT), Verizon (VZ), and IBM (IBM). Among its most prominent series: Momversation, a thrice-weekly discussion hosted by well-known blogging moms. Another is Smosh, featuring two remarkably popular young men—their Smosh channel on YouTube is No. 3 on that site's most-subscribed-to list—plumbing an antic form of barely post-teen humor that may not register with those beyond shouting reach of that demographic (including this columnist). A food-focused series called Good Bite is slated for imminent launch; talks are ongoing with potential long-term sponsors for that and for a pending tech series, WhatGear.
Target re-upped an existing sponsorship deal with Deca's Momversation and signed for a full year beginning last February, says Deca founder and CEO Michael Wayne. (Disclosure: My household is invested in a fund that has a significant Target position.) Smosh's stars, Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla, recently made a gag ad extolling the Carl's Jr. (CKR) Portobello Mushroom Six Dollar Burger. "We basically let these guys have their way in terms of the creative angle they wanted to take, as long as they played within the parameters we set up," said Ezra Cooperstein, a vice-president at media buying shop Initiative who worked on the Carl's Jr. ad. (Deca's ad deals typically guarantee advertisers, who are accustomed to buying guaranteed audience sizes, a minimum number of video views.)
Deca and similar online video producers sometimes betray a fairly flexible interpretation of the divide between programmer and advertiser. Wayne tells of one Momversation episode that frequently employed an acronym for attractive mothers that I can't repeat in BusinessWeek. That ran a bit too hot for Target, and the episode has yet to air. (Wayne assumes it will, sans its sponsor.) Some producers "are absolutely more willing" to allow an advertiser into the creative process, says John McCarus, a vice-president at digital ad agency Digitas, which has sponsored other Web video producers' work. In fact, development of Momversation came about "collaboratively" from talks between Deca and Target's ad agency, Haworth Marketing & Media, says Patrick Reiter, Haworth's associate director of interactive.
YouTube has been around since 2005—seems longer than that, doesn't it?—but its struggles to squeeze profits from endless video streams show that online video success remains elusive for creators and advertisers. But whether you like Deca as an advertiser or question its dealings as a consumer, get used to this form. It may stick around for a while.Correction: An earlier version of this column contained a reference to Deca producing a video series based on the popular blog Boing Boing. In fact, Boing Boing stopped working with Deca in early 2009.