The New York Times, November 16, 2007
WHY are fewer viewers watching the new fall television series? Perhaps because they are too busy watching video online.
As broadband service becomes more available at home, the growing prevalence of video programming on the Internet is catching the attention of consumers — not to mention marketers and media companies.
"Video has been liberated" from the TV set, Beth Comstock, president for integrated media at NBC Universal, said last week at a panel at the Ad:Tech conference in New York.
"If you're in the video business," she added, referring to companies like her employer, the NBC Universal division of General Electric, "it's exciting to see where it's going."
One direction online video is going is toward the creation of scripted episodic shows that are made expressly for Web sites. Many online video programs, sometimes called Webisodes, emulate television in one respect in that they are released at the same time each day or week.
But there is a difference between online and on the air: the alphabet soup of names for TV networks (e.g., ABC, CBS, ESPN) is replaced on the Internet with madcap monikers intended to be more memorable: Blame Society, Blip.TV, Crackle, Funny or Die, Heavy, My Damn Channel and Viropop, among others.
Another difference is that shows made for the Internet are usually much briefer than their TV counterparts, on the theory that few computer users are willing to sit at their monitors for 30 or 60 minutes at a time.
"We know people's attention spans online are short," said Mark Karlan, media strategist at Lowe Worldwide in New York, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies, who is seeking online video advertising opportunities for the milk mustache campaign sponsored by the Milk Processor Education Program.
"Video has become a much larger part of our online strategy in the past year or so," Mr. Karlan said, for reasons that include the chance to achieve "wide audience reach" with some programs while aiming others at audience segments like teenagers.
Examples of online video programming include "The Burg," about the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, which can be watched at theburg.tv; "Meth Minute 39," a cartoon series, found on channelfrederator.com, a Web site that is part of Next New Networks; and "Roommates," the first original Web series on MySpace, which is owned by the News Corporation.
The popularity of online video is beginning to draw familiar names. For instance, the producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick of "Thirtysomething" fame are creating "Quarterlife," which can be watched on its own Web site (quarterlife.com) or on myspace.com. Tom Green, the former MTV personality, is now the host of "Tom Green Live" on ManiaTV.com and tomgreen.com.
And comic actors like Michael Cera and Bob Odenkirk are involved in video ventures like "Clark and Michael," found at clarkandmichael.com, and "Derek and Simon," available at superdeluxe.com respectively.
"The proliferation, even in the last six or eight months, is where we see our chance, where we see opportunity," said Craig Atkinson, digital director in Chicago of the OMD media agency, part of the Omnicom Group.
For one client, McDonald's, Mr. Atkinson and Michael Solomon, associate director for strategy at OMD Chicago, worked with an online video network in New York, Broadband Enterprises, on the sponsorship of a Web series, "The Fantastic Two."
The weekly episodes follow the hapless friends, Charly and Mitch, and their fantasy football league. There are guest appearances by William Perry, known as the Refrigerator when he played for the Chicago Bears in the 1980s. Here, he is called Fridgie Bear, a riff on the Huggy Bear character portrayed by Antonio Fargas in the '70s TV series "Starsky and Hutch."
There are also guest appearances on "The Fantastic Two" by McDonald's products like Dollar Menu items, which are integrated into plot lines in the manner that, say, Nissan cars are written into the plot lines of episodes of the NBC series "Heroes."
"This is unique for us in the level of integration," said Anja Carroll, director for United States media at the McDonald's Corporation in Oak Brook, Ill.
Besides the products in the episodes, there are humorous touches like animated characters overlaid on screen proclaiming, "Shameless product placement" when McDonald's food items appear.
"For this target audience, we're fine with" the tongue-in-cheek tone, Ms. Carroll said, referring to the men ages 18 to 24 who McDonald's hopes will watch "The Fantastic Two" on a network of more than 400 Web sites assembled by Broadband Enterprises. (The episodes can also be watched on thefantastictwo.com.)
Mr. Karlan at Lowe has arranged with Broadband Enterprises for the milk campaign to be integrated into episodes of "Hollywood Fast Lane," a series in the vein of syndicated TV shows like "Access Hollywood."
No, the host of "Hollywood Fast Lane," Shandi Finnessey, will not be sporting a mock milk mustache the way celebrities do in the print ads that Lowe creates. Rather, "a part of her sign-off might be suggesting that milk is a healthy alternative drink to have while you're watching movies or a DVD," Mr. Karlan said.
Broadband Enterprises is hardly alone in bringing branded entertainment to online video. The series "Roommates" on MySpace features the Ford Focus. And the Volvo C30 appears in episodes of an online series, "Mr. Robinson's Driving School," at drivingschool.msn.com.
The integration of products into plot lines "is critical to these deals," said Matthew Wasserlauf, chief executive at Broadband Enterprises.
Even so, he acknowledged, "there's certainly going to be a learning curve" as branded entertainment arrives online.
For instance, the tactic seems better suited for online video aimed at younger consumers, Mr. Wasserlauf said, because "that audience has become more savvy and recognizes that we're saying to them: 'You know how this works. Let's have some fun.' "
There is speculation that the strike by the Writers Guild of America, which is affecting production of TV series, may further fuel the rise of online video.
However, Steve Sternberg, executive vice president for audience analysis at Magna Global in New York, a media agency that is part of Interpublic, predicted in a report this week that "viewers will still be in front of the set and ready to watch television programming when regular broadcast schedules resume."
There are, though, casualties of the strike. TV Guide magazine said it would cancel a ceremony and a broadcast of its first Online Video Awards. The winners will instead be announced — where else? — online, at tvguide.com, on Nov. 26.
(Photo: McDonald's sponsors the online video series "The Fantastic Two," about two friends and their fantasy football league.)