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Toward a History of the Web Series (Market) April 5, 2010

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Screengrabs of the homepage for American Cybercast, a late nighties web show network (orange outline mine)

I’ve been researching for an article on web programming, and I’ve found tons of interesting gems! I’d already known “webisodic programming” had dated back to 1995, and I’m well aware the Internet repeats itself. But what old newspaper and trade press articles suggest is just how similar to today the rhetoric around web content was 15 years ago.

Does anyone remember American Cybercast?

Part of my dissertation research will be tracing the rather extensive history of corporate and independent involvement in web entertainment. That work is just starting now. I’ll keep my blog updated as I do it, and clearly a big component will be American Cybercast.

Perhaps the first ever “digital network,” AMCY was a seven-figure flop, an early attempt to create a place for the best stories on the web. Of course, by today’s standards the site looks so sad, but it was a big deal at the time. The idea of creating an independent site for web series is a rather old one, and not one with an illustrious history, though the story is ever-changing.

“American Cybercast was created to go head-to-head with primetime TV, to be an advertiser-supported mass entertainment medium with millions of viewers tuning in daily,” AMCY chairman Russell Collins told Variety in 1996.

AMCY had celebrity collaborations, including those from Kathy Najimy, RuPaul and Spalding Gray

As for individual series, many 90’s series succeeded in audience reach and narrative experimentation, but the idea of a profitable series remained elusive and difficult to predict, as it is today. Early series like The East Village (created by Charles Platkin, who I believe is now a diet guru) had a reported budget of $12,000 per week, with $25,000 a month on marketing. The series spent nearly $1 million, according to Variety, mostly on trying to establish a brand and a market. Another sci-fi series, Madeleine’s Mind, spent hundreds of thousands, though it had apparently sold a sponsorship package. In 1996 — the year these series came out — there were almost a hundred series, which had come out, most trying to catch the success of The Spot, the first web series hit, which, coincidentally, was never profitable.

“There’s only so many hours people will spend on the Web and only so many dollars in ad budgets,” Charles Platkin said of his series.

Those budgets would still go a long way these days. Yet, even then, producers were having the same debates about visibility, profitability and financing structures — i.e. the insufficient nature of traditional advertising, the cost of marketing, the need to pair oneself with a tradition media company. These problems have more solutions today, but the questions remain.

Today, there are number of individual series which make quite a bit of money, mostly through sponsorship. Sponsors too can get ROI from funding and distributing original content. But there are more exceptions and few rules.

I found it surprising — and now I’m dating myself — how active traditional media corporations were in web series long before it was economically beneficial. It’s easy to forget that in the mid-1990s, media companies like Microsoft, NBC and AOL really thought original content would be profitable — through ad rates — within a few years. Old reports have Microsoft investing hundreds of millions; analysts as far back as 1996 had companies spending millions per day, on average, on creating and distributing content. I think it’s easy to see NBC’s early efforts like Homicide: Second Shift as forecasting its extensive web promotions with a series like Heroes (of course, now, nearly every popular show has a fan and serialized content online) or MSN’s early support reflecting its support of The Guild or In the Motherhood. CAA was one of web series’ earliest investors and now reps some top new media talent.

AMCY, for its part, filed for bankruptcy after just about a year into its existence. It was clearly too early and missed the bubble burst, which would’ve captured it anyway. But it’s story isn’t dead. The lessons of AMCY might still resonate today. I wonder if the plethora of well-designed and rather sophisticated network sites today are in a similar predicament.

The truth is we often forget how complex and streamlined the television and film industries actually are. We talk so much about the end of television, we forget the strength of the apparatus: the licensing and syndication deals built into every semi-successful show, the upfront selling of ad time, the rating system, etc., all of which are intended to support advertisers (and their nervous executives) along with the distributors (network execs, who, nervous as they are, crave consistency).

What original web content lacks, then, is the kind of institutional structures that make the business scalable. If it’s to be a success, and it’s in no way guaranteed it, it will probably look a lot more like TV. It’s remarkable, 15 years later, these kinds of structures have not been put in place.



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