Major Publishers Aim to Compete with TV

I remember telling a corporate client years ago that over time websites would begin to be treated as niche TV channels. Video communications would complement or replace written word content, and static websites would give way first to the opportunity and later to a demand to program new material on a regular basis.  Of course, I was trying to sell this client production services, but I did believe what I was saying would come to pass for many entities.  Today, video on the web has obviously expanded dramatically although it is still in its relative infancy.  For many viewers there is now little distinction between TV viewing and WebTV viewing, and the younger the audience, the more viewing tends to be web only and on devices other than television monitors.

In this recent article on PaidContent, Jeff Roberts reports on traditional print publications trying to figure out the formula for successful use of video on the web.  Highlighting the Wall Street Journal and Conde Nast, Roberts discusses the prospect of these major brands taking a bite out of the rich advertising pie that historically belongs solely to television. These publishers hope to attract sponsors on the strength of their brands and are investing in new video programs and hiring production professionals to grow marketshare in this space.

On the one hand, as prefaced, this is an inevitable development now that streaming video is high quality and digital production is an affordable add-on to a media organization like a magazine or newspaper.  In principle, an in-house staff of fewer than five people can produce a steady stream of solid video entertainment or news content.  And if the programming complements the brand, then viewership should increase and sponsors will follow.  The right mix, however, is essential, and I suspect it will be inherently harder for some producers than others to grow a whole new appendage into the world of television production.

It’s pretty easy to imagine a loyal reader of the WSJ becoming an equally loyal viewer of its videos. The WSJ provides a very specific type of content for a well-defined audience, one that likely considers consumption of its daily fare a necessity more than a luxury.  But the more video content can be described as optional entertainment/information, the more competition it has — not just with similar TV programming, but with EVERYTHING.

It is already well understood that competition for consumer attention is now geometric.  Any bit of content, from a multi-million-dollar TV series to a blog to a meme, vies for “eyeballs,” as the marketing wonks say, on a theoretically even playing field in a world of devices that are always on and connected. In short, because distribution of nearly everything is nearly everywhere, all media compete 24/7 for any prospective viewer’s still-limited time. And, of course, as volume increases, as more brands produce more content, the competition for viewer time increases as well. What has always been true will remain true — the most popular stuff will win, and the less popular stuff will disappear. That said, in the digital age, popularity can be very fleeting, and this is not how brands build relationships with customers.

In theory, content doesn’t have to be as popular on the web as it traditionally does on television.  1,000 legitimate customers of a sponsor are more valuable than 10,000 viewers who will never be customers, and in principle, branded, online entertainment helps sponsors connect with those legitimate customers and even occasionally sell to them via point-of-purchase opportunities. Done right, web-based entertainment eliminates some of the waste in traditional TV advertising, but this concept is also why a great deal of branded entertainment is occasionally just this side of an infomercial.  Harkening back to the earliest days of single-sponsor television shows, branded online video often features the sponsoring brand or products as a subject or character within the program itself. This can be a tough needle to thread in the hope of attracting an audience that wants to be entertained and not sold.  Hence, one of the most popular formats for branded online video is the news-magazine.  This format is cheap and fast to produce, and the non-fiction content easily suits certain sponsors without creating a disconnect for the viewer.  For instance, it feels perfectly natural for Nike to sponsor a news-magazine series profiling athletes.

With the right combination of elements, branded entertainment can be a perfect opportunity for some clever production people, the newly developed network, and the sponsors; but as the overall market divides, replicates, and expands, I suspect getting that combination right will be trickier simply because the market becomes so saturated that brands are competing for incrementally less available attention from their prospective customers.  At the same time, both viewing habits and the technologies used to consume media are dynamic; and these factors actually dictate the style, format, and length of programming.  If the viewer is on his couch at home, a full-length show might be what he wants to see, but if he’s killing 20 minutes during a lunch break, he might be more inclined to watch a bunch of short comedy sketches produced by College Humor. So, despite the ubiquitous nature of web distribution, brands still do have to consider where their customers are when investing in new video programming.  In this sense, it’s actually a lot more complicated than knowing the target demographic is in front of the TV at 8pm on Thursdays to watch a hit show.

Ultimately, it will still come down to the bottom line, meaning sales for sponsors.  Since the early 1990s, the level of experimentation, theory, and faith in pure smoke vis a vis the web has been consistently high, even as the theories and lingo continue to change. You can sell a term like “engagement” to a marketing guy, but not to CFOs, who decide how to spend the money.  Clicks and shares of entertainment media are not the same as sales and and really not the same as building a relationship between a brand and customers through entertainment.  Additionally, some research indicates that building brand loyalty in the Internet Generation is harder than  a pre-digital-age market.

Oddly enough, I actually pitched the idea of creating a “TV” arm to a magazine once, so I’m a believer in the overall concept.  But as high-end TV entertainment on the web becomes increasingly more common, as more producers jump into the game, more brands experiment, and YouTube tries its hand at acting like a traditional media company, I believe we’ll see a massive expansion of production followed by a necessary contraction because even a global market of viewers can only support so many professional producers. Even as YouTube delves into the area of paid subscriptions, it is unclear first, whether or not consumers are already saturated by subscriptions to entertainment networks; and second, whether the producers of these shows can actually make a living in any of these models.

Once the line between web and TV is entirely erased, I suspect there may be a flattening out in the volume of professional production consumed. If, for instance, Conde Nast’s Traveler becomes a competitive network with The Travel Channel, this does not mean the target audience for travel content will then support a third, a fourth, and a fifth network producing the same kind of material.  Consider the number of cable channels you have, add to it the number of web-based portals you use for music, TV, or film, and consider how much of that total universe you have time to access. It is entirely possible that millions of us are still consuming the same hundred or so popular products and that broad demographic data still applies to marketing for sponsors.  And of course, from a cultural standpoint, as these venerable publishing brands branch out into TV production, we must hope they don’t fall into whatever molecular altering dimension that allows a network with a name like The Learning Channel to produce Honey Boo Boo.


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