The dot-com era all over again?

Webisodes with Madonna and Amy Poehler are not exactly the most fearsome challenge to the TV networks


There is going to be more original content, and more ambitious original content, produced for online streaming. This is a given as the boundaries between TV viewing and online viewing start to blur more and more. But when I’m reading John Seabrook’s article about YouTube’s plans for original content, what I hear in the back of my mind is the things creators were saying about original content back in the dot-com era. And they’re the same things: producing online programming will allow them to create (and own) shows without a network filter.

This was the same thinking that was behind a lot of the webisodes of the late ’90s and early ’00s, often created by people taking time off from working on big, high-profile TV shows. The bet was that these webisodes would grow into a new way of producing TV, free from the companies that were gobbling up all the TV production in the U.S. (as we had more shows to choose from, the people who made those shows had fewer studios to go to get them made). The bet didn’t pay off, as the “Angry Dad” episode of The Simpsons commemorates the collapse of that dream. Now YouTube is making a similar promise to professional content creators, that they will produce the shows without a lot of resources, but they will have the advantage of owning the content they produce (YouTube will have the broadcast rights at first, but the creators will own the shows). It’s unclear how well that will work out.

Of course, just because something happened before doesn’t mean it will happen again. It would be like saying in 1948 that television hasn’t really gone anywhere since the 1939 World’s Fair, so it’s never going to go anywhere. There are things YouTube has going for it that the dot-coms didn’t have: it’s owned by a successful company, it has a built-in audience, and most of all, audiences are ready for online video in a way that they really weren’t in the “Angry Dad” days. YouTube probably has enough resources and enough time to re-tool this experiment and emphasize the stuff that works. Let’s say the reality and music stuff takes off and the rest doesn’t (I’m not predicting that exactly, but those just seem like the best fit with the YouTube aesthetic and audience), YouTube can build that up. And there’s always the possibility for a scripted show to catch on and be expanded – though that could require partnering with a major TV network.

I almost feel like the dream here is to make the TV networks come begging to YouTube to pick up their stuff. The big studios have been slow to release their stuff to YouTube and especially Netflix, so YouTube is hoping to either compete with the networks or at least scare them into co-operating more fully. An analyst told Seabrook that YouTube is “saying, Fine, you don’t want to sell us your content, you want to tie everything up in distribution deals—fine, we’re going to make our own deals. Not just U.S. deals but global-rights deals, because YouTube is the largest video platform on the globe, and we’re going to sign Madonna and Amy Poehler, and guess what, this train is leaving the station, get on it or not.”

Now, signing up Madonna and Amy Poehler is not exactly the most fearsome challenge to the networks. Basically what YouTube is doing is what the internet has been doing for a long time, signing up people to make inexpensive material while taking a break from the things they really do for a living. But it’s a start. Seabrook notes that a lot of the YouTube content is similar to the content of early television – cheap music, dance, advice, and the like – and their hope is that they expand the way television did. The question is whether we’re at the tipping point where the internet can start to produce of a lot of first-rate content, the way TV in the ’50s actually started producing content that challenged movies and radio and theatre. (And did it, at first, without the participation of the big movie studios, who were eventually battered and beaten into producing shows for the TV networks.) It will happen eventually, I’m sure, but we don’t know how close we are to it happening.

One posible sign that we’re closer to a tipping point than we were before is that the big networks are taking YouTube seriously. Fox announced its Adult-Swim-style animation block as a way of competing with YouTube, even though it’s just as much an attempt to compete with Saturday Night Live. They have to take it seriously, because YouTube has one advantage that TV didn’t have in 1948: they don’t have to get into people’s homes (or wherever they happen to be). Most people already have access to their product; now they just have to make shows people want to see, get people to find them, and find a way to make money on them. All tricky things, as the creators of ’90s webisodes can tell you. But certainly not impossible.

So the TV networks’ basic strategy will be to head this off by putting their own product on the internet more, and in more accessible ways. (Basically, crush the semi-independents with slick studio product; it’s worked before.) One thing that I’d like to see happen as networks move into the digital world would be what several people have suggested: putting pilots online before they officially decide which ones to pick up. It could backfire, since internet opinion is not representative of overall opinion even now, and it would lead to situations where the online viewers love a pilot that would clearly not be a successful TV series. But at least it would increase viewer interest in upcoming shows, and the pilots – being expensive network/studio productions – would be ahead of most original digital content in terms of production values. Besides, back when networks actually aired the pilots they weren’t sure about, they aired the Seinfeld pilot on regular TV. And that worked out pretty well for them.