Repurposing the Web

“We thought we could make money on the Internet. But while the Internet is new and exciting for creative people, it hasn’t matured as a distribution mechanism to the extent that one should trade real and immediate opportunities for income for the promise of future online revenue. It will be a few years before digital distribution of media on the Internet can be monetized to the extent that necessitates content providers to forgo their fair value in more traditional media.”
 
Thus spoke Kyle Broflovski, one of the kids on South Park, who, along with his friends, spent an episode trying and failing to get rich by making a viral video. The fourth graders at South Park Elementary learned a lesson that many others have not: The achievement of viral status on the Internet — a rare enough event in itself-seldom leads to wealth.

But some people are making money on viral videos and they’re doing it old school style: repurposing the content of the new digital media into programming delivered on traditional broadcast and cable channels. This emerging new television genre rips content from the Internet, adds a comic host to offer up a few wisecracks and makes money the old-fashioned way — by padding the show with commercials. The latest, Smash Cuts, just debuted on the CW affiliated stations with a press release promise that it “will capitalize on the popularity of viral videos on the Web and bring them to television in a fast-paced, funny, and addicting format.”

It didn’t take long, of course, for traditional TV venues to realize that the online video phenomenon was a cheap way to fill airtime. Back in January 2006, less than a year after the launch of YouTube, VH1 introduced Web Junk 20, a clip show that searched the Internet, as it proudly proclaimed, “for the best junk.” In February of that same year, Bravo premiered Outrageous and Contagious, a TV series that promised to bring us “the most astounding, the most resounding, the most confounding viral videos.” Bravo’s press release announced that “viral videos are the next generation of entertainment content and have only been available through the Web until now.”

A parade of similar shows followed, including the CW’s Online Nation, Comedy Central’s Tosh.0 and G4’s Web Soup. In 2007, ABC even adapted the idea to the newsmagazine format with I-Caught, a mix of feature stories and investigative reports.

None of these shows have been breakaway hits and some were outright flops. (Still on the air — in addition to the brand new Smash Cuts — are Tosh.0 and Web Soup.) Not even Comedy Central would make the claim that Daniel Tosh of Tosh.0 is the new Ed Sullivan. This may be because the performances on The Ed Sullivan Show could only be seen by watching The Ed Sullivan Show, which is not the case with viral videos. Furthermore, on the Internet we can always choose to stop watching one video and move on to the next.

Still, the idea behind these shows is a sound one. America’s Funniest Home Videos, after all, has been going for 20 years now; and Beavis and Butt-Head and Mystery Science Theater 3000 demonstrated that adding snarky new analyses to tired old content can be very appealing if it’s done right.

But there’s another radical principle behind these shows: the idea that as the content of the Internet approaches infinity, people can’t keep up with it. It’s the “we’ll-surf-the-Web-so-you-don’t-have-to” approach — CliffsNotes for the Internet. In a bizarre rhetorical sleight of hand, these viral clip shows make the extraordinary claim that they are the avant-garde.

At the beginning of an episode of Bravo’s Outrageous and Contagious, the announcer encouraged us to “ditch that dial-up and download yourself on your couch.” This show was, in effect, telling us that the Internet was old news, now that we could watch the cream of the online crop right on our regular television. This past (post-dial-up) summer, Comedy Central promoted Tosh.0 in essentially the same way, with the claim that the show was “taking the Internet to the next level — your TV!”
 
It’s a cagey argument to say the Internet has become such a crowded mess we need a guide. Perhaps the promotions folks at the network evening news shows should take note. In the world of 24-hour news on cable and the Web, they might argue, maybe what we really need is a quick digest of the day’s news in a half-hour after we get home from work. Under the philosophical rubric of Smash Cuts and Tosh.0, the nightly news is a positively modern idea.

Robert Thompson is professor of television, radio and film at Syracuse University and director of SU’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.