Exec Mood Buoyant at Digitas Newfront

Despite a still uncertain ad market and a lack of consistent viewership, talent and dollars continue to pour into original Web video entertainment. What’s still uncertain is whether advertisers are ready to reinvest in the once hot space.
For example, MySpace is set to bring the original online drama Freak, which chronicles a tomboy girl who spends most of her time playing video games, from its U.K. site to the U.S. That show, which incorporates plot suggestions from the audience, is a production of FMX, a division of FremantleMedia (American Idol).
Also, Warner Bros. is bringing back the original teen soap The Lake for a second season. That show, directed by Jason Priestly, debuted last year on the revamped WB.com to low buzz—though it did amass close to 5 million views across distribution outlets that included Hulu, YouTube and iTunes.
These series were among a slew of new projects unveiled on on Wednesday (June 9) at the third annual Digital Content Newfront in New York. Unlike last year’s event, where the mood was bleak, this year enthusiasm was high, the room was packed, and the star power was off the charts. Among the talent on hand were the actresses Teri Hatcher and Lisa Kudrow, actors Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Seth Green, as well as the media titans Martha Stewart and Arrianna Huffington.

Most everyone was there to discuss original video content for the Internet—with a not so subtle hope that the group could attract ad dollars from brands just as they look to wrap their massive TV buys during this year’s broadcast upfront. For example, actress  Amy Brenneman (Judging Amy) made a direct pitch to marketers in the room, asking them to consider sponsoring her show The Procrastinators while touting her TV production credits.
Around the time of last year’s event, many digital buyers and their clients had lost enthusiasm for original Web series, particularly scripted series. The thinking was that the medium had yet to see a breakout hit series, despite several high profile attempts. Plus clients were risk averse during the brutal recession, and had lost the appetite to underwrite video series that had yet to establish an audience.
But according to Carl Fremont, evp, global media director at Digitas, the mood in the marketplace had improved considerably, as evidenced by the crowd at the event.  “It’s not just the celebrities here, but getting brands like Kraft and American Express in this room and interested in participating,” he said. “They realize the traditional means of communicating brand messages are just not as effective anymore.”

Yet several Newfront panelists were frank in their assessments that the medium still has a ways to go in catching up to TV—in terms of attracting top talent, projects, and ad dollars. Former NBC entertainment chief Ben Silverman, now the CEO of Electus, said that the total shift to digital entertainment was “still five or ten years away.” Silverman said currently, there is roughly a 10x difference between the revenue a Web-only project can pull in compared to TV.
“Everything will eventually be distributed over the Internet…and eventually that will be caught up to by storytellers,” Silverman added. “But I don’t think in a year we’ll look around and things will look drastically different.”
It seems that TV still has an enduring clout in the creative community, according to Ricky Van Veen, founder, CollegeHumor. “Web series are traditionally very hard to do,” he said. “You are literally competing with Lost…Everyone I know [in the producing world]—TV and film are still their ultimate destinations.” When top talent starts producing with only the Web in mind “that’s when you’ll know things have changed.”