Despite the still uncertain ad market, a slew of new Web video projects were unveiled yesterday at the third annual Digital Content Newfront in New York, sponsored by Publicis Groupe i-shop Digitas. Unlike last year’s event, where the mood was bleak, enthusiasm ran high this year. The event was packed — and the star power was off the charts. On hand were Teri Hatcher, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Seth Green, as well as media titans Martha Stewart and Arianna Huffington.
Most everyone was there to discuss original video content for the Internet and attract brands’ ad dollars as they look to wrap up their massive TV buys during this year’s broadcast upfront.
For example, actress Amy Brenneman (Judging Amy) made a direct pitch to marketers, 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 clients had lost enthusiasm for original Web series, particularly scripted shows. The thinking was that the medium had yet to produce a breakout hit, despite several high-profile attempts. Plus, clients were risk averse during the brutal recession and had lost the appetite to underwrite video series that hadn’t established an audience.
But, according to Carl Fremont, evp, global media director at Digitas, the outlook in the marketplace has improved, as evidenced by the celebrities and producers at the event working the room to get the likes of American Express and Kraft — which had a Newfront presence — aboard as sponsors. “They realize the traditional means of communicating brand messages [like TV] are just not as effective anymore,” he said.
Yet, several Newfront panelists were frank in their assessment that the medium still has a ways to go in terms of attracting top talent, projects and ad dollars.
Former NBC entertainment chief Ben Silverman, now the CEO of Electus, said a mass shift to digital entertainment was “still five or 10 years away.” At present, there is roughly a tenfold difference between the revenue a Web-only project can pull in compared to TV, he said.
“Everything will eventually be distributed over the Internet…and eventually that will be [leveraged] 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” for top talent. “When top talent starts producing with only the Web in mind, “that’s when you’ll know things have changed,” he said.
Still, many companies plan debuts online and the medium seems to be rising in terms of providing entertainment vehicles helmed by Hollywood heavyweights.
For example, MySpace is set to bring the original Web drama Freak — which chronicles the life of a tomboy who spends most of her time playing videogames — from its U.K. site to the U.S. That show, which incorporates plot suggestions from the audience, hails from FMX, a division of FremantleMedia, producer of 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. So far buzz has been low, though it did amass close to 5 million views across distribution outlets like Hulu, YouTube and iTunes.