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The Web Is a Lab for Marketable TV Content, and Vice Versa

Shows are increasingly ping-ponging between platforms

The lines between digital and linear distribution are a lot less blurry than advertised when it comes to the business models of cable television and the online space, but content is a different animal altogether.

Take Drunk History, for example, which has evolved from a YouTube sensation to a full-blown half-hour on Comedy Central, averaging a serviceable 0.5 rating in the 18-49 demo over the course of its debut season. That platform shift is a neat reversal for showrunner Jeremy Konner, who saw his Web comedy Ghost Ghirls optioned and then scuttled by Syfy before the show was revived by Yahoo.

Konner wasn’t available for this article, but a source close to the deals said the network didn’t ditch Ghost Ghirls because the show wasn’t funny. “It was something that Syfy had developed and then … they decided not to go in that direction, from a programming standpoint,” the insider said. (According to Syfy president of programming Mark Stern, the network changed course on developing original comedies.)

Another project Syfy passed on was Seth Meyers’ The Awesomes, which last week was renewed for a second season on Hulu. Stern said the network assessed what sort of nontraditional fare clicked with its audience; turns out, viewers were more interested in unscripted content about the paranormal.

Hulu, which has embraced a model similar to that of a linear TV network, also has become a haven for the soap operas All My Children and One Life to Live, both of which were canceled by ABC. Hulu declined to comment, but it’s clear what prompted the acquisitions: per its in-house rankings, episodes of NBC’s venerable soap Days of Our Lives are a big draw.

Jason Krebs, president of sales and marketing for Blip, said he thinks the notion of digital sites subsisting on the dregs of TV is ill-informed. “There are the producers who say, ‘I want to do this out of the traditional system,’” Krebs said. “We’re not getting scraps.” Wrong-headed stigmas about Web video aside, it’s certainly true that it’s easier than ever to cheaply create a show with high-production values. “The cost of these things is coming down, and the sophistication is increasing,” said Krebs, who added that digital video equipment is of a greater quality than ever, and cheaper to boot. (For just $30, you can build an iPhone Steadicam.)

On the network side, Stern said Syfy is interested in the same business model. “[Battlestar Galactica prequel] Blood & Chrome started and was developed as a digital series—it was written into chapters, and each chapter was one part of a 90-minute movie,” he said. “But it was deliberately created to air and premiere as a Web series.”

Ghost Ghirls also benefits from a majorly truncated running time—and there’s nothing stopping you from watching it as a 30-minute show. Other series, like Yahoo’s Tiny Commando, are even briefer. “Some things are funny at five minutes and not at 15,” said Stern.

Still, networks have much larger production budgets than most Web outlets (Netflix to the contrary) and tend to regard the Web as a laboratory for content worthy of investment. As an increasing number of series ping-pongs from TV to online, is Syfy still keeping an eye on the Web content world? “Definitely,” Stern said. 

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