Digital Video Is Going the Way of Cable TV as Marketers Sacrifice Quality for Views

None of these shows have been designed with the viewer in mind

Unlike cable during its evolution, web video often seems frozen in adolescence. Getty Images
Headshot of Edgar Hernandez

There’s more original web video content being produced than ever before. The audiences are huge, and the quality is better than ever. So why does it sometimes feel like the medium is nowhere on its quest to capture legitimate TV ad spend?

You may recall that there was a popular argument being made a few years ago that the web video ad marketplace was going to play out much like the cable business in the ‘80s. You don’t hear that much anymore, though.

Perhaps given the state of linear television and the cable bundle, the one thing you don’t want is to be the next basic cable network. But there’s more to the story. Unlike cable during its evolution, web video often seems frozen in adolescence.

If you’re old enough to remember, the early days of basic cable had scruffy content, tiny audiences and equally small ad budgets. Yet the playbook was fairly predictable. You’d launch a network— ideally, one focused on specific audiences or genre—and fill it with the cheapest collection of reruns you could find. Then after you started building an audience, maybe you’d dip your toes in some low production, low stakes original series. Hopefully, over the course of a few decades or so, your shows got much better, and you start pulling advertising budgets away from broadcast TV, until you were finally a major player at the upfront table.

With the help of venture capitalists, tech platforms and brands themselves, many digital media companies have spent the past several years mimicking this playbook, dreaming of similar generational shifts in audience and ad spending. Start cheap, build a quick audience, get some advertisers then graduate to better content and bigger deals.

The problem is that these shows weren’t actually designed for viewers—they are essentially designed for sponsors to underwrite.

Yet so many companies haven’t made it to graduation. And that’s caused the whole market to become stunted. Too many VC-backed publishers chased short-term engagement on social networks, ignoring their own brands and failing to create sustainable business models. They had loads of views but no lasting viewership.

Meanwhile, far too many marketers flooded the medium with subpar content, with the help of media companies offering up a bunch of potential “if you buy this, we’ll make it” short-form web shows.

The problem is that these shows weren’t actually designed for viewers—they are essentially designed for sponsors to underwrite. Just about every week, we receive requests from potential partners looking for web video content, and it’s clear they are looking for high volume at the sacrifice of quality and engagement.

One way you can easily spot these kinds of requests is by looking at the requested budget level and timeframe. Simply put, they want it fast and cheap, two traits that are not associated with quality.

I hear the same stories all the time from competitors in the industry. Given the pressure in the market, it’s often very tough for publishers to decline such requests. But simply giving in only adds to the mess of endless supply of in-feed, low quality, low attention video. The mess premium content brands are stuck cleaning up.

Say what you want about the problems with the TV business (there are plenty), but to its credit, NBC doesn’t prospect brands with an idea for “This Is Us” if and only if Kraft agrees to pay for the show and make sure that all the characters talk about their ranch dressing. Digital media operates like that far too often. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

A small but growing number of digital-native content companies are managing to reproduce what cable networks did over 40 years ago and shrink it down to about five. Think Business Insider, Refinery29, Vox Media and GroupNine. These firms have been developing original, home-grown, well-produced series that are becoming digital media’s version of appointment TV. People seek them out and show up on purpose, and brands can’t get enough of these shows because there just aren’t enough of them.

My point here is that despite what you’ve heard, there is real scarcity in quality digital video ad inventory. You do need to buy it up front, or you’ll risk getting shut out.

That’s why we’re starting to see more advertisers get on board in the development process. They are looking to underwrite shows from the get-go, owning the ad inventory outright. These marketers want to associate their brands with well-produced content that attracts large consistent audiences.

If you think about it, that’s exactly how networks like FX and AMC started peeling off budgets from broadcast networks over time. So maybe this all will play out like cable.


Edgar Hernandez is the chief revenue officer at Complex.