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Digital Content NewFront Players: 'TV' Is Just a State of Mind

Can They Get Advertisers to Think About Digital as They do TV?

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Web-video producers have been waiting years for TV dollars to move where the eyeballs increasingly are -- online. But what if TV dollars were to stay where they are and online were to become TV?

That question will be asked repeatedly as big sellers of digital media unveil slates of original programming during the Digital Content NewFronts, which begin this week. They want marketers to think about digital programming in the same way they think about TV.

"To talk about TV as a piece of hardware isn't meaningful or helpful anymore," said Hulu Senior VP-Content Andy Forssell. "What it is useful for is a symbol of the quality bar -- what content stands up to the best of what was on TV last night?"

While Yahoo, AOL, Hulu, MSN, YouTube and others are staying tight-lipped about the particulars, expect the quality and length gaps between web video and TV to collapse.

Traditionally, web video has been dominated by short clips, about three to five minutes, which suited the web's fractured interactive environment as well as its thin economics. YouTube once capped video uploads at 10 minutes.

But episodes of shows made for the web are getting longer. People are certainly watching longer. In February 2011, the average viewer watched 5.1 minutes per video; by February 2012 that had risen to 6.2 minutes, according to ComScore.

"The main goal for all video companies is to bring TV buyers to the table," said AOL Senior VP-Video Ran Harnevo.

Hulu's 'Battleground' is a 30-minute political drama on the web.
Hulu's 'Battleground' is a 30-minute political drama on the web.

In a bid to do just that , AOL is expected to announce this week that it will sell video ads using gross ratings points provided by Nielsen, the same currency used to buy TV. Converting to GRPs will be a first among publishers, which mostly sell video based on views or impressions.

Mr. Harnevo argues that "the differences between the Bravos and the AOLs are becoming vague." Though the majority of what AOL unveils next week will be short-form, its Huffpost Streaming Network is perhaps most TV-like in its ambition: 12 hours of live programming each day.

Hulu is expected to introduce a slate of long-form series that look and feel like TV, along the lines of its "A Day in the Life" with Morgan Spurlock, and its first scripted series, "Battleground," a 30-minute political drama that , though TV-length, didn't fit the formats and strictures of broadcast or cable. Hulu's originals will make it to traditional TV when they are sold into international syndication through a deal with Fremantle Media.

YouTube will show the work of some of its new "channel" partners at its presentation for advertisers, and even though the predominant form is short, some producers of scripted and unscripted content are going longer. For example, the "Bammo" channel's debut of the drama series "Sync" checks in at nearly 10 minutes, and an episode of "Chris Harris on Cars" on the "Drive" channel lasts more than 11.

There's an economic reason to go longer form online. Longer video makes ad breaks possible, which means additional ad inventory. Additionally, marketers like to use their TV creative online. A recent study by the video ad server Vindico found that 98% of the video ads on its network are repurposed TV.

"The proliferation of tablets and the iPad have changed consumer behavior around video," said Yolanda Lam, senior VP at Publicis Groupe 's MediaVest. Paul Kontonis, VP at Digitas, a NewFront organizer, echoed that . "If the iPad functions as a first screen, people will watch longer," he said.

Even portals, usually the homes of short-form, are getting bolder with programming. This spring Yahoo is airing a comedy series, "Burning Love" starring Kristen Bell, with episodes running about 10 minutes. And this fall it will introduce Anthony Zuiker's "Cybergeddon." Mr. Zuiker also just bowed a 15-minute-long episode titled "Perfect Night" on BlackBoxTV, a YouTube Channel.

"What you're going to see is a massive commitment to long-form programming, TV quality at scale," said John McCarus, senior VP-branded content at Digitas.

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