LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- The star of the year's highest-rated cable movie is not an A-list movie star, an Emmy-winning actor or even a Disney celebrity. It's YouTube star Fred Figglehorn (aka actor Lucas Cruikshank), whose "Fred: The Movie" was watched by 7.8 million people during its September premiere on Nickelodeon and by more than 28 million viewers since. He's also the unofficial poster boy for web TV, and why more web properties could now succeed on network TV after others failed to make a mark.
But why move to TV what already works well for the internet? Simply put: A popular web show brings networks a built-in fan base, (comparably) cheaper talent, lower budgets and, in some cases, advertisers willing to follow a show or personality across any platform.
"I definitely feel like we're in this renaissance of taking another look at generating original content for the web as incubators for original series and doing it in an economical way -- as opposed to throwing tens of millions of dollars at it and creating vast content machines," said Mark Stern, exec VP-original content at Syfy.
Adapting web shows for a TV audience makes a lot of sense from an efficiency standpoint. The average network drama can cost over $1.5 million for one episode, with established stars making upward of $150,000 an episode, inflated in part by actors guild and union costs. Meanwhile, the entire season of a successful web show (which usually totals about 45 to 60 minutes over 8 to 10 episodes) can run anywhere from $100,000 to $2 million at most to produce, with salaried talent often working for low- to mid-five-figure deals (sometimes without contracts or agents) and sponsors picking up the tab for production and distribution costs. But keep in mind that most webisodes average four to eight minutes per episode, compared to a sitcom's 22 minutes.
Consider the landscape only a couple of years ago: Web-original shows first gained major popularity during the 2008 Writers Guild of America strike as a vehicle for TV writers and producers to create projects that didn't violate their contracts -- and for a mere fraction of a TV budget. A few successful series emerged, including Joss Whedon's "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," MSN's "In the Motherhood" (sponsored by Suave and Sprint) and MySpace's "Quarterlife," which became the first made-for-web series to get picked up by a broadcast network in February 2008.
But after NBC aired a repurposed version of "Quarterlife" episodes during prime time, the show posted the network's lowest ratings in 17 years during its timeslot and was swiftly canceled after one airing. In 2009, ABC attempted to turn "In the Motherhood" into a prime-time sitcom by recasting the leads, tweaking the storyline and distancing itself from Suave and Sprint, which helped fund the web version with producers Mindshare Entertainment but were less-active sponsors on TV.
In other words, the first breed of shows that made the leap from web to TV didn't succeed because producers changed or repurposed what people could already watch for free online. This time around, characters are being expanded, franchises are being developed directly with networks and advertisers are looking for ways to follow these properties across all platforms.
Plus, what makes a hit on YouTube or MSN is hard to convert to broadcast network success standards. Sure, "$#*! My Dad Says" is the second highest-rated new show of the season, but it ultimately works because it's a Monday-night CBS sitcom starring William Shatner that happens to be based on a Twitter account -- whereas the TV version of TheWB.com's "Children's Hospital" can reach just more than 500,000 viewers during Adult Swim's late-night lineup with double its season-long web budget and episode length, yet still be sustainable. In that show's case, it's reaching a higher concentration of its target audience during a lineup that commands higher ad rates among advertisers looking to reach the young-male demo -- the same promise of distributing original series on the web among targeted audiences, but on a different platform.
"Great ideas can come from anywhere. It's great that brands can come to develop shows, but it's all about ROI in many different forms," said David Lang, president of Group M's Mindshare Entertainment. "The goal is to achieve ROI for the brand, and if that is a television show or web engagement or if that's a multiplatform engagement, or if that's at retail, we craft our creative to achieve a brand's goal or objectives."
Brian Terkelsen, president of Publicis Groupe's ConnectiveTissue, which oversees branded-entertainment programs for Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Kraft, cautioned that migrating web content to TV doesn't always guarantee a win.
"There is little to no distinction between the quality of cable or broadcast programming today and as such, the financial structures needed to support the movement of content from web to TV are expensive and a risk. The ability to draw a straight conclusion that web content will play successfully on TV hasn't been proven," he said.
That's why networks and producers are going to great lengths to make this next round of web-based shows distinct from the content viewers are already streaming for free online. Comedy Central has a trio of web projects in development: one is an adaptation of Avalon Television's online sitcom "Workaholics"; another is a full-length version of The Onion's "Onion Sports"; and the third is a pilot deal with the Gregory Brothers that will not rehash their popular "Auto-Tune the News" clips but will instead feature a wholly new premise. In all three cases, each show will feature original content and target advertisers similar to those on "The Daily Show" or "Tosh.0."
"There are plenty of things that get huge traffic online that wouldn't make sense as TV shows," said Kent Alterman, head of original programming and production at Comedy Central. "It has to succeed on its own merits."