Form and Content, Not Length, Key to Online Video's Future

Viewpoint: Broadband Enterprises Founder Matt Wasserlauf

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Matt Wasserlauf
Matt Wasserlauf
It has been said recently that online digital video as a medium is like the early days of movies, in that people are getting used to watching longer online-video content (longer than two minutes) because "the medium is growing up." In effect, these people feel that, as the online-video medium and its audience continue to mature, that audience, like early movie-going audiences, will learn to accept longer-form content.

While that may or may not be true, they miss the point entirely. Length is not the measure of maturation for a medium or its audience. Form and content are.

Consider radio. By the time "The Shadow" and "Allen's Alley" came along, movies were a pretty mature (and popular) medium. We had talkies. Full-length features. But radio comedies, dramas and variety shows were all shorter than movies; half-hour and one-hour blocks of entertainment were standard. So why, in the face of competition from movies, did radio succeed -- even though its content was shorter?

The content was unlike anything in the movies. The beauty and brilliance of radio drama was that you could create an entire world in one room -- with voice, music and sound -- by getting your audience to shut their eyes and imagine the action. And you didn't need two hours to do it. Best of all, it was free -- completely paid for by advertisers. This was a novel approach to entertainment: provide free content, paid for by sponsors, who get paid back when people buy their products.

Then came TV. In its early days, it mimicked radio -- even to the point of airing the same content and advertisers. And then along came "I Love Lucy," the most-watched show of its time. It redefined the medium's direction. That, in turn, led to a changed advertising format that ultimately included multiple advertisers in longer ad pods (rather than shows sponsored by a single advertiser) and ushered in the heyday of the greatest mass medium the world has seen to date.

Almost three decades later, cable TV started with a subscription format that combined channels that carried advertising and those that didn't. Early on it introduced MTV, a channel that offered music videos -- content that simply couldn't be seen on broadcast TV (not in that form, anyway). And that content was shorter than any existing content on broadcast TV. MTV invented a new content form which, in turn, attracted a tough-to-reach (teen) cable TV audience and ultimately created a new approach to advertising. Again, length had nothing to do with it.

Today we're faced with a similar challenge in online video. It's still in the early stage, but people are following it in growing numbers. So what are we giving them? Much of what you see in online video, as in any other medium in its early stages, is either (long-form) content brought over from another medium (broadcast TV) or amateur content -- "dogs on skateboards."

But somewhere in between are people -- professionals -- who are trying to create a game changer like music videos or "I Love Lucy." Original online shows such as "Mom Life," "Cube Fabulous" and "The Fantastic Two" are all attempts to find a form and content unique to the medium -- something that doesn't merely steal or mimic what's been done in other media, something that defines a whole new way of entertaining and creates a new opportunity for advertisers. In the end, it's going to come down to the quality of the entertainment that will attract an audience, no matter how long or how short.

Admittedly, we're not quite there yet. But we're on our way. What gets in the way is the slavish insistence, in some quarters, that we have to imitate what's been done before (or steal it outright) to make the medium grow, to attract advertisers and audiences, simply by using the same content and advertising pod lengths that have worked in other media (hey, it worked there, so it's gotta work here).

As history shows us, "it ain't necessarily so."

Matthew Wasserlauf created Broadband Enterprises in April 2004. Broadband Enterprises provides online-advertising sales, syndicated programming, original online programming and research.
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