Web syndication catching on

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Elbowing past the usual tv entertainment companies hawking wares at the National Association of Television Program Executives' 2001 Conference & Exhibition will be a handful of content providers whose main medium is the Web, but are looking to jump from the computer screen to TV screen.

At a time when many Web sites devoted to consumer retail sales are floundering, entertainment dot-coms are attracting more interest from offline partners such as cable TV networks as the sites develop their fan base.

Among Internet companies at NATPE this week will be Mondo Media and AtomFilms, which both show movies on their own Web sites but are seeking more mileage by offering the content to other online and offline media.

Mondo Media is featuring at NATPE its entire line of films, including the darkly humorous new animated movie "Gone Bad," which Mondo describes as a spaghetti-western meets "Night of the Living Dead."

`GONE BAD' TESTS THE WATER

" `Gone Bad' hasn't been released for syndication so we don't know how it will be received, but NATPE is a good way to find out," says Robin Harper, Mondo senior VP-marketing. "We are going to NATPE because we think our programming is appropriate for companies that have a significant online presence ... [and] offline companies who are looking for animation programming that fits their needs."

In fact, Mondo already has sold one of its properties, "Thugs on Film," to BBC America, which runs the kooky animated shorts on both its cable network and its Web site (bbconline. com). The series features two English hooligans talking about the latest movies.

"We're in discussions with other cable companies to do something similar," Ms. Harper says, declining to name these TV outlets as "discussions are ongoing."

Web syndication, in which a dot-com syndicates or licenses its content to other sites or to offline partners like TV networks, has a bright future, industry analysts say. Researcher Jupiter Media Metrix estimates that $250 million was spent to license online content in 2000, and it will explode to $1.5 billion by 2004.

NEEDS GREATER MARKETING STRATEGY

The only caveat about Web syndication, says Jupiter analyst Robert Hertzberg, is that it should be positioned as part of a greater marketing strategy by a new-media company.

"As a standalone strategy, it has limited economic potential," he says. "As we've seen increasingly over the last few months, Web-specific content is not enough of a strategy. Syndication should be part of a bigger set of things that a [Web] content company is doing to both drive revenues and create awareness of its brands."

Reaching out to deeper-pocketed production companies and TV networks is a key reason Web content providers are showing their wares at NATPE.

"Web syndication companies are coming to NATPE in greater numbers this year because NATPE is all about the selling of content," says Nina Steiner, NATPE director-exhibition sales. "It's a no-brainer, these companies tell us, because where else can they make such critical strategic industry alliances in just three days?"

Allen Banks, executive media director at Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, and president of its Program Exchange unit, says original Internet programming "is worth keeping an eye on" since it can be both a proving ground and promotional vehicle for new syndicated programming.

"The key is to find programming that's both appropriate to an Internet audience and to a television audience," Mr. Banks says. "[Web syndication is] early in its development, but certainly, there's potential for this to become an important entertainment medium."

AtomFilms already was involved in the syndication market, and with its recent acquisition by Macromedia's Shockwave.com unit, is now marketing more aggressively to TV outlets.

Among the properties it plans to promote at NATPE is "Talk to Taka." The film, directed by Richard Kim, is about a sushi chef who fancies himself as an adviser to the lovelorn, though his advice is terrible; Pat Morita stars in the film.

"Syndication has always been a major part of AtomFilms' business-it's 60% to 65% of our revenues," says Brian Burke, director of business development. He hopes AtomFilms' participation at NATPE this week will be as lucrative as it was last year, when the company signed "more than a handful" of deals for content.

FIRST LOOK DEALS

This year, the company also will attempt to interest more TV network executives in "first look" deals similar to its licensing agreement with the SciFi Channel for that cable network's weekly short-film series, "Exposure." AtomFilms gives SciFi Channel first look at all science-fiction-related films in its library; in return, AtomFilms' participating filmmakers get a chance at national TV exposure.

Already, TV executives increasingly are surfing the Web for animators and other creators of content. "The Web is ... making people feel in some ways more confident that they can self-publish their ideas," says Linda Simensky, VP-original animation at Cartoon Network. "The Web, for some [content creators], is one more way for them to develop or showcase their ideas before bringing them to the attention of a television network."

"First, everyone is on the lookout for good ideas, and it's not important if this idea was a Web animation first or a comic book or something else," Ms. Simensky says.

`ZINES, COMICS AND INDIE FILMS

"If someone has a Web animation up, that's a helpful development tool," she says. "I'm interested in people who are doing 'zines, comic books, independent films, too. I'm not necessarily all that interested in what sites [like Mondo Media and AtomFilms] have to offer. To me, they seem to be the equivalent of agencies just pitching properties around. My real interest is finding out what individuals are doing."

Also in cable, Showtime has struck a syndication deal with Icebox.com that focuses on a concept instead of actual Web content. The Viacom-owned cable network has licensed the Web entertainment site's "Starship Regulars," a series of "Webisodes" about earthlings and other species working side by side aboard a military spacecraft.

Showtime will produce a live-action version of "Starship Regulars" instead of running Icebox.com's content, but link back to the dot-com's Web program via interstitials telecast during Showtime's "Sci-Friday" lineup.

Most online companies openly acknowledge that the mature medium of TV is where the ad dollars are at this point.

"We're not as constrained as the networks are in presenting new programming," says Steve Stanford, CEO of Icebox.com. "Ad-supported programming has yet to succeed as a business model on the Internet, and television is the existing successful entertainment and revenue model. To monetize our properties right now, television certainly holds out that promise."

"We're just at the beginning of Web syndication," says Ms. Harper.

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