If you want to attract TV dollars you have to act like a TV network.
That message has finally been received by the digital players who now annually present themselves as contenders for a slice of TV's $70 billion bounty at the Digital Content NewFronts.
While there's a week yet to go of these NewFronts, the biggest players -- YouTube, Hulu, Yahoo and AOL -- have already laid their cards on the table, and it's clear they showed up with stronger hands than they've had in the past. It's sunk in that they, too, must spend like a TV network and often produce TV-like content to compete for TV ad dollars.
To wit, this year the digital NewFront-ers came armed with: half-hour and even hour-long series, the budgets to promote those series to make them household names, and a willingness to measure and guarantee audiences using TV metrics from Nielsen and ComScore.
In the past, the NewFronts have felt haphazard, with lots of proposed shows thrown at the wall to see what sticks. By contrast, this was the year of the renewal. Hulu, for example, touted the renewals of six of its original series, including its newest show, "Deadbeat," and the animated comedy "The Awesomes."
And the company's new head of programming, former Warner Horizon exec Craig Erwich, admitted the newly obvious. "What we don't have is a one-hour show and that's the coin of the realm right now."
AOL is renewing four shows: "#CandidlyNicole," with Nicole Richie; "city.ballet," with Sarah Jessica Parker; "Hardwired," with YouTube star iJustine; and tech show "The Future Starts Here."
Crackle renewed three series, including Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" for four more season to run through 2016.
Hulu pointedly called its event an "upfront." Likewise, Sony-owned Crackle was vocal about the need for content that looks like TV, with the tagline, "TV That Strikes a Cord." Crackle General Manager Eric Berger noted the company's ties to a major studio means all the content Crackle presents is greenlit and will see daylight -- something that hasn't necessarily been true of all digital platforms in years past.
Like the best TV networks, Crackle's partners know the real what, when and where of shows, he said.
After years of rolling out short-form series, more publishers introduced TV-length content, realizing if they aren't spending big bucks to produce series, they won't be considered legitimate players. Also, with the growing app environment on smart TVs and set-top boxes, digital content companies are getting access to the biggest screen in the house, where viewers may want to watch something longer than a few minutes.
While most of AOL's slate continues to be series of shows with episodes under 10 minutes, the company did pick up "Connected," with 20 episodes running 30 minutes in length. And AOL's head of video Ran Harnevo said the company is investing "way more" in each show this year.
Next year Yahoo will premiere two half-hour comedies that will mark the portal's first foray into TV-style long-form programming: "Other Space," an outer-space laffer created by "Bridesmaids" director-and-producer Paul Feig, and "Sin City Saints," a work-comedy set in a fiction pro basketball team's front office.
Whatever the runtime for their shows, the biggest challenge for these companies is still making it well-known enough to be sought out. YouTube has shifted its content investments almost entirely to marketing in a bid to make YouTube stars like Bethany Mota and Michelle Phan credible entries on a media plan.
Hulu signaled a similar emphasis on marketing. "We are marketing our originals like you would expect cable and broadcast TV would be marketing there," said Hulu head of sales Peter Naylor.
Finally, what would TV be without celebrities? While NewFronts past have been full of D-listers and the "Internet famous," this year they've managed to attract some pretty big names in TV. After seeing the likes of Mr. Seinfeld and Ms. Parker partner with Crackle and AOL, respectively, there's been a bit of an influx, including Bryan Cranston, who is producing a comedy for Crackle; Steve Buscemi in AOL's "Park Bench"; and Jeremy Renner, who will be executive producer for a feature film on Crackle.
OK, it's not all A-List yet. Vanilla Ice was also in town for Scripps Interactive's NewFront. But the direction is clear.
NewFront presenters remain way behind their cable and broadcast TV brethren, In content, investment and audience, but we've seen this movie before. If this is 1980 for digital video, then the next five years are going to be interesting.
Contributing: Michael Learmonth.