Trendwatch: No-Risk Web Video

On the web, it’s pretty easy to test whether there’s an audience for your work. Measurability means accountability. But what if your standard of success isn’t based on how many page views you attract or how long people stay on your site or whether they click on the ads? That’s the rather pleasant and carefree-sounding life of the creators of a rising group of web series that are profitable before they’re even shot.

AOL-owned Bebo does this with all the web shows it signs, starting with KateModern and through to the recently released The Secret World of Sam King. Electric Farm also did this with Afterworld and the brand-new Gemini Division (and NBC says brand participation was the deciding factor for its distribution deal with that show). Heck, Seth MacFarlane’s new series Cavalcade is actually being distributed as an ad unit.

Show creators promise advertisers they will integrate them into the story line — and always in good taste, they promise viewers. According to Electric Farm’s Brent Friedman, Afterworld tuned down an integration from a battery company because, even though it tied in well to the post-apocalyptic series’ plot, the logic of giving preference to a single brand didn’t make sense. “If it’s really hard and we have to sit there for hours thinking how to integrate this, it’s probably not the right play,” said Friedman.

So is this pre-paid content production the way of the future or does it add up to just a few lucky outliers? Having a record of success on TV or on the web is a big part of how these folks are able to score these deals. They turn the always-in-beta web-as-focus-group way of releasing projects on its head. But if you can get behind those closed doors and have people signing those checks, it’s a nice place to be.

New media management and production studio Generate tells us its productions “predominantly” bring in sponsors early in the development process. Other branded series advocates point out that networks have been meddling in the creation of shows forever, so it’s not really so different for advertisers to be the ones giving input.

Still, sponsors aren’t just going to line up dependably to pay in advance for series after series. Take it from 60Frames CEO Brent Weinstein, who said he doesn’t want to sacrifice one of the core draws he offers creators: Their ideas won’t die on the shelf like they do in the traditional television system.

I think that model absolutely works, and we are engaged in a number of deals right now that follow that exact same ideology — which is there’s a creative concept and we bring in advertisers and deals from the very beginning, so we know our economics from day one. The flip side is those projects take a long time to negotiate, and we don’t want our entire portfolio to be inevitably be involved in conversations that take months, years.

Meanwhile, others in the space are a bit harsher. Jake Zim, who runs Electric Farm competitor Safran Digital Group, levied a whole pile of criticism at Gemini Division earlier this week, including a bunch of details that Friedman, in a comment, said were “inaccurate.” But within the potshots and differences of taste, there’s an interesting objection to pre-paid series:

In a world where networks compete for eyeballs, branded entertainment is not a sustainable entertainment model because it places an artificial limit on the creative freedom of the filmmaker. That’s why ad supported network TV evolved out of single sponsor shows into commercial pods, because greater competition for viewers led to a loosening of the restriction on content creation.

But in a post-TiVo world do commercial pods still make sense? People are awfully good at tuning out ads these days. Rob Long, a writer for Cheers and other series, pointed out in an email that product integration is more present than ever in entertainment on all platforms.

I think there’s going to be a window where this becomes the norm, but eventually, advertisers and marketers are going to demand guarantees — and make goods — just like they do on broadcast. Although, the producers with great track records will be able to make some excellent deals, too.