ABC: Original Online Shows Not Our Thing

Give an Ugly Betty fan more Ugly Betty, and attracting viewers to your online video is like shooting fish in a barrel. Millions of views, at your service. But “purely original” web content hasn’t worked nearly as well for ABC as leveraging TV programs like Betty with webisodes, said Alexis Rapo, who runs ABC.com, at our NewTeeVee Live conference. So the network is funneling its efforts toward leveraging its existing brands.

ABC hasn’t always been so down on original online shows. In fact, it has its own original content studio, Stage 9. ABC has done two web original programs to date: Squeegees, a project from web video makers Handsome Donkey, which from all accounts was hindered by too much network input (our story), and Voicemail, a light concept series in which a guy acts out actual voicemails (our review).

Since then, Stage 9 hasn’t exactly been prolific. As far as we know, it still has the sci-fi epic Trenches in the can. It also promised a second season Voicemail earlier this year, but I can’t find it online. So where will original projects be distributed? “At this time I don’t think there are any plans to run them on ABC.com,” said an ABC spokesperson.

The network’s biggest success to date, said Rapo at our NewTeeVee Live conference, was a webisode series with six 2-4 minute episodes for its show Ugly Betty. That project, called Mode After Hours, launched in September, and had more than 8.5 million video views over seven weeks — “by far the most successful short-form content we’ve ever launched,” said Rapo.

Rapo attributed the trouble with the original series to the difficulty of building a new brand, rather than piggybacking on existing ones. By contrast, given Ugly Betty‘s popularity, making Mode After Hours with actors from the show was an easy sell to viewers.

Another factor is probably ABC’s digital distribution strategy. Though its short-form content is embeddable, none of its TV content can be viewed without coming to its web site and downloading its player. Despite some affiliate agreements, Rapo said that 98 percent of viewership of ABC shows comes directly through ABC.com. Even when ABC tried widespread syndication once, for Squeegees, it didn’t quite go whole hog. At first, it disabled YouTube embedding, so fans couldn’t share the show on their own pages.

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But even more than distribution issues, Squeegees just wasn’t that good. And there are other factors in finding an audience — like timing and relevance. For instance, ABC and Ugly Betty had made other online originals, two sets of telenovelas, for Ugly Betty a couple of years ago, and they didn’t do nearly as well, according to the ABC spokesperson. Those starred well-known Hispanic telenovela actors rather than the actors on the show.

What with Rapo dissing online originals and ABC not even taking advantage of distributing them on its largest platform, it seems Stage 9 can’t be long for this world. In our interview, Rapo pleaded innocent, saying she didn’t know what was happening with the studio. A Stage 9 rep told us the project is still moving forward but hasn’t yet responded to follow-up questions about Rapo’s comments.

By contrast, NBC is taking perhaps the most aggressive of the networks in its approach to online originals, though it recently cut down its risk by making a deal to only produce web shows with web studio 60Frames if sponsors can be secured. This fall it distributed and promoted the big-budget project Gemini Division (our review). NBC is also developing its own showsFears, Secrets, and Desires (decried as a rip-off of PostSecret) and Salon Confessions), but neither of those have debuted yet.

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