Whither Epic Fu? Next Steps for the Seminal Web Show

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Streamy and Webby award-winning Epic Fu, which built up a passionate community around its fast-paced geek culture show, has been off the air since May, and its fans haven’t known what to think. “I didnt want to admit it, but ive given up too :-(,” wrote one fan, Tanner, a couple weeks ago.

Creators Steve Woolf and Zadi Diaz say that times in the web video biz have been tough, but they’re going to come back better than ever. “The new mission for Epic Fu will be to create a participatory network that shows people that their ideas matter and that they have a way to get their message out to the world; an entertainment and information network made of blogs, videos, discussions, and media about how technology affects entertainment, music, art, politics, style, and relationships,” Woolf posted to the community forum. Woolf expanded via email that the plans include a blog network and a shorter show format with less post-production.

We hope Woolf and Diaz do succeed in putting their years of learning and passion to work, but that new site has yet to launch. In the meantime, they are stringing together some paid gigs, like TV commercials for J!NX clothing, interviews for PBS, and a now-apparently-shelved Rocketboom Los Angeles edition. We asked Woolf to elaborate on how the environment for web shows has changed since they got started making Epic Fu (then called JETSET) in June 2006. He and Diaz have seen it all, from a Next New Networks deal that brought ten-fold viewership and sponsors, to a multi-year TV deal they say they turned down, to a Revision3 deal that fell apart when the recession hit. Here’s his reply:

Wow, where to begin. For one thing it’s so much easier, technically speaking, to get a show up and running now. No concerns about video hosting, codecs, RSS enclosures, and myriad other concerns. The awareness factor is certainly much higher now, too. When we used to tell people that we produce web shows we got confused looks, whereas now most people have heard of what’s happening with online video and are very interested and supportive.

In terms of gaining viewers it’s been interesting to watch how communities have evolved. In one sense it was easier to build an audience a couple of years ago because there were not many “shows” out there. Now there are a ton of shows so there’s a lot more noise to get through, but I think as web content producers we all need to strive to make something that doesn’t look like second rate TV. We will think that the show that will demonstrate to everyone why the web is different (and better) than passive television has yet to put its foot in the door and tap into the mainstream consciousness. It will happen soon, though.

Financially it’s been something of a roller coaster. In 2005 through 2006 there was no money in the space. In 2007 and 2008 there were a lot of opportunities to make money creating a show like ours. In 2009 it’s all about cautious spending and managing risk. But there are signs that things are starting to turn around, albeit very slowly. Things always take longer than you hope they will. In 2006 at Vloggercon everyone was convinced that a media revolution was upon us. In reality revolutions take years, and this one is still in its formative stages.

We’ve watched the rise and fall of many new media ventures, and we’ve watched the rise and fall of shows and people whose massive influence is likely to go unrecognized until a proper history of the evolution of online video is recorded. That part is a little sad, because there have been people who have given so much to this industry without the return they were hoping for.

25 Comments

Steve Woolf

Fair enough. I’m not trying to convince you to be a fan of those shows — you might hate them and have perfectly justifiable reasons to not want to watch them. But original content on the web at a lower budget can and does work. The Guild, for example, is profitable for the independent production team behind it and for Microsoft based on the Sprint sponsorship. That happened because of the reasons you stated — they identified an audience and leveraged a platform. It can work. Another show, $99 Music Videos from new media studio Next New Networks, recently landed a $500K sponsorship over 3 months with Verizon. Diggnation generates low seven figures annually for new media studio Revision3.

These are not yet commonplace, but with enough time and perseverance revenue models will mature for original content.

Steve

ashkan karbasfrooshan

We still have a ways to go before I would consider our model very successful by pure business standards (though I’d say we’re going in the right direction).

This entire discussion does raise another question… but we’ll leave that for another day.

And just to sign off, I will go back and watch the latest from Epic FU, Dr. Horrible, The Guild, Ask a Ninja, Epic Fu, Diggnation, Tekzilla, Indy Mogul, Know Your Meme and hopefully be proved wrong.

Cheers.

Steve Woolf

I’m glad to hear you say you’re successful with your model, that’s great. But it’s unfortunate that you feel you have to shut the door on anyone who sees possibilities where you do not (or cannot). Many original content creators have already been successful, so there’s little point in carrying this forward.

I’ll let you get back to signing all your deals.

Steve

ashkan karbasfrooshan

My last comment, and then I’m really off to other things, but you missed my main point Steve, which was:

Web series can be a smart move once you:

  • build up some kind of audience and
  • understand what consumers will watch and
  • realize what media companies will license/syndicate and
  • figure out what advertisers will sponsor.

We can do a web series and get a better ROI and make it more compelling/entertaining because we have a lot more data and feedback to analyze.

As an investor, though, I think starting off with the web series model is not bright, that’s all, so I put my money where my mouth is.

To call me short-sighted or hurl out any other personal or professional insult says more about you than me, frankly.

ashkan karbasfrooshan

Viewers who like the web series format will tend to stick to TV where the budgets allow for the genre, when these are made for TV, they tend to look cheap…

should read:

Viewers who like the web series format will tend to stick to TV where the budgets allow for the genre, when these are made for THE WEB, they tend to look cheap…

ashkan karbasfrooshan

Steve,

Two words: echo chamber.

To suggest that ad agencies need to “understand” this or that is pretty arrogant, if you ask me.

Viewers who like the web series format will tend to stick to TV where the budgets allow for the genre, when these are made for TV, they tend to look cheap… so your use of the word “cheaply-produced” is rather ironic and suggests that I ruffled your feathers.

Ultimately, we strive to create videos that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with its TV equivalent and are actually seen (75,000,000 since 2006 with $0 in marketing) and paid for through licensing fees (10-20 media companies that pay us to carry the programming).

We have 5,000 videos and 500 hours of programming, the quality and quantity has improved over time, but if you watch one of our

  • travel videos, it looks and feels like something you would watch on the Travel Network,

  • cooking segments, it is akin to something you watch on the Food Network.

  • music interviews, it looks like something on the [old] MTV.

The format and length are altered to adjust for the Web’s consumption patterns, for sure, but while some create art/media/content for themselves, we create content that people actually consume and companies actually pay for.

We also don’t rely on ad agencies to “understand” something.

But, ultimately, no web series comes close to matching the production quality of its TV counterpart, so in the end, that type of online programming comes across as cheaply-produced, to use your term.

Anyway, while I’ve enjoyed this lovely exchange, I have some content to publish and deals to sign.

Steve Woolf

Ashkan –

What troubles me about your posts is that you’re using the struggles of a brand new industry to justify your short-sighted position. I’ll be the first person to stand up and say that web series have to look beyond television models and demonstrate what makes the web different from television in order to evolve.

But to claim that series like Dr. Horrible, The Guild, Ask a Ninja, Epic Fu, Diggnation, Tekzilla, Indy Mogul, Know Your Meme, or any of the other widely watched and revenue-generating original productions are flawed from a conceptual standpoint is remarkably small-minded, imo. You may not like them or watch them, but millions of people do. Entertainment never bats 1000%, but that doesn’t mean you never try.

It is only a matter of time until the ad agencies you talk to understand the value of placement in original web series that can potentially run for years with a loyal audience. This is what works about television, by the way. It’s an educational process at this moment because we are only a few years into the modern evolution of online video. Read any history of cable television and you will be holding up a mirror to the development of online video. Shows that build brands and aggregate data about their viewing audience will be offering vastly more valuable data to potential advertisers than Nielsen has ever offered.

I think it’s unfair and unfounded to claim that cheaply-produced informational content is the only value proposition in online video. We are far too early in this process to take any stand that thwarts the growth of creative people looking for creative solutions. You de-value your own site this way.

Steve

ashkan karbasfrooshan

hey Brian,

Before I launch into another tirade ;) – we’re all on the same side of the fence here as professional content creators. Once in a while we have these kind of discussions internally and I stop everyone and say “listen, guys, it’s as if Trotsky and Lenin get into an argument, sure, it might appear that they have very different perspective, but for all intents and purposes, their viewpoints represent close shades of the rainbow”.

Not sure if that analogy makes sense, but you get the idea:

I might have studied finance and have a business background, but I am a creative type at heart, having penned two books, written screenplays at what not.

Don’t forget, it was my passion for storytelling and non-fiction that led me to create Discovery Networks/Scripps Entertainment-like programming… so first and foremost, do what you like and are passionate about because the payoff, if any, isn’t even in the horizon.

But, we just need to balance that with what the market dictates and with what consumers want. The consumer online isn’t just the viewer, it’s also media companies as well as marketers. Either extreme will fail.

In other words, doing a web series when you have an audience might be a smart tactical step, but starting a new media company by launching a web series first is suicidal (again, LonelyGirl15 would have NEVER been a hit if people knew that it was scripted – IMHO).

Ash

Brian Gruber

Thoughtful comments (Hi, Ash). Perhaps one missng link is, what if the creators of web series are interested in story telling and narrative as concerns paramount to or preceding your perceived marketing priorities?

ashkan karbasfrooshan

Steve,

Let me put it this way, every time I start watching a web series, I stop. I was trying to polite because again, I wasn’t talking about one web series but the format in general. But to be perfectly honest, based on the video NTV posted in this post, I think you are making a colossal and potentially fatal strategic mistake, if you want to chat about that in private, you can email me.

But to answer your question about web series in general:

Just ask yourself what makes TV vulnerable and unsuccessful, and then consider the traits of web series. Do you need empirical stats or just common sense to realize that long term what made TV stumble will make the web series fail, too?

The risk/return proposition is a bad one.

As per “every time I start watching a web series I stop”,
I’m probably not alone. Online, people want quick fixes, they rarely want to invest their time and energy in a web series. I am not saying no one will, just not enough and frequently enough to make it viable. Moreover, I’d argue that if people knew from Day 1 that Lonely Girl was scripted, they would’ve have tuned out. But that’s a separate point.

I speak to 5-10 ad agencies and marketers each week and they generally don’t think that web series hits the spot for them.

To be fair, I also hear a lot about how we need to improve our form of programming at WatchMojo.com, I just say thank you and assume there is some grain of sincerity and truth in it, regardless of whether I agree or not.

Brother, if you have made a decent living and done this for years, then more power to you.

I’m not sitting here saying that we’ve discovered the cure for polio either… I just think that (as per my first comment) the amount of coverage web series gets on sites like NTV outsizes its long term potential and does a disservice to creative folks like you and your partner.

Frankly, the same could be said for aggregators (the YouTube clones). For a few years, you read so much on NTV, PaidContent, TechCrunch, etc. about DailyMotion, MetaCafe, Break, Veoh etc. that you thought these would become the bellwethers of the Internet over the next decade. This led more hapless VCs to pour more money in more clones.

Today, ask yourself if any will survive. But judging from the press coverage, you thought Google/MSFT/YHOO had something to worry about.

So my real issue was with the trade press’ misplaced encouragement of creative folks like you to pursue web series when in the end, you’re IMHO wasting your talents. I’m not saying web series don’t have positive traits… but I advise startups and entrepreneurs day in and day out so file this under “assuming you care”.

Ultimately, we’re all fighting the same struggle: we’re trying to prove to marketers that there is more to online video than UGC, pirated content and super premium (TV, Hollywood programming).

Despite what you think, when people ask me for examples of successful web series, I would usually point them your way even if yes, I admit, I would usually see a few seconds of the video and then tune out.

That’s my crime, yes ;)

Ash

ashkan karbasfrooshan

Jules,

I am very biased but you can check out WatchMojo.com to get an idea of what I think is a successful editorial and business strategy. I started the company so yes I am biased, but we have multiple revenue streams and actual paying clients.

I just don’t think that web series stand a chance on hell online, regardless of the quality. Truthfully, I don’t watch a single Web series.

Ultimately:

  • Web series are way too hit or miss (sort of like TV search-for-hits strategy that does not work).

  • Creators tend to create stuff they like (nothing wrong with that, but a business that does not make), and not what will actually get seen, let alone what marketers want.

  • Ultimately, you need to think “what will other media companies pay for?” This is not something that your average Web series will be able to command.

  • Web series seem to rely on branded content, I have news for you: branded content remains a big IF/MAYBE. If that is your business plan, you’re doomed. You need to build a business where the branded content is the icing on the cake, and not the actual cake.

  • Speaking of the marketers, the ones who will underwrite online video tend to want things that can stand alongside TV level stuff, most web series fall short in that regard.

Again, I am not talking about any one web series since I don’t watch any… but I would guess many web users don’t have the attention span to do so either.

You can say that I am biased because of the kind of programming we produce at WatchMojo.com, but I think it’s the other way around: we produce what we produce at WatchMojo.com because of these underlying trends and realities.

Steve Woolf

Ashkan –

We’ve been able to make a good living creating Epic Fu for over two years, as well as make enough to employ 1-5 people during that time.

Entertainment is a personal medium. Not everything will work. Even in the mainstream, 99% of all projects meet a dead end. Of the 1% that actually get made, 99% of those will die a quiet death.

I find it remarkable that you’re able to state your opinions with such conviction when you readily admit you don’t want any web series. What do you watch on TV? At the movies?

I would argue that your “underlying trends and realities” are based on the same personal viewpoint as the shows that you don’t watch. Can you point us to some real data supporting your position?

Mystified,

Steve

Druu

I’m glad the folks at NewTeeVee cover web series’ as much as they do. Sure, web video is chaotic, going a million directions and full of uneven content quality, but it’s the “wild, wild west” and there are soooo many possibilites.

Liz and the rest of you good people, keep doin’ what you’re doin’. :)

jules

Ashkan, would be interested to hear your thoughts on the way forward for Web Video if not ‘series’

ashkan karbasfrooshan

By the way, again, just to stress, I am not familiar with Epic Fu and we obviously want talented and creative content producers to succeed… I just think they’re wasting their time and energy on web series.

ashkan karbasfrooshan

Honestly, web series borrow some of the worst habits, weaknesses and drawbacks of TV and emulate it on the Web, which seem backwards and a waste of resources.

Oddly enough the only people that seem to have botched web series more than new media producers are traditional media companies.

Mark Schoneveld

Thanks for the update, Liz. I’ve been wondering about the Fu. I think parts of this resonate as a defining moment for web video content. Are we in the ‘trough of disillusionment” with indie video shows?

Druu

YES! I must have my Fu!!!

I’ve missed my regular dose of Fu-snickety these past few months and look forward to seeing what Zadi and Steve have in store for us.

Oh, and I read Steve loud and clear when he mentioned format and limiting post-production needs. We’ve been fiddling with some of those same issues at Bite Me TV.

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