Blog Post

The NYT, NBC Universal Digital and Questions We Wish We Could Ask

Stuart Elliott, who’s been the advertising columnist at The New York Times since 1991, recently wrote a piece entitled “Shows Online, Brought to You by …”. In it, he discusses a couple of upcoming web series that have partnered with advertisers excited about this emerging platform for reaching audiences.

Unfortunately, while Elliott looks to a rosy future of series featuring Jennie Garth and Candace Bushnell, he also alleges that: “Almost all such Web series are being created specifically for advertisers, borrowing a strategy from the early days of radio and television.” But branded advertising is only one path towards financing web content — we see non-branded productions like FearNET’s recent Fear Clinic and even Joss Whedon’s seminal Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog quite often, making that “almost all” more than a bit of an overstatement. Elliott’s focus isn’t on the content, however, but on the advertisers that are sponsoring a good number of web series — and they offer up some encouraging comments.

It’s great to know that execs at places like Clorox and Maybelline have real esteem for this new way to engage with viewers besides just “running 30-second commercials that interrupt episodes of conventional TV series” (another quote from the piece). And it’s also great that Cameron Death, VP of digital content at NBC Universal, believes strongly in preserving NBC’s brand as well as the brands of advertisers who partner with NBC Universal Digital.

Death (it’s pronounced Deeth) says that if a web series is too promotional, he “can’t put the peacock logo on [it].” What’s a shame is that we never learn exactly where that promotional line is drawn, as it’s an important question when it comes to some of NBC’s recent productions. In Gemini Division‘s first episode, for example, the opening shot practically frames the ensuing action as a narrative-heavy advertisement for Windows Mobile. And in Ctrl, when Tony Hale accidentally spills sponsor beverage Nestea into his keyboard, that keyboard is given magical powers. These aren’t egregious examples of product placement by any means, but they’re also fairly obvious. I would have liked to know how the company distinguishes between acceptable and unacceptable levels of “huckstering.” I think a lot of people would have liked to know that.

Essentially, this Times piece tries to present the web series world to an audience that might not be familiar with it, which is fine. But the problem is that it tries to present it as a viable solution for advertisers, a medium that Elliott states “seems to be thriving” — at least in the case of NBC Universal Digital — but with no solid evidence to support said claim beyond the suggestion that because lots of web series are currently being made, said web series are profitable investments for those involved.

What the piece seems afraid to do is admit that there are no concrete answers, no easy solutions — that everyone currently working in this space is doing so without a perfect understanding of how this medium works, how advertising should work with it, and how it will manage to be sustainable in the future. Everyone is working hard to figure it out — that’s the interesting story here, the one we at NewTeeVee have enjoyed chasing.