Online video: the cause of, and solution to, all of US TV's problems?

Since I’ve been writing this blog I’ve noticed a recurring theme: while almost everyone in the media and entertainment sectors agrees that the internet represents the future of their industry, no one yet knows how to build a profitable business online.

Whether you’re the head of a music label, a movie studio executive, a TV network boss or the new owner of the Wall Street Journal, you all have the exactly the same problem: how can you sell something online when it’s already available there for free?

That question is at the heart of the industrial action that’s currently bringing American television to a halt. Television networks – represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers – say they won’t pay screenwriters any residuals (royalties) for any of their work that gets shown online, because the networks aren’t making any money from it themselves.

TV writers – represented by the Writers’ Guild of America – argue that the networks may not be making a lot of money from digital content now (although this fact is in itself debatable), but they have every intention of doing so as soon as they figure out how. The writers want to be sure that when the networks do start making serious money from online content, they’ll get their fair share too. Until they get some assurance to that effect, they’ll remain on strike.

With no rapprochement yet in sight, US television programmes are starting to shut down as they run out of scripts. Topical shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are having to run repeats, while production schedules on dramas like Desperate Housewives and 24 have apparently been delayed. If the strike goes on for months – as the last one did in 1988 – the impact on US television scheduling is likely to be severe.

For social media commentators, this is where it gets interesting. If there’s going to be a vacuum in US broadcast television, what’s going to fill it? The top social media bloggers, not surprisingly, think that online video holds the answer. Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine suggests that the TV networks should be trawling the internet for talented amateur videos to fill the gaps in scheduled programming, while Duncan Riley at TechCrunch thinks that more people will start watching online video if there’s nothing new on TV.

But Jarvis and Riley are naive to think that online video can be a like-for-like replacement for professional television programming. A few online-only productions, such as Bebo’s KateModern, have proved their quality by drawing millions of fans. But they’re the exception, rather than the rule. In August, I looked at Where Are The Joneses?, an online-only sitcom created by Steve Coogan’s production company, Baby Cow. Despite its impressive comedy credentials, the show has still rarely garnered more than a thousand viewers per episode.

And even when an online-only show is produced by a major network and stars one of the hottest comedy properties of the moment, it doesn’t mean it will be a roaring success. Clark and Michael, an American web-comedy produced by CBS and starring Arrested Development wunderkind Michael Cera, only counts its viewer figures in the tens of thousands – and that’s across the entire globe.

These shows are the cream of the crop of online video: professional productions employing experienced writers, who would undoubtedly refuse to cross picket lines to fill scheduling gaps created by their striking colleagues, even if the TV networks were to heed Jeff Jarvis’s advice.

The idea of amateur online video – whatever its inherent qualities – being able to replace prime-time TV programming is laudable, but laughable. Broadcast TV and web TV may become interchangeable in the future, but that day hasn’t come yet.

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