This week, New York City is abuzz with the "NewFronts" — the online video version of the Upfronts that cable and network stations host each year to introduce their new show lineups. NewFronts may be a gimmicky name to look hip and paradigm-busting. But online TV doesn't just mean reproducing cable TV. It means bringing the audience in as co-creators, said Ze Frank, an early star of video-blogging who now heads up video production for BuzzFeed.
"I think there's still this wish or hope that this [traditional TV] broadcast pipeline will emerge, but in a different space, that control of eyeballs at a particular destination or through a particular piece of hardware is going to emerge," said Frank. "And I…don't think that's true at all."
When it comes to online shows, many people look to "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black" on Netflix, even comparing the streaming service to HBO. And people are now talking the same way about shows like the Chis Carter apocalyptic drama "The After," coming to Amazon. These shows demonstrate that Internet video can be as good as cable, in part by being just like it.
So it's curious that this week's celebration of online TV launched its first day (Apr. 28) with BuzzFeed, a website known for its silly listicles and videos about cats and boobs. But lately, BuzzFeed is producing a trove of videos about science, history, how people navigate in relationships and how they deal with their self-image (along with more cats and boobs).
One video shows ordinary women going through a professional photoshoot and Photoshopping, then reacting to how it makes them look. (The consensus: They'd rather look natural.) Another depicts the average human lifespan as a giant pile of jellybeans, one for each day. Artists then divide the pile into smaller piles representing working or sleeping or eating, to show what makes up the bulk of our lives and what time we have left for fun and relationships.
This is neither the typical silly viral video (i.e. what you would expect on BuzzFeed), nor the TV show wannabees that win praise, like Netflix's or often flop, like Yahoo's. Most of all, it's short and shareable. You can't email a link to an hourlong drama and expect a friend to watch it at work.
BuzzFeed's founder and CEO Jonah Peretti also said that more than half of the site's (or is it network's?) video is watched on mobile devices. That's also something you probably can't do with an hourlong drama — especially on a smartphone data plan.
For Frank, it's not so much about the kind of content he offers for people to share, but whether it's clear what they are sharing. "The second that narrative fiction gets too complex…you can see that it becomes harder to talk about what exactly you are conveying to some one else [when you share it]," said Frank.
Short-form video also evolves quickly, which lets it respond to what viewers like and dislike. Frank said that a staffer often produces two videos per week, as part of the up to 30 videos the site puts up in a week. That allows BuzzFeed to try out ideas fast. "You don't pitch up for greenlights [permission to make a show]. You don't pitch series, said Frank. "You try them. And if they work, you try them again," he said. "And if they work, you try them a third time, and then we can talk about getting a series going." If viewers like a show and share it, the show keeps getting made.
So online video holds the promise of being what you really want to watch, not what network execs hope you will. That could be the biggest difference between online and cable TV — not the price or the binge-watching, but the fact that it evolves right in front of you. The more you share a certain kind of show, the more the network will make of it.