Online, Shorter Broadcasts Are Better

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Although big networks and Hollywood studios are quickly moving into online entertainment, the Web differs dramatically from traditional media as an entertainment vehicle.

One of the biggest differences is the audience. Although the Web is quickly becoming a mass medium,we find many niche groups instead of large demographic and psychographic groupings.

Want a channel dedicated to pink poodles? You got it. As Web audiences mature along with the content, they will not be satisfied with vanilla programming designed to target the broadest demographic possible. Web audiences want entertainment tailor-made for their sensibilities, whatever those may be.

People who access entertainment on the Web have different viewing habits than television viewers. Rather than seeking out streaming versions of 22-minute TV shows or feature films, viewers look for short-form entertainment, just like reading a daily dose of comics in the newspaper.

A recent study by the e-business unit of the Cap Gemini Group and Honkworm International found that the majority of respondents watch entertainment content that is one to three minutes long, and that this trend will continue. The study also found that despite the interest in short-form content, the majority of people encounter such programming by random searching. This implies that the audience is fragmented and not yet mature enough to generate a lot of repeat traffic.

A variety of factors influence viewers' preference for short Webisodes. For example, the entertainment accessed on a computer will likely be competing for the viewer's attention with other applications he is working on in multiple windows.

Content may be viewed at work during a coffee break or between long tasks. Current bandwidth and CPU constraints limit the frame rate and window size of our entertainment experience, though these limits are quickly falling away. And for now, we usually sit at a desk when being entertained on a computer. We're not likely to nestle up to the monitor with a bowl of popcorn as we do with television.

Because of this viewing environment, the methods of storytelling need to be different from television. Animation (particularly using Macromedia's Flash) capitalizes well on the small window size and low connection speeds. Even traditional methods of animation such as stop motion are finding new and bigger audiences on the Web.

Simply repurposing entertainment from television does not translate well. Zooms and pans become choppy. Long, wide shots focused on a character reduce the character's expressive range to a few pixels. If instead, content is created to take advantage of a smaller window size and the short form, a new and more successful narrative grammar is developed.

The driving need is to bring visitors to Web sites and then get them to return. If viewers can have a short, fun experience, they will return every week or every day to see what happens next and how the characters develop. Since audiences are still discovering where these sites are and what they like to watch, it's important that each episode is self-contained to accommodate the casual Web surfer.

One of the more compelling models evolving is that of sponsorship and syndication of Web entertainment. Advertising sponsors want to associate their brand with content that speaks to their target audience. They can do this by sponsoring Webisodes on a portal site such as Yahoo or Excite.

This is similar to the sponsorship models of early radio and television shows where an advertiser would sponsor a whole show. We also see in-stream ads at the beginning and end of Web shows, a trend which will only increase.

Although the convergence of television and the Web will happen, for now Web entertainment is driven by hundreds of thousands of content producers, small and large, creating entertainment that brings in and develops new audiences.

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