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Internet television is where cable was in early days, says Conde Nast Entertainment chief

Internet television is where cable was in early days, says Conde Nast Entertainment chief


Dawn Ostroff has seen this one before

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ecosystems dawn ostroff
ecosystems dawn ostroff

There’s already an endless amount of video entertainment available online, so it’s a bit weird to think that the era of internet television is just beginning. And yet it’s true – studios are still figuring out what to make, viewers are figuring out where to find it, and advertisers are calculating how much to pay for it.

The messy, developing world of online video entertainment reminds Dawn Ostroff of the stuff that was being made for cable television starting in the 1970s. Ostroff is the head of Conde Nast’s new Entertainment Group, the premium publisher’s exploratory foray into digital TV and other watchable diversions, which will be based off the articles published by its magazines including The New Yorker and Wired.

Ostroff declined to talk about Conde Nast Entertainment, which spent its first year hiring an executive team and has yet to produce any programming. But she was happy to talk about television and the internet in general. “The way in which we watch TV is changing,” she told The Verge. “The growth is definitely going to be in the digital space.”

A hodgepodge of broadcast reruns, weird webisodes, low-fi dramas, aggregation-based newscasts

Few would disagree with that. But what will internet TV look like? Right now, it’s is a hodgepodge of broadcast reruns, weird webisodes, low-fi dramas, aggregation-based newscasts, and the occasional polished mini-documentary from, say, The New York Times.

Internet-only TV is shorter, lower-budget, and less ambitious than the programming designed for the screens in our living rooms, Ostroff told The Verge.

She’s a fan of WIGS, a YouTube channel that runs scripted dramas that appeal to women, and AwesomenessTV, another YouTube channel which appeals to teens through pop culture, music, and original scripted shows. They have more than 17 million and 43 million views respectively, but the quality of the shows is still noticeably lower than made-for-TV fare.

“The content right now that you see is very reminiscent of what you saw in the early days of cable,” Ostroff said.

Back then, no one was quite sure what to put on cable’s three-dozen channels. There was a channel that streamed the text from Associated Press news articles, set to music. A few startup studios in small towns decided to produce their own original soap operas, staged on homemade sets. “Narrow-casting,” the practice of targeting niche audiences, led to efforts like The Babysitting Channel, which ran programs for babysitters to plop their charges in front of.

Much of what you find online today is similar to the early experiments in cable TV. Universities were broadcasting classes, cities were streaming 24-hour traffic cameras, and there were promises of creepy micro-targeting – the TelePrompTer Corporation was touting a technology that would allow advertisers to target all the doctors in a community, for example, without interrupting the normal signal. There was even speculation that cable TV would become a two-way system that would enable people to take music classes and talk to their secretaries from home.

Eventually, cable became synonymous with high-budget shows, niche channels, sex and swear words, and the unchecked depravity of TLC’s increasingly debased reality shows.

It’s hard to predict what type of video will eventually win out online. Like the original made-for-cable experiments, much of the made-for-internet TV will fade away if it fails to attract ad dollars and eyeballs in the increasingly competitive market.

Spending on online video advertising is projected to go from $3 billion to $9 billion in 2017

Spending on online video advertising is projected to go from $3 billion to $9 billion in 2017, according to predictions by research firm Forrester, providing new funding for shows. Therefore, the quality gap between made-for-TV and made-for-internet is narrowing. “I think ultimately, you will see a lot of this digital content become full-length content,” Ostroff said. “It’s going to stay short for a while, but I think the production quality is going to get better.”

Still, made-for-TV shows like The Daily Show seem to hold the widest appeal among viewers seeking something longer than a cat video. Broadcasters who air their shows online for free the next day are able to get ad rates similar to what they get on television, while most made-for-internet shows still have to struggle to even get in front of advertisers. “You have to know how to monetize it,” Ostroff said. “A lot of it’s going to be about scale. You can’t get scale in this digital space yet.”

In the end, online TV may end up looking a lot like cable and broadcast TV. “There will be more focus on more niche shows in order to carve up the audience even further, but I think there will continue to need to be big events,” Ostroff said. “You’re never going to be able to get a big audience, a wide audience, by doing niche content.” At least the arrival of newbies like Conde Nast, The Huffington Post, and oddballs like the Gregory Brothers (Autotune the News) is bound to make things interesting.

Explore the ecosystems

This week we're taking a close look at the future of TV and the living room — the great unclaimed space of the technology world. Check back each day for a close look at all the major players, along with a full range of interviews with industry players and reports on everything from the state of remote controls to the future of gaming. Tune in all week for the rest. Here’s a sampling:

Google, Microsoft, Aereo, Boxee CEO Avner Ronen
Wednesday: Amazon, Sony, live sports, TV apps, Condé Nast’s Dawn Ostroff, NBC's Vivian Schiller
Thursday: Apple, the state of remotes, Vizio CTO Matt McRae
Friday: Independents, New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum, Valve