digital reporter

Net's amateur hour lasted about that long

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of user-generated content as a phenomenon.

There was a time not that long ago when UGC seemed poised to topple Hollywood, as if anyone with a video camera and a Web connection was deemed a budding Steven Spielberg. But ask yourself this: When was the last time an amateur viral video actually reached viral status?

Remember Lonelygirl15, the Diet Coke and Mentos Experiments and Ask a Ninja? It's not easy to forget the Web darlings of yesteryear because few homemade videos have taken their place. Although the soda has long fizzled from those carbonated geysers, these videos still are regarded as the standard bearers for UGC, which is telling.

This past week, there were a few developments that amounted to multiple nails being pounded into UGC's coffin.

Look at the fate of such leading viral outposts as Break.com, which Lionsgate took an unspecified stake in July 11, or Grouper, which Sony Corp. acquired and rebranded this week as Crackle with a new arm for in-house original content creation. These sites saw their financial future in strapping on the feedbag of professional studio product, not the free buffet that is UGC.

Or look at the July 12 launch of 60Frames Entertainment, a venture dedicated to linking professional content creators with online opportunities linked to advertising and syndication. Its new CEO is Brett Weinstein, the former digital chief at UTA, where he made his mark scouring the Internet for new talent, even setting up a channel on Veoh Networks for just that purpose. The fruits of those efforts have yet to be made apparent.

Now that the bloom is off the rose of amateur online video, what might have struck millions as a novelty last year doesn't feel as fresh anymore. Videos that once commanded the attention of thousands or millions likely will just be sampled by hundreds.

The main reason the UGC boom went bust so quickly is that advertisers never embraced it. Few brands are going to associate their products with one-off sensations in the Wild West of the Internet.

Ask yourself what was the most viral online video that graced your monitor in past months? The only candidate that comes to mind is "The Landlord," Will Ferrell's hilarious foray into online video via new site FunnyOrDie.com. "Landlord" couldn't offer a bigger example of how the tide has turned away from the amateurs to the same forces that dominate film and television.

On a volume basis, UGC might well outnumber its professional counterpart. But while more people are consuming online video — three out of four Internet users did so in May, according to new data from comScore Video Metrix — they likely are consuming infinitely more videos as opposed to gravitating to a select few.

What we didn't understand about UGC is that it usually isn't entertainment but communication. The average Joe isn't trying to outdo JibJab; he simply is expressing himself to his friends via video.

The paucity of Internet-bred hits has taught us something obvious: Talent isn't as pervasive as it might seem. Although so-called new-media experts fell in love with the notion that the Hollywood elite would have the playing field leveled by the consumers they so poorly serve, that hasn't happened.

In retrospect, 2006 feels less like a changing of the guard and more like a brief moment when Hollywood and Madison Avenue were caught flat-footed by the opportunities for Internet distribution and regular folks stepped into the vacuum. But a year later, UGC has slunk back to obscurity. It hasn't left the Internet, but it isn't as popular as it was when it had the playground to itself.
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