How to Create an Internet Hit Using Tricks From TV

Don't count out the importance of the tube in today's online universe. In a guest commentary, Yahoo executive Erin McPherson offers some time-tested guidelines from the veteran medium.

Like the teenager who thinks she knows better than her parents, online culture tends to be more than a little smug with regard to its small-screen predecessor. With audience numbers that can rival and even surpass those of broadcast and cable programming, the Internet is threatening to become the favored primetime medium for a generation of consumers obsessed with the Web's one-click world.

But don't count out the tube just yet. After all, TV has been generating content for more than half a century; it has mastered many aspects of the business that the online universe has yet to grasp. As platforms merge and the consumer experience becomes less differentiated, it seems Papa TV can still teach the Internet a few tricks:

TV builds brands/franchises

TV knows how to build brands that create massive, loyal audiences (think "Survivor," "The Bachelor," "Law & Order"). It then leverages a brand and moves its audience into compatible programming, whether it's a straight spinoff like "The Bachelorette" or a program with a similar tone like "Parks and Recreation" (from the creators of "The Office"). Think of the TV programming grid as a rudimentary recommendations engine, driven by marketing but proven by continuing audience demand.

Original content on the Internet might attract massive audiences, but the Web has yet to establish successful content brands. For example, Yahoo is home to arguably the most-watched original program online -- "Primetime in No Time," a TV wrap-up show that has attracted hundreds of millions of views. But chances are that 99 out of 100 people on the street would have a hard time naming it. Online hits that do establish themselves tend to be one-and-done viral videos with no staying power, such as Funny or Die's "Baby Landlord" short.

Those of us in the Web-only content business need to find a way to build our programming brands around audiences and establish major online franchises, TV style. One way to do this is through old-fashioned marketing, but the conventional Internet "wisdom of the masses" underestimates the power of a good marketing campaign. Although it's true that consumers have more choices than before, the fact remains that an overwhelming number still tune in and log on to tried-and-true brands and content that have been marketed to them aggressively.

In other words, people still need to be shown what they should want to watch.

TV defines its own "hits"

TV understands exactly what success looks like. It built a ratings system (Nielsen) and a rhythm of business (the TCAs, upfronts, sweeps week) to further measure and define success for viewers and advertisers. When ratings themselves aren't enough, the industry bestows awards to buffer programming with critical acclaim -- think of what the Emmys have done for "Mad Men."

As a medium that has been underwritten by advertisers since the beginning, the TV industry grasps the importance of setting benchmarks and controlling the conversation. By defining what a hit looks like on TV, networks set expectations with advertisers. When "Modern Family" became the breakout hit of last season, marketers knew they would have to pay more to place ads against it this season. Similarly, when CBS wins the ratings title, it knows that the rates for its new programs will be more valuable to advertisers.

The debate over what constitutes a successful original series has gone on for years in the online world, and we have yet to solve the problem. Every online publisher and content creator has a different measurement for success -- hits, page views, unique visitors -- so how do we identify a hit when everyone defines it differently?

The Web needs to set benchmarks to control the conversation. Is success viral? What about a long-standing series with moderate traffic, or a series like "In the Motherhood" that migrates to TV? Or is it all of the above? And how do we set the standards for the advertising community, which now reaps the benefits of a fragmented market?

As long as Web definitions of success are arbitrary and inconsistent, true revenue growth and the innovation that accompanies it will be scarce.

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TV sticks with what works (sometimes to a fault)

One only needs to look at "CSI," "Law & Order" or the career of William Shatner to recognize that in TV land, formulas work. This can have disastrous results; the demise of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" when played four nights a week in primetime is a good example. But formulas enable TV to innovate gradually by introducing audiences to new programming slowly.

The Internet, on the other hand, tends to favor the new over the tried and true, valuing "disruptive" technologies and novelty. Where content is concerned, it often is wise to stick with what works, and the Internet should take some pointers from the "formulaic" programming habits of television. Funny or Die is one of the best examples of a brand that sticks with what works by staying close to a core team of comedians and a certain tone and style. In fact, Zach Galifianakis' mock talk show "Between Two Ferns" has gone from cult status to bona fide marketing tool, with DreamWorks recently distributing his interview with Steve Carell in connection with the campaign for Carell's recent release "Dinner for Schmucks."

Sometimes you have to go with your gut

We know more about the habits of the Internet audience than any medium in the history of media, and this scientific approach certainly has its advantages. But one thing TV executives are good at is following their instincts, even when the going gets tough.

We all have heard the lore around such hits as "Seinfeld," "30 Rock" and "Lost," shows that never would have become hits without the staunch support of courageous execs. I'm not suggesting that we should throw the data and insights out the window, but the business of content always has been a little bit science and a lot of luck (or good instincts). Some of these instincts, and the patience to see them through, could help us build the original content brands we are lacking.

In TV, failure is not optional -- it's mandatory

For every story about the exec who fought to keep "Seinfeld" on the air, there are 10 stories about the bombs that never made it past the first season. The fact that TV depends on advertising makes the equation simple: retain audience share or die.

Similarly, original Internet content is underwritten largely by the advertising community, and that can make experimentation difficult. But to innovate successfully, we must fail, especially as this type of content remains in its nascent form. Like setting metrics for success with the advertising community, we must better prepare advertisers -- and consumers -- to be comfortable with and even to expect failure, without having it mean that the industry itself is in question.

Erin McPherson is vp and head of originals & video programming at Yahoo. She can be reached at elm@yahoo-Inc.com.

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