Why Doesn’t Web Video Like the “C Word”?

Julia Allison, Meghan Asha and Mary Ramblin. Photo from the TMI Weekly blog.

It’s a quiet afternoon when my phone rings with an unknown number. I don’t get a lot of phone calls from unknown numbers, especially from people who have been the focus of both the New York Times and fierce reblogging sites, so it’s a bit surprising to discover that Julia Allison is on the line.
Allison was calling me because about half an hour earlier, I had emailed her about TMI Weekly, the show she co-hosted and produced for Next New Networks starting in the fall of 2008 — and I had used the word “cancellation” in doing so. So, before getting down to my real questions about the current state of the show, whose one-year contract was not renewed due to a mutual decision between the TMI team and NNN, we went back and forth briefly over whether or not the word is applicable.
The debate over using “the C word” didn’t surprise me. It’s not a pretty word, cancellation, so it’s not surprising that we tend to avoid it. In fact, as a community in general, we talk a lot more about the shows that are beginning than we do about the shows that are about to end. Which makes sense — for one thing, a lot of shows (especially scripted ones) have limited resources, and season finales are all-too-often series finales. For another, many creators and companies who are in the business of creating ongoing brands are still figuring out what this medium is capable of, and are constantly reinventing themselves and their projects.
Ryan Vance, Vice President of Programming and Production of Revision3, doesn’t like the word cancellation. “We don’t use it,” he said via phone, “though I’m not sure why.” He tries to exercise patience with the network’s programming, though a decision to end a show depends on how many resources it uses. “The more money you’re spending, the more pressure there is to do well right away.” According to him, however, most shows have a slow and steady rise, and so low-cost programming has a better chance of finding its audience.
One interesting element of Rev3’s philosophy is that even after they end production on a show, they keep those produced episodes online — in part because there’s an audience for the content, and also because they’re able to sell advertising on it. “It’s not a ton of money — our bread and butter is integrated advertising — but if someone wants to watch it, we can make a little money from it,” Vance said.
DECA CEO Michael Wayne, meanwhile, takes a different approach, as DECA removes its shows from the Internet following their cancellation. The reason for that, though, is the same reason they also don’t use the word “cancel”: for DECA, according to Wayne, a show isn’t just a show — it’s a brand and a standalone business.
So in considering whether or not to continue making a show like the now-defunct Bush League TV, “We look at it as: ‘Is this business heading into profitability or not?'” If it isn’t, they shut it down. “When you shut down a brand and you don’t take it offline, it can look bad, and that inevitably doesn’t reflect well on the company,” he said.
Of course, DECA’s focus has also changed dramatically over the last few years, as they’ve started almost exclusively targeting women over 25 with shows like Momversation and Good Bite, which partner nicely with brands. They only got to that place, though, after experiments like Bush League. “At the end of the day, you have to take risks, and you’re never going to be successful 100 percent of the time,” Wayne said.
For NNN, the philosophy is that “You put it up there, it works, you keep doing it. It doesn’t work, you don’t keep doing it,” according to VP of Programming Kathleen Grace. (Next New, like Rev3, keeps now-concluded series online as well.) But their philosophy also makes room for strong talent relationships. Just one recent example: Key of Awesome creator Mark Douglas created two or three other “cancelled” shows before finding success with his new parody series, and February was the best month yet for NNN’s traffic. The top video for the month was a Ke$ha parody created by him.
Meanwhile, NNN’s The Reel Good Show, featuring Jimmy Fallon nemesis Bobby Miller, ended last week — Miller, an established member of the Indy Mogul talent pool, is now promoting his short film Tub, which premiered at Sundance and will also be shown at the Slamdance Film Fest. And TMI co-host Mary Rambin, following the end of the series, is currently starring in the NNN series Life Experiment.
“When you’re a media company, you always have shows that come and go,” Next New co-founder Tim Shey remarked via phone when we initially talked about TMI‘s end back in December. “But it’s a very forgiving medium. You don’t have to think about cancellation in way TV does.” The catch of this is that these decisions are made quietly; currently there is nothing on TMIWeekly.com to indicate that the show is no longer in production, a situation not uncommon to most other shows. This has the benefit of allowing the show, on the surface, to still look active and interesting to new viewers. But I imagine that anyone who might actually have been following the show would have appreciated a farewell message of some sort.
If I were a producer of web video, I’d get two words tattooed on my body: adaptable and sustainable. So many shows have a short shelf life, but that’s no way to build and keep an audience — it’s the people who are in things for the long haul who, you know, stick around that long. However, it’s important to not be afraid of the “C word,” whether it stand for change or closure.
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