Freddie Wong’s series “Video Game High School” is quickly proving that long-form content can attract massive audiences and advertising dollars on the Internet. But are Google’s metrics making it too challenging for various web series to succeed?
After starting as an independent production, Wong’s “VGHS” has lit up YouTube, generating an audience of more than 84 million views in its first two seasons of the 40-minute episodes. The third season of the teen dramedy — set in a world where the coolest high-school kids are intense gamers — has already accumulated 2.5 million views since going live Oct. 13.
Wong and his team shattered the all-time record for crowdfunding of a web series when it took to Indiegogo in February to finance part of the the production of the show, raising almost $900,000 of the $2.5 million budget for the current season of six episodes, one of the highest budgets for a web series to date. Then in April, Wong partnered with Lionsgate on a new multi-year film, television and digital content alliance.
However, Wong is concerned that even in light of his success, a web series is still too difficult to launch. TheWrap talked with Wong and “VGHS” executive producer Dan Weinstein of Collective Digital Studios about the buzz and challenges surrounding the future of series.
TheWrap: How are you influencing other web series that are being produced?
Freddie Wong: I want to see more people push what it means to be a web show … because it’s very difficult to make a living making those types of shows. I think that it’s high time for us to acknowledge that and for platforms to understand and start figuring out ways to finance this type of content because it is being watched. It is what’s familiar and comfortable with an increasingly-growing younger generation of viewers.
Dan Weinstein: I do agree with Freddie. I think there should be more long-form programming. I believe that we’re headed in that direction. But it also requires much more significant investment. The budget for Season 3 of “Video Game High School” was north of $2.5 million dollars. For six, essentially, half hour [shows]. While that’s not necessarily TV budget, it’s definitely significant in this world — for independent content creators, that’s a tall order to invest or risk in making long-form content.
What are your solutions for getting web creators paid for their efforts?
Wong: I think it begins first and foremost with an understanding that view count is a deceptive number and is not the end-all, be-all metric. Granted, it’s one of the only metrics we have, but it’s not what defines quality web video. By that definition, every web series is garbage compared to a video of a Korean man dancing like a horse. Nobody can touch “Gangnam Style” — that has a billion views. Now if we take this kind of advertising mindset, that means we should put all of our money in advertising into dancing music videos and that music video in particular. That doesn’t make any sense. We see this with “Video Game High School,” we see less views on our 40-minute long show, of course, but we see longer engagement and more depth of engagement.
How have Google’s view-count metrics changed the space?
Wong: Deep engagement is much more powerful and valuable than fleeting mass market, engagement. How do you get there? We need a metric that makes sense for that and goes beyond just view count and properly takes into account depth and time of engagement — uninterrupted viewing. I think Google needs to do that; Nielsen could try it. Everyone is trying to figure out a way of doing that metric, but [only] Google … can — they have all the data, from what people are watching and from their devices — they’re the top search engine in the world. On the advertising side, view count is not the most important thing. It’s engagement.
Weinstein: Generally speaking, at least in this medium, cat videos (for lack of a better example) are much more easily shareable, snackable content. There’s not an investment on the end of the user to sit through a half-hour or an hour’s worth of programming. So when you look at something like “Gangnam Style,” that’s two minutes of instant gratification and then a click to share it with all your friends in a post to social media, it has the ability to go more “viral” or have a further reach than something that requires the user to invest a significant amount of time.
What level of support have you gotten from YouTube?
Weinstein: YouTube specifically is supporting this release (“VGHS”) sort of above and beyond anything that they’ve done thus far and treating it more like an event-type program, as a traditional television network would.
They’re spending lots and lots of money in more traditional and online advertising, be it print, outdoor, television — I saw a 30-second spot for “VGHS” on the premiere of “The Walking Dead.” They’re definitely treating it a little bit more like that from a servicing standpoint.
What are the challenges facing long-form creators?
Weinstein: I think that it’s very easy for a lot of people who are web content creators to go for flavor of the week, or very quick, short consumable-style videos. I have no problem with that, of course; that’s how we got our start. But I think that web video as a genre and as a distribution platform can be so much more. I want to see more of these other types of shows. Things that require a little more engagement, that take the time to commit to having good characters and good writing.
How did you experiment with distribution in Season 3?
Wong: The plan this season is we’re releasing for one episode for free every Monday. And then from day one, we will have all episodes available for digital download [$12.99 for all six] on myriad different platforms.
[After an informal audience polling], I was surprised as I was expecting that everyone would want to download Netflix-style all at once, but we found an almost 50/50 split between people who wanted to wait and anticipate and talk about with their friends about each upcoming episode, and people who wanted it all right away.
For us, it’s about experimentation. If it doesn’t work, we scrap it and try something else next time. We’re never married to one idea.