As host of “Primetime in No Time,” a daily, three-minute romp on Yahoo.com that features clips from the previous night’s primetime network shows, Frank Nicotero may be the world’s best-known comedian.
The show has recorded nearly 150 million streams since its debut a year ago, which not only makes him one of the web’s superstars but also gives Yahoo a show that peeks above a sea of professionally produced mediocrity, past and present.
“It’s a reflection of how we are consuming content,’’ said Sibyl Goldman, general manager of Yahoo! Entertainment in Santa Monica. “It provides all the immediacy for being well-versed in popular culture.’’
Why Frank — a wise-cracking standup comic a certain degree less handsome than Hugh Jackman? For one thing, his zingers are funny. For another, he allows viewers who have neither time nor patience for network primetime to get highlights in one gulp.
Perhaps the biggest factor: Frank has benefit of Big Daddy Yahoo, whose top-rated sites of aggregated news, sports and finance link to him.
Fueled by links on Yahoo’s main page occasionally and the entertainment page regularly, five of his shows have generated 4 million streams or more, led by 5.5 million on July 2 last year, nearly half the audience NBC got for winning the 9-11 time slots the night before.
Last month, he drew 4.8 million the day after the first 2009 episode of “American Idol” and 4.7 million two days earlier, following the Golden Globes.
In these early stages of professionally produced web-entertainment shows, the Yahoo link has proven to be a huge advantage as measured against web-based shows with more targeted audiences, like Aston Kutcher’s “Blah Girls,” an animated site for celebrity gossip, or Next New Networks’ “Pulp Secret,” billed as “the world’s first network dedicated to comic books, news and culture.”
The difference suggests that the current evolutionary phase of web television mirrors television of more than 20 years ago, when cable channels struggled to narrow the dominant reach of the major networks. Even now, while a flattening out is under way, parity remains a ways off.
For now, star brands on the web like Yahoo, Google, AOL and the New York Times draw the biggest audiences and provide a boost to sites linked to them. Thus, an Average Joe like Nicotero, whose show is sponsored by Verizon, can achieve a status he says now he never knew possible.
More narrowly focused websites, like “Scam School” on revision3.com (magicians tricking friends into buying drinks) face higher hurdles in the chicken-or-egg challenge of finding audience and advertisers.
“Yahoo’s home page has 30 million uniques a day, so traffic turns on like a spigot,’’ said Jim Moloshok, executive chairman of Betawave, a digital media company aimed at those aged 6 to 17, and mothers.
“There’s a value of big names attached,’’ said Ryan Barlow, director of distribution and marketing for Michael Eisner’s Tornante Co.
As one example, Barlow cited “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,’’ a three-episode musical last year from Joss Whedon starring Neil Patrick Harris that achieved a cult-like following because of Whedon’s work on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly.”
But the big name can also be a portal, as Tornante found with two of its original productions, the daily 90-second episodes of “Prom Queen” on MySpace and the twice-weekly “Back on Topps” show on Fox Sports.
“Going forward, I’d love to see us work closer with the Yahoos of the world,” Barlow said.
Yahoo has certainly made a difference for Nicotero, and vice versa, in a way: Most of the recent news involving Yahoo has been bad: The decision to fend off a takeover by Microsoft, a plummeting stock price, fourth quarter losses of $300 million, the shedding of 1,600 jobs, about 10 percent of the company workforce.
Carol Bartz, former president and CEO of Autodesk, a software design company, was named CEO last month, replacing founder Jerry Yang, the leading resister to Microsoft’s bid.
Goldman makes the case for Frank’s show by citing award shows, like the Oscars, that play to smaller audiences than in years past. The 2008 Oscars played to an average 32 million viewers, the least-watched since ratings started; this month’s show improved slightly. She wondered whether people really care about best sound and lifetime achievement awards. Or even how much “American Idol” people really need to see to hold their own on the water-cooler circuit?
“There are 400 channels out there, and there’s always something goofy happening,” Goldman said. “It’s likely you’re not going to see the craziest thing that happened.”
With Frank, you don’t have to.
A standup comedian from Pittsburgh and former host of a syndicated game show, “Street Smarts,’’ Frank got the Yahoo gig through a “casting call” – they looked at a bunch of comedians to promote, before landing on him. Now he watches and records the east coast feeds of primetime shows each night, Sunday through Thursday. Then, as he chooses what moments to parody, Yahoo producers boil it all down to match a script Frank delivers from a living room-like setting.
Nobody is more surprised by his success than Frank, who’s now bumping into viewers who say they recognized him.
“Even when I got this job last year, I thought it was a step backward for me,’’ he said. “I never thought it would become anything like this. It just blows my mind.”