A glut of inspiration and investment in online video between 2007 and 2009 spawned both quality companies and shows. But a recession also broke a lot of them. In true throwback spirit, I took a look at some of the web series and companies that were ahead of their time and how others withstood the test of time.
Early online video, especially circa 2008, was more than a mixed bag.
Much like we see today, there was an insurgence of capital and studio / network expansion into online video — HBO had This Just In; NBC had DotComedy; Turner had Super Deluxe; Disney launched Stage9. On the content side, “Quarterlife” started as a simultaneous short-form show broadcasted on Myspace paired with vlogs hosted on quarterlife.com. The latter was designed both as the central location for related, extended commentary and a social network for fans. NBC even picked up the show, attempting to broadcast a season of six hour-long episodes which were canned pretty quickly after the first episode. And even though “Quarterlife” failed on linear television, NBC continued releasing the entire season on Hulu in roughly eight-minute segments until March 2008.
It felt like NBC had learned from their mistakes when news broke that they had begun production on “Gemini Division” in the same month. The sci-fi show was released in August of the same year and featured Rosario Dawson as an undercover NYPD officer in 30 online-only episodes. Show length varied between five and seven minutes and relied heavily on product placement instead of pre-roll ad support — in fact, the show’s strongest critics found this to be the show’s greatest weakness, since it detracted from dialogue and sci-fi imagery. Though originally slated for 50 episodes, the show’s viewership had fizzled out by the 30th episode.
A similar theme occurs with production companies 60Frames and National Banana: both were founded in 2007, but funding ran dry by 2009. The content produced by both has survived on YouTube, though only the latter sold some of its work to TheWB.com and Funny or Die. National Banana specialized in original and political content that currently has over two million views, though that obviously wasn’t enough to guarantee funding. Comparatively, 60Frames had under 12 million views, had raised $3.5 million in investments including money from United Talent Agency where 60Frames CEO Brent Weinstein currently runs the digital division. Despite having created “Don’t Hassle the Hoff” with David Hasselhoff it still wasn’t enough to keep their doors from closing.
But this time frame isn’t a total failure. Safran Digital was founded as a wholly owned subsidiary of The Safran Company in 2008. When cofounder Jake Zim left in 2009, Peter Safran returned his focus to producing films with The Safran Company. Safran Digital may have dissolved, but managed to at least one significant victory in the Xbox-only “Horror Meets Comedy” series where horror directors like one-time Twilight Director David Slade and horror vet James Gunn tried their hands at comedy films. Mania TV also survived on a heavy dose of comedy and celebrity programming. Though it was founded in 2004, the formula that has helped it survive to this day came about when it launched Tom Green’s Internet TV show in 2006 and added more celebrities in 2007. After temporarily folding, Founder Drew Massey bought the brand back from investors in 2009 and the network currently pulls in over 10 million viewers per month.
During online video’s formative years the struggle was obviously huge, but some companies clearly found their niche. One such company is Revision3, which more than survived those early years on the way to a landmark acquisition from Discovery Communications. Later this week, we’ll profile Revision3 (which just launched a new digital network in partnership with Discovery) and examine how it managed to become an online heavyweight, despite odds stacked heavily against them.