• Can Advertising Alone Support Premium Long-Form Online Video?

    This was the question I started our VideoSchmooze panel discussion off with this past Tuesday night. Yet 20 minutes of debate among our group of panelists yielded no real answers. This lack of consensus suggests an upcoming period of high anxiety in the industry: for even as viewers shift to online consumption, it is far from clear whether advertising alone will be sufficient to support the creative infrastructure needed to produce premium long-form video.

    I continue to believe that broadcast TV networks are the companies most at risk from the unknowns around online video advertising. Lacking the additional revenue stream from distributors that their cable TV network brethren enjoy, broadcast networks must figure out how to make online video advertising work.

    However, as I originally wrote over a year ago, and then again here, the fundamental problem the broadcast networks face with their current online implementations is that ad revenue per viewer per program is a fraction of what it is on-air (likely less than 25% by my calculations). In my mind, getting the two into balance is the minimum requirement for the networks to keep their top lines even with where they are today, assuming online viewership substitutes for on-air, as I expect it will over time.

    As our panel explained though, the constraints to achieving this parity are significant. First is the issue of just how many ads can be inserted into an online episode. Today sites like Hulu, with their very light ad loads bias significantly in favor of the consumer experience rather than revenue optimization (for more on this see Chuck Salter's fine new article, "Can Hulu Save Traditional TV?" in this month's Fast Company). Just how many ads can be forced into an online episode given the DVR ad-skipping generation's expectations is an unknown. For sure it is fewer than the 16-18 minutes in a traditional one hour on-air program.

    So if the quantity of ads must be lower, then each one needs to bring a higher price than their on-air counterparts. The traditional "CPM" metric (the cost per thousand viewers reached) is well-entrenched among ad agency media buyers. On the VideoSchmooze panel, George Kliavkoff, now a Hearst executive, but formerly the chief digital officer at NBCU and the first CEO of Hulu, lamented the CPM framework for online video advertising. He threw down the gauntlet, saying essentially that the whole broadband video industry is in for big trouble if it doesn't break out of selling ads on a CPM basis.

    George's point was that it's foolish for a new medium like broadband, which offers content providers new technology-based ways to create value for advertisers, to allow itself to get locked in to the monetization techniques from the prior TV medium. That rationale is compelling enough, but for me another strong reason to get beyond CPM pricing is that not doing so means that media buyers will always be presented with a fundamental question: is it worth paying a 25%/50%/100% (take your pick) premium to reach online vs. on-air eyeballs watching the exact same show? This raises the bar for online ads; the research must show demonstrably higher engagement, recall, purchase intent, etc. to justify the premium. All of this may happen due to online's improved targeting, but even if it does, it won't happen overnight and the upside is likely not that large anyway.

    If CPM-based pricing is challenged, then what's better? On the panel we discussed examples of interactive ads that can be quantifiably valued, such as by generating a specific lead or purchase for the advertiser, along with other formats. Of course these ideas have been floating around the TV world for years, but have gained little traction (although it is worth noting that in online, paid search marketing is a pure performance ad format that has worked spectacularly well). As several attendees remarked to me afterward though, these new ad formats face the additional challenge of needing to conform to ad agencies' buying processes, which are research-driven, dominated by younger staffers and not well-suited to understanding innovative ad formats.

    Add it all up and significant questions remain about whether advertising alone is going to be able to support premium long-form online video and the creative infrastructure that produces it. Just as newspapers are struggling today to support traditional newsroom expenses on skimpier online ad revenues, broadcast networks accustomed to spending $2 million or more for a single episode of a scripted program could face a similar day of reckoning. This is the core issue, made all the more urgent by viewers' relentless shift to online consumption. Only time will tell whether there are any satisfactory answers to be had here.

    What do you think? Post a comment now.