Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

Striking Out on Creating an Internet Hit

So when, if ever, will there be a truly bona fide Internet hit?

And please, pretty please, it just can’t be “lonelygirl15” (pictured below) and some clever music videos.


The lack of lasting and profitable professional content online is once again in sharp relief with the writers’ strike now taking place in Hollywood.

In a Wall Street Journal piece yesterday on the struggle between the Writers Guild of America and entertainment studios, Ken Hertz, a Los Angeles lawyer who has worked on digital music issues, made an interesting observation:

If anything, the strike could create an opportunity for the online world to step up and prove its value to the guild. A strike could in a strange way damage the studios by creating online competitors who come forward to offer the union writers a new model that no one would have otherwise had the time or effort to conceive of.”

If only.

Because, while the main point of contention between the two sides is how to split future revenues from digital distribution, I am not sure exactly when it will become more than the middling revenue (and not much income) online content generates today, which is more like splitting up a tip jar at Starbucks than raking in big bags of dough from some Hollywood blockbuster.

That is likely to remain true for a while, given that consumers still are not used to paying anything much for what is considered entertainment on the Internet today (which is largely user-generated content) and that there is still a major piracy problem when it comes to premium stuff.

What’s considered a hit? “Lonelygirl15” on MySpace TV? Its creators, who also produce the “KateModern” online serial for Bebo, put out a press release this week noting “more than 70 million views for the original hit show, ‘lonelygirl15,’ and the spinoff ‘KateModern’ reaching over 15 million views in its first two months online.”

Not bad, and its attempts to integrate brands into the plot are well and good, if annoying, such as when “Johnson & Johnson’s Neutrogena became a brand integration with a character–Dr. Spencer Gilman, a scientist from the company–was featured across two months of programming.”

There are scads of such projects now in production in Hollywood, all trying to recreate the kind of programming that made television a lucrative industry way back when.

But, so far, these are still baby steps, as are all attempts so far in getting a true payoff from online video, despite new ad paradigms from YouTube and others.

Also interesting are new online video sites like Hulu.com from NBC Universal and News Corp., as well as Joost from the creators of Skype.

But their efforts still fall well short of a system in which consumers can truly manipulate and control their content anytime, any place and from any device.

And even real offline hits don’t cut it yet–NBCU’s Jeff Zucker complained in his recent goofy attack on Apple’s iTunes that the company only generated $15 million in revenue for its video fare on iTunes in its last year, including for its wildly popular series “Heroes” (which we certainly forked over cash money for!).

So what to do? I guess exactly what the writers are doing–banking on the hope that Hollywood will eventually get it right when it comes to digital distribution and asking for their fair share when it does.

Writers, quite reasonably, want to be paid more as their work moves online–to the Web, cellphones and anywhere else that gadgets send content in the future.

It’s an especially pointed desire, given that they were essentially shafted in the last digital transformation when DVDs and videocassettes appeared.

As John Aboud, who is a strike captain for WGA, noted in a comment to my post last week on the strike, that even with all the money Hollywood has made, most writers are not well paid (although those at the tippy-top are copiously compensated).

“Median earnings of all members of the Writers Guild is only $5,000,” he wrote. “How can that be? About 48% of members do not earn any money from writing in a given year. Of those writers who do make some money, one quarter earn less than $37,700 a year.”


Still, he is entirely correct when he also added: “The distribution of entertainment over the Internet is not the future, it’s NOW. If the producers succeed in gutting our right to compensation for digital reuse and delivery, that is income that’s gone forever.”