Online Video Is What We'll Watch

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Between Yahoo’s renewal of five online video series last week, Hearst’s plan to create two online video channels this week and the “Digital Content New Fronts” ad sales pitches starting next week, April’s array of activities underscore the emergence and immense validation of broadband video.

Let’s also include the announcement late last month that IFC (AMC Networks’ Independent Film Channel) will carry the long-anticipated next arc of R. Kelly’s “hip hopera” “Trapped in the Closet” music drama, which was originally a made-for-Web video series. Inevitably, the cult webisodes will be available online and trigger reviewing of the original 22 chilling chapters.

And I haven’t even mentioned the Google/YouTube $100 million original video juggernaut, which is just coming to screen. Add in the data from the Arbitron/Edison Research “Infinite Dial 2012″ study, which came out on Tuesday and you have an avalanche of evidence that broadband video’s day has arrived.

Hearst’s announcement is in ways the most revealing since it marks an effort by a strong media company to extend its demographic magazine franchises into the digital landscape. Hearst will launch two YouTube channels (with $10 million of Google funding); basically it will bundle female and male content clusters (sorry to sound sexist, but that’s what it looks like). The former will become “Hello Style” channel, with content drawn from five of Hearst’s titles, including Cosmopolitan, Harpers Bazaar and Marie Clair; it will debut on April 15. The “Car and Driver” channel, which will show up on May 1, includes content from Hearst’s auto-focused titles.

Look at this as a late - but very aggressive - effort (underwritten by Google) to avoid what happened to Sports Illustrated 30 years ago. Why didn’t Time Inc., already immersed in cable TV and programming, extend its legendary “Sports Illustrated” brand into a full-time cable sports channel, rather than cede that big niche to start-up ESPN? Hearst, like other publishers, is staking its video claim now and will exploit its brands.

Meanwhile, Yahoo Screen  - which has often been overlooked as Google/YouTube escalates its visibility - has also beefed up its video lineup. It has okayed second-season renewals for its slate of women’s series such as “Let’s Talk About Love,” “Reluctantly Healthy,” and “Chow Ciao!” Yahoo says its video line-up currently reaches 61 million unique visitors per month and in February, had 21 of the top 25 original online video programs. One of its women’s shows, “omg! NOW,” drew nearly 13 million unique visitors per month.

Against this background, findings from the 20th annual Arbitron/Edison study - now labeled “Navigating Digital Platforms” solidifies data we’ve seen often about online video habits. The study’s “Nontraditional TV Viewing” section notes that more than 27% percent of us (a far higher 41% in the 12 to 34 year old age bracket) have watched TV by streaming or downloading shows during the past month. It points out the impact of smartphones and tablet, with more than half of respondents saying that such devices, especially the iPhone, have had a “big impact on their lives.” Broadband access ranked up there, too, with 43% citing its “big impact” factor.

While such data will help us keep track of the growing importance of online viewing, the creative landscape is an even more exciting gauge. The torrent of new content and advertising initiatives reminds me of the cable programming nirvana in the early ‘80s, when each week seemed to bring forth new channels and programs (we didn’t call it content back then).

Which brings us to the Digital Content New Fronts (DCNF) - Silicon Alley’s alternative to the broadcast and cable network upfronts. Hulu, Microsoft, Aol, Yahoo and Google/YouTube will be strutting their video lineup to potential advertisers. Digitas, the integrated ad agency and another sponsor of the DCNF, has already teased the process with its own research showing how online vide engages viewers. Among the highlights: Digitas says that 53% of viewers would follow their favorite celebrity to a Web or online video series if the star skipped away from linear TV; 58% said they would watch a favorite TV show online if it posted exclusive videos.

The Digitas data also reveals fascinating generation issues - or lack thereof. Nearly half (47%) of older baby boomers - age 55-plus - say they want to see exclusive online content from their favorite TV shows. Among the 18-34 age cohort, about 69% expressed interest.

Data like that - along with the bigger issue of more online video - are reminders of why advertisers are looking at how and how much of their spending they want to shift to online video. This month’s deluge of data and drama suggest that it will be a lot.

At the expense of … whom do you think?