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ENTERTAINMENT 2.0

Low-budget viral videos attract TV-sized audiences

Is the future of video viral?

Think back to May 31, 1990, when ``Seinfeld" debuted on NBC. It played on Thursday nights, and the way you discovered it was by seeing a promo on the network, or an ad in TV Guide, or a newspaper review. If a friend introduced you to the show, they probably did it in person -- this was before the widespread use of e-mail.

Producing a season of ``Seinfeld" episodes cost more than $100 million, and about 20 million US households, on average, watched the show.

Traditional network TV is far from dead, but viral video -- short clips that garner attention via e-mail links that circulate like wildfire -- is an important and impressive new force that is shaking up the world of content and advertising.

Compare ``Evolution of Dance" to ``Seinfeld." Judson Laipply's six-minute survey of contemporary dance styles was made for the cost of a videotape, recorded at a live performance in Tulsa. No writer, no director, no crew. Laipply ``just set up the video camera in the back and let her go," he says via e-mail.

Though the production values are nonexistent, the video is a nifty mix of pure creativity and energetic dancing. People found out about it from their friends, mostly via e-mail. ``Evolution of Dance," which you can watch online at YouTube.com, has been seen by 30 million people. (And it contains no ads.)

``Just like the Internet changed the way people book their travel, or do their banking, the Internet's changing the way we relate to entertainment," says Ryan Magnussen, chief executive of Ripe TV, a Los Angeles company that produces video content for the Web, handheld devices, and cable TV. ``The value of NBC in the past was their distribution platform, which was incredibly powerful. But that's now starting to break down."

It's a stunning shift when a single low-budget viral video can reach roughly the same number of people as an episode of ``Seinfeld" used to. (Each of ``Seinfeld's" 20 million Nielsen households may have represented more than one viewer.)

For creators, it's a miracle. ``There used to be a gate that little guys like us couldn't get through, and that gate was the people who controlled distribution," says Gregg Spiridellis, who along with his brother Evan created two animated political satires that have been seen by more than 80 million people, ``This Land is Your Land" and ``It's Good to Be in D.C."

``You're going to see a lot of fresh and interesting voices in the online space that you'd never see make it through a traditional TV deal," Spiridellis says. JibJab Media, the Spiridellis's Santa Monica, Calif., company, raised an undisclosed amount of venture capital last month from Polaris Venture Partners, a Waltham firm.

With that money, JibJab is hoping to turn viral video into a big business. ``We'd like JibJab to be the `Saturday Night Live' of the digital world -- a platform for lots of independent comedic talent."

The challenge, he acknowledges, will be keeping production costs low, and trying to consistently produce content that catches fire, as ``This Land" did in 2004.

Viral videos share some common characteristics. ``They seem to be short, and either topical, like the original JibJab video, or sensational in some way, like the Mentos one," says Eric Ella, vice president of programming and design at Brightcove, a Cambridge video hosting company. (``The Mentos one" refers to a viral video filmed in Maine that shows a pair of mad scientists creating a Bellagio-like fountain, using pieces of candy dropped into two-liter bottles of Diet Coke.)

Part of the fun of viral video is passing it along. ``People become taste-makers," says Michael Downing, chief executive of GoFish, a San Francisco start-up that plans to debut an online video reality show tomorrow. ``They want to be the first to say, `Hey, have you seen this Ask A Ninja video yet?"' Advertisers are trying to figure out what the growing audience for viral video means to them. One notion is customer-crafted advertising. Kayak.com, a travel site headquartered in Connecticut and funded by Cambridge investors, launched a contest this summer asking its users to create ads: The winner gets a trip to New York to watch his or her ad be produced for television broadcast.

It's not inconceivable that advertisers might one day not even need to buy TV time, but that an ad would simply get circulated by virtue of its entertainment value. Viral video ``puts a huge new premium on entertainment and creativity," says Jamie Tedford, senior vice president of media and marketing innovation at Arnold Worldwide, a Boston ad agency. ``You're trying to figure out what would make a consumer forward it to a friend."

But it's not easy, Tedford says, to create spots that are viral -- like ``Evolution of Dance" -- but still convey information about a product or service.

Mika Salmi, chief executive of Atom Entertainment, says that the novelty factor of some of today's crudely produced videos could wear off. ``I do think it'll get more sophisticated," says Salmi, whose San Francisco company, founded in 1998, originally hosted the JibJab videos. ``People have seen a lot of stuff already."

TV isn't endangered, but it will look very different in five years, when more devices will connect the Net to the TV set. Imagine an e-mail-like queue of video content, some of it produced by amateurs or ad agencies and forwarded along by your friends because it's cool, and some of it produced by traditional media companies and sent because you've requested a ``subscription" to an ongoing series. Two-minute music videos made by your daughter's friends down the street will compete with ``CSI: Miami" for screen time.

``You're not going to be able to push content at people anymore," says Spiridellis.``People are going to pull your content if they want it, and refer it to friends if they think it's good."

But one thing that'll remain a constant in the old and new worlds of television is the mercurial nature of popular tastes: No one knows why something becomes a hit, and no one who has made a hit necessarily has he inside edge on making another one.

Says Laipply: ``I don't think I would have any advantage over the next person because of my previous success." Nonetheless, he's working on his next video: ``Evolution of Dance Revisited."

Scott Kirsner is a freelance writer in San Francisco who maintains a blog on entertainment and technology, cinematech.blogspot.com. He can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.

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