Ironically, talking to JibJab's Gregg Spiridellis at the Banff World Television Festival made me wonder why anyone would bother creating television over digital video. His enthusiasm for his own business – what he calls a "new media comedy brand" — is infectious, and the Internet's ability to quickly develop innovative content, and measure and connect to their audience puts the television industry to shame.
"We hope to literally make JibJab a branded comedy network so that wherever you are, on your cell phone, obviously on the web, on IPTV, that JibJab is a place you can turn to for really well-produced, premium branded comedy," says the former investment banker who now straddles the creative and business line, running the company with his brother, Evan, who animates the original shorts Gregg writes.
From boom to bust to boom again
In an Internet start-up cliché, the brothers self-financed their new venture from a Brooklyn garage. This was 1999, and they created hit videos in the pre-YouTube era, lead a staff of 13, licensed their content, and rode the wave of the dot com boom … until it went bust and all their clients went bankrupt. Undeterred, the brothers packed up for Los Angeles and a fresh start. After producing toys and books in addition to their animations, and even creating the Mr. Bananagrabber character on Arrested Development, things were starting to look up again. Then, suddenly, the JibJab brand launched into the cyber-stratosphere with the political satire "This Land."
An animated duet between caricatures of George W. Bush and John Kerry, "This Land" was released during the 2004 United States presidential campaign. "It was your typical five year overnight success story," laughs Spiridellis.
At the Festival panel he participated in, "Audience Wranging: How Are You Managing Your TV Audience," Spiridellis pointed out that the company had always taken advantage of the direct, one-to-one relationship possible on the web. They had long been collecting e-mail addresses of their viewers, so that when they released "This Land," 130,000 people had already opted in to receive information on new JibJab programming. Their 130,000 friends told their friends, and by the time JibJab released another political parody several months later, they had tallied 80 million streams of the videos.
Since "This Land," they've been regular guests on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, launching new videos there and getting huge visibility before they even go viral online, and "What We Call The News" was recently launched at the Bush-attended Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner in Washington.
"From the beginning we saw the Internet as an incredible opportunity for creators to connect directly with an audience in a way that was never before possible," Spiridellis says in our interview. By offering incentives for registration, like access to premium content and the ability to vote and comment on content, JibJab can develop a relationship with their audience that lets them not only sell targeted advertising, but evaluate the performance of their content. "It lets you measure and connect with your audience," he explains. "I know exactly how many people are watching something. I know how many people are sending it. These are all metrics that I can use to evaluate the success."
Though known for their original political and social short satires, including their hilarious year-in-review animations like "Nuckin' Futs," JibJab is also now a hub for user generated content with their JokeBox feature. Spiridellis claims it's the largest joke-sharing site – focused as they are soley on comedy — now with 750,000 registered members sharing 100,000 jokes.
The future of JibJab
At the festival panel, he explained that user-generated content is difficult to make money from, but great for building an audience. JibJab thinks of their original programming as tentpoles, each release causing traffic to spike, plateauing their regular traffic at a higher level, and in turn creating a larger and larger community gathered around regularly updated user-generated content and eagerly awaiting another JibJib original.
"What differentiates us is the original programming, and so we're doing more and more of that," says Spiridellis. "We're about to release a whole bunch of new product lines that will scale our original programming far beyond what we do now, which is a very big release every few months. In the next six months we hope to be releasing new originally produced programming every day."
He's vague on what the new product lines will entail, though I suspect there's clues in what he tells me if I were only savvy enough to fully pick up on them.
"What we're focusing on now is more actively engaging our users in our programming. It's not just hey, come to JibJab and watch something. It gets a little tricky because we have new product lines I can't talk about yet. But it's going to be, come to JibJab and engage, create, and publish, so it becomes more that the user can get their hands dirty with the content and spread it around as opposed to just watching."
At one point, he suggests that paying producers based on performance is part of their future plans. "We're trying to figure out ways to engage them in productions where they make some money for getting into business with us and in the event they create a hit, in the event they create a 'This Land,' they could make significant amounts of money. That's what we're trying to build now."
Working in Los Angeles, the brothers are confronted by the reality of a system of agents, managers, executives, and lawyers that was designed long before anyone thought of the Internet, never mind creating video content for it.
"It's so hard to get anything done," Spiridellis complains. "The whole system was created to produce a small number of really big investment productions, but with the web you've got to be able to produce a very big number of small productions."
"One of the problems we're trying to solve is how do we scale our production, because I can't make a production for a few thousand bucks if it's going to cost me five thousand to deal with the lawyers and everybody else."
It's a thought that resonates any time a television show creates online content. In my interview with Greg Daniels of The Office, he lamented that the current union contracts having no tenable provision for participation in "cheap and disposable" webisodes, for example.
When I mention that I was blown away by the behind-the-scenes peek at "What We Call The News" (which unfortunately no longer seems to be available on the JibJab site), Spiridellis explains the concept of "density" in web programming, which makes their videos not cheap and disposable. "People think it's just a little Flash animation, but these are significant production endeavours. In two minutes we fit the number of cuts and scene changes and characters that you might have in a 15 or 20 minute piece in normal television show pacing."
Part of their future plans may or may not be a leap into television. We somehow get onto the subject of the strange fall and rise and fall again of Nobody's Watching, the failed WB television pilot that found success online, only to be reportedly picked up again by NBC, then quietly dropped again. "It's funny, everyone's desperate for a cross-platform success story," Spiridellis says. Does JibJab hope to be that, I ask? "No, we're totally focused on digital. I don't care about TV."
I point out the irony of that statement, considering we're at a television festival, so he qualifies: "The problem is I would never get to do TV the way I want to do it."
Some of the advantages he sees to Internet programming include spontaneity and creative freedom. "We can think of something, create it, produce it, and get it out to an audience within six weeks right now. We can be more irreverent with our humor."
"The odds of having any kind of real success on TV are so small that to be focused on that wouldn't make sense for us now, because we have millions of people coming to our website every month," he continues. "We can program for them. And if we do our job there well, there may be opportunities in television."
So it seems television isn't completely off their radar, though not in their immediate future. "If I can build an audience for a show online and get consistently millions of viewers every week to my website, then all of a sudden it becomes a very different proposition when we go to television networks and say hey, we've got this big audience and we want to do this show," he comments at one point. "The web gives some leverage to the creators that you don't typically have in the television development or production cycle, but also takes the risk out of the equation for television production and networks."
The future of television
Whatever JibJab's plans, they seem to be well-positioned to continue creating content for a constantly shifting distribution system. At the Festival and elsewhere, some sky-is-falling scenarios have been predicted, with audiences fleeing television for the web, and new but unknown business models facing the television industry in the years to come. Spiridellis isn't so pessimistic about the future of television, though he's got a cautionary word about the future of networks and studios. "I think it's a really exciting time for creators. I also think the whole production model has got to change."
He doesn't believe the Internet and television will converge from a content standpoint, but from a platform standpoint. "The idea of having a television in your living room is always going to be the case," he asserts, "but it'll be hooked up to a computer and what you now have to catch on your DVR will be on demand. That's clearly where it's going."
"The implication becomes, well, if I'm a channel, and I've built my whole business around the fact that I own a direct pipe in to my audience, and my whole competitive advantage is based on owning that single channel, I'd be very scared," he continues. "I think what'll happen is the audience is going to determine all distribution. How do I find out about a show and sit in front of my television set? Just like now I get an e-mail with a link to something funny, I'll get an alert that my friend John recommended this show and I'll either watch it or I won't watch it. I think once that happens, all of a sudden the idea of owning channels is not a good business to be in."
He admits to being not much of a television watcher himself, though he's enthusiastic about House when I (naturally) bring it up, and he's keen to hear that Greg Daniels, creator of one of his wife's favourite shows, is also attending the Festival.
But he refuses to look at the current landscape as a battleground between television and the Internet, with viewers as the elusive prize. "I think there's a lot of people like me, I'm sitting on my couch with my laptop and I'm doing both things at the same time."
He points out that two minute online videos are no threat to the half-hour sitcom or hour-long drama. "People still want that kind of programming. They're still the best at producing it, but what they need to look at is really ground-up at their distribution strategies, and say, we own this great asset, which is a pipe into the living room, but that's going to become less and less valuable over time. Then how do we transition into getting these hour and half hour programs to market without depending on that? Those are storytelling formats that are great for passive entertainment consumption."
He sees promise in the way networks are making deals to get their content online: "Everybody's realizing you've got to put content everywhere." A recent New York Times article talks about networks making forays Second Life, and Bittorrent and YouTube, among many others, have struck deals to distribute television content, legally and everything.
But he also sees room for more creativity in how television engages with their audience. "I think people can be more innovative about how they use their television audience and get them online, or how they build their audience online and push them to television," Spiridellis says.
I suggest that television would kill to have the kind of hard data on their audience that JibJab does, without relying on small and questionably accurate samples from a research company (aka Nielsen). "Not only can we target ads against it, but we can also get smart about how well our programming is performing in different demographics with real data," he agrees. But it later occurs to me that the television networks could do the same at least for their online audience, only most don't track that data nearly as well as JibJab, or do anything nearly as useful with it.
At a television festival where everyone was trying to look into the future to see how TV can survive in the Internet age, it occurs to me that the networks don't even seem to be looking into the present for clues. For such an enthusiastic and optimistic guy, speaking a television festival, Spiridellis has an odd way of making me feel pessimistic about television. But JibJab? Those guys are going places.