Remember the early 1990s, when techno-evangelists promised that television as we know it would soon be replaced by a searchable database of streaming video available at any time on your computer? Today, with the near-ubiquity of video-on-demand services (including iTunes) offering video downloads, television networks are scrambling to establish themselves in the online video market. But they're also struggling with the fact that the shift to online video has created a new programming format. Journalists have coined the vaguely menacing term "viral videos" to describe this new genre of short, lo-resolution, often ironic and seemingly authentic clips that are primarily distributed through e-mailed links and blogs. In a cruel twist, viral videos have even made their way onto television via shows like VH1's Web Junk 20 and Bravo's Outrageous and Contagious: Viral Videos, both of them airing videos that have been actively trafficked on the web.
And yet, many questions remain, among them: what impact will this new form of video content have on the medium that gave it life? And what opportunities will it create for designers?
Editorial judgments aside, these cable shows represent noteworthy attempts to translate the buzz to from broadband to broadcast; but it doesn't end there, There is a far greater effort, for instance, to repackage television content for the web. Just about every cable network streams an online supplement to its broadcast schedule and, in what may be a harbinger of things to come, NBC recently pulled the TRIO channel from its cable package altogether and recast it exclusively as a broadband network. NBC is gambling that TRIO's strong editorial take on pop culture and solid branding (wryly conceived by Open) make it a natural for the web, which is essentially a pop culture miasma in need of well-designed filters. But the backwash of content from the web to broadcast is just one indication of how unresolved this odd pairing remains.
The recent decision by NBC to pull the immensely popular Lazy Sunday along with over 500 other clips from YouTube and other video-sharing sites offers further evidence of this uncertainty. Companies with the stature and resources of NBC/Universal aren't, generally speaking, forced to make such dramatic about-faces; but the rapid demise of other internet "phenomena" (like Friendster and flash mobs) make them understandably wary of linking their content too closely with a third-party provider. It is far safer to develop their own outlets (as NBC is doing with Outrageous and Contagious, as well as its recent purchase of iVillage.) If nothing else, Lazy Sunday provides an interesting test case to see whether or not the revenue generated from iTunes download fees is worth giving up the buzz created by letting the clip circulate virally.
Of course, the kind of organic growth implied in the word "viral" is somewhat deceptive. For example, number 6 on Web Junk 20 this week was the alternately hysterical and disturbing Mariko Takahashi's FITNESS VIDEO for Being Appraised as an "EX-FAT GIRL." The piece was created by designer and art director Nagi Noda for Panasonic "to celebrate the spirit of the Olympics;" yet the show makes no mention of this corporate sponsorship. In fact, a full thirty percent of the video clips that have appeared on these shows are in some way promotional. This is a troubling by-product of a medium that is to some degree defined by a lack of disclosure: it's like product placement, but without the product.
And this kind of stealth marketing is on the rise. The agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky has been particularly active on behalf of Burger King. Recently, a series of clips involving a large king mask started circulating on the web. They appeared to be self-initiated pranks by amateurs with a gift for slapstick, but the back-story turns out to be a bit more complicated: the videos were actually the product of a unique partnership between Burger King and the video blog Heavy. Much like myspace and Google Video, Heavy offers space online for users to upload video. But Heavy is far from a dispassionate data warehouse: they monitor the content on their site and identify high volume or otherwise notable users, consequently linking them up with clients like Burger King. (There is, of course, a handsome fee for such matchmaking.) The subsequent spots are posted on Heavy where they begin their inevitable viral spread.
But the increasing popularity of intentionally un-, or under-branded campaigns isn't necessarily bad news, especially for designers. By linking to the videos above I have become a sort of de-facto "brand ambassador" for Saturday Night Live and Panasonic, but I'm also supporting the relative freedom given to their creators. Viral campaigns can be a great venue for directors, animators, and designers because in order to garner the kind of personal endorsement implied in a link, they can't be overly commercial. At the same time, such efforts raise the bar for creatives because the piece has to win viewers over one at a time, and usually with a single viewing. Designers, through some combination of training, humility and plain desperation, are comfortable working within these limitations: to this end, online video has become an unusually accessible outlet to flex one's narrative talents. With motion graphics, video editing and 4-D courses being offered in most design programs, we have reason to be optimistic with regard to a new generation of designers who are primed to blur the line between design and filmmaking.
It is likely that corporations will continue to fund creative video projects that reach a receptive, self-selected audience through personal recommendations, rather than blanketing the airwaves with a heavily branded message that sophisticated audiences frequently dismiss. (Thank you, TiVO.) In this view, viral video could well become the independent cinema of advertising. Of course, there is also the danger that the format will ossify into a formula. If bad lighting and slapstick humor come to define viral video (instead of artistic license and subtle branding) it will have missed its potential as a new medium.
Dmitri Siegel is an associate art director for Sundance Channel as well as creative director of Ante, a journal of visual art, and Anathema, a magazine dedicated to the pursuit of impossible ideas. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Dot Dot Dot, Emigre, Adbusters, and Design Issues. He is currently a visiting lecturer in the graduate program in criticism and theory at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.