[Ed note: This a two-part special look at the rise and fall of social networking site Bebo, purchased by AOL in 2008, and its brief run as one of the web’s top networks for original web series. Read yesterday’s Part 1 of the series here. ]
In July of 2007, the social networking site Bebo launched the original web series KateModern, created and produced by EQAL, the team behind lonelygirl15. The show was immediately popular with audiences, garnering over 1.5 million views a week. Furthermore, the series was a financial success thanks to its partnership with Bebo, which aggressively courted advertisers and promoted the series. It was a successful model, one that has yet to be fully replicated. AOL acquired Bebo in 2008, an acquisition that ultimately proved disastrous for the company, but does not impugn the effectiveness of Bebo’s model.
At the time of the acquisition, many thought it would be a boon for web series. AOL was not only an established Internet company but also, thanks to its earlier acquisition of Time Warner, a major media powerhouse. Bebo for its part had spent the previous year positioning itself as a type of new media TV network carving out a niche as a destination for original scripted web series. The resulting partnership could have resulted in a Hulu style video site featuring original content developed for the Internet, coupled with a social networking site to support the interactivity that was a major part of web series at the time, all with the backing of a major studio. Had Bebo been able to replicate the process it pioneered with KateModern many of the problems faced by web series today, such as cutting through the clutter of online video or securing funding, would have been largely mitigated. Unfortunately, AOL missed an opportunity.
The Missed Opportunity
AOL purchased Bebo to be the cornerstone of its social networking strategy at a time when Bebo was transitioning itself into a destination for original content. In the statements following the purchase, AOL’s CEO Randy Falco declared that they would become a “social media powerhouse” and touted his plan to graft AIM integration into the site. However at no time did he mention plans to enhance Bebo’s support of original productions, which was largely responsible for Bebo’s growing success. As an “also ran” social network, Bebo lagged behind competitors Facebook and MySpace, with a smaller user base, less reliable platform and frequent server downtime. Original content was Bebo’s calling card.
Furthermore, a month after the acquiring Bebo, The Warner Brothers Television Group (at the time a division of AOL) announced the re-launch of TheWB.com as an online network that would stream past WB shows as well as original web series. The WB had originally existed as a broadcast network before merging with UPN to form the CW network. TheWB.com’s slate of original web shows such as Sorority Forever could have easily fit within Bebo’s lineup and benefited from the social interaction aspect of the site. Instead, they languished amide a myriad of old television shows on a site lacking any interactive features. If only AOL had realized the opportunity presented by its acquisition of Bebo, who knows what the outcome would have been.
Reproducing the Bebo Model
Bebo’s masterstroke was taking the lead in securing sponsors for the web series it carried. Web series creators are creative types and as such by-and-large do not want to deal with the business aspects of a series. At the recent Banff World Television Festival, Easy to Assemble creator Illeana Douglas exclaimed, “Wasn’t it enough that I wrote this thing, produced it and got all these people to be in it? Can I get some help monetizing it? I don’t really feel it’s really my responsibility to also be a distributor and monetize it. I’m the artist. I’m writing it.”
I can imagine many other creators firing off similar retorts at 3 AM when there are still hours of editing to complete. Furthermore, unless a series creator has some type of unusual advantage such as being famous or having friends with really deep pockets, gaining access to sponsors is challenging. Also, the amount of time needed to schmooze the money would, obviously, be better spent working on the series. For these and other reasons, having a network handle the financing and advertising of a series is certainly beneficial.
There have been several attempts to emulate the functions of a network. Various video sites – Bablegum, Hulu, DailyMotion – for instance, either sponsor or out-right purchase original series. The female centered website ‘thefrisky.com’ hosts and sponsors the award-winning comedy MERRIme.com. Similarly, Escapist Magazine sponsors A Good Knight’s Quest, winner of its annual contest. However, none of these attempts have successfully created that perfect storm, a destination site for original series where the audience can interact with the show and other fans. Granted there is no guarantee that a new site would be able to replicate the success Bebo had with KateModern or its other original productions; however, one thing is certain, it is a model that was successful.
The network model has worked well for television. Web series creators, who originally worked in traditional media are accustomed to someone else handling the advertising, promotion, and distribution of their creative work and, frankly, may not have all of the necessary skills to do so effectively. Having a network partner handle the business side of the equation frees creators up to create, which results in an overall better product.