The online serial Sam Has 7 Friends seems to have all the right ingredients for dot-com success. It's got an attractive cast with more than adequate acting skills. Its production quality is better than average, even if it sometimes comes a bit close to being a cheesy telenovela. It also has a killer premise: Come Dec. 15, one of Sam's friends is going to kill her.
Through 46 "webisodes," one would expect the viral wonders of the Internet to be going full throttle at this point, with huge audiences hanging on every daily installment. Unfortunately, Sam may have seven friends, but that may as well be her show's fan base, too.
The site's forum, which should have been hopping with viewer anticipation and plot theories, has accumulated just 65 posts. There's the lead character's bio, which nudges viewers to join her as a friend on News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS ) MySpace. Thankfully, Sam has more than seven friends there, though her 182 MySpace "friends" are about the equivalent of your garden-variety high school kid's friend list.
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When Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) decided to fork over $1.65 billion in stock to acquire YouTube earlier this month, it was all about grabbing the top dog in the "clip culture" revolution. On any given day, more than 100 million videos are being streamed from the site, and those eyeballs have Google excited and just about every other entertainment medium nervous.
After all, there are still just 24 hours in the day (save for this past Sunday). If someone is spending time watching Mentos getting busy in soda bottles or OK Go on treadmills, that has to be taking the place of something else in their lives, and that has television stations, movie studios, and radio broadcasters nervous.
However, there is also the eclectic nature of success on a site like YouTube. Sam's brief webisodes and even weekly episodic recaps are broadcast from the site, yet they average just a few hundred views apiece. Contrast that to some of the more popular YouTube offerings that have amassed several million streams. One can argue that Sam's saga is also garnering hits on its namesake site and smaller streaming sites like Revver, but implications here have to both excite and mortify conventional video producers.
In cyberspace, the consumer has a knack for choosing the amateur over the scripted production. That may send tingles down the spines of Hollywood penny-pinchers, but it also implies that fleeting fame is attainable by just about anyone with a webcam and a clever way to get noticed.
It's true. Lonelygirl15 may still have the most subscribed-to channel on YouTube, but the actual video views have started to taper off since the video log entries were exposed as scripted last month. Whether it's resentment or just the gradual realization that the creative team got lucky here and may not have the chops to take this form of storytelling to the next level, something's missing, and even the recent addition of a third character and cultish plot twists may not be enough to revive the summertime YouTube sensation.
Just for laughs
Comedy has had a better run than drama online. If Fox's Borat opens to "high-five, great success" at the local multiplex over the weekend -- and it should -- a lot of gratitude will be due to the video sites like YouTube and Fox's own MySpace in helping catapult Sacha Baron Cohen's offbeat character.
Comedy is quick and provides the instant gratification that Internet audiences crave. Even when comedy is presented in episodic fashion, as with Hope Is Emo or Chad Vader's chronicles of life as a grocery store shift manager, it works because there is an entertaining payoff with or without a cliffhanger. Skit comedy has been perfect for the clip-culture revolution, turning Lonely Island, Nobody's Watching, and Improv Everywhere into household names. Well, my home at least.
This is a trend that will serve video portals well as they come around to effectively monetizing the revolution. Once sites like Google, Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) , and Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX ) AOL have their portal audiences in a jovial mood, it's easy to let sponsors move in with the branding rod.
You have some companies laughing their way to the bank already. The chunky streamed files have made Akamai (Nasdaq: AKAM ) one of the market's biggest winners as the leader in accelerating secure delivery of digital content.
Knowing what works
If Tinseltown is listening: Let Sam Has 7 Friends and Lonelygirl15 illustrate the power of the Internet to help expose characters, but also to cram in learning about its pitfalls. It won't be long before Hollywood starts crafting secondary storylines and furthering fan fiction as a way to strengthen its franchises online, beyond simply dumping movie trailers on jaded users who can see right through the marketing. The Internet deserves better than that.
Sites like YouTube and MySpace have made semi-celebrities out of everyday people and have broken cult bands into the mainstream. Isn't it odd that old-school studios that have carved out their lives in the field of entertainment for generations still don't have a firm grasp on the right way to harness dot-com power?
That will change. How can it not? See, the Internet? It has a lot more than seven friends.
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz isn't a YouTube junkie, but he does find himself on the site more often than he would care to admit. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. He is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.The Fool has a disclosure policy.