The goal is to eventually transform CollegeHumor—which is a profitable website—into a kind of mini-network, drawing revenue from advertising, branded content, and sponsorships; using the Internet instead of the airwaves; and distributing its programming through a growing list of subscribers on social sites like Facebook. To that end, Van Veen has a small grid of index cards on his office wall: A recently announced programming “schedule” (another throwback technique) by which web episodes are released at the same time every week, for viewers to watch on their computers or phones or wherever. “If you’re a content brand, you have to be in every place your audience is,” he says. “Sometimes your audience is on the couch and wants to watch a 30-minute show, and sometimes they’re checking their Facebook feed and want to see something that’s only a minute long.”
At the meeting, it doesn’t take long for Van Veen to bring up another question that’s been plaguing him: Can you build a TV show around “network effects”? He’d seen a video of Sean Parker—the “billion dollars” guy played by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network—giving a talk about network effects at the Web 2.0 Summit 2009. This concept is what drives, for example, the popular Facebook game Farmville: The game is designed so that the more people who play it, the more fun it is for each person, so you’re inclined to recruit new players. Van Veen’s question for his deputies: “How do we translate network effects to original programming?”
Reich thinks for a moment, then says, “What if we did a show called ‘Ransom,’ where each week you hold the next episode for ransom until the previous episode hits a certain number of viewers?”
Van Veen likes this. “It’s not crazy. That could be the basis for something that really works.”
“Or what if we did a show with zombies and humans, with different episodes from each viewpoint?” says Reich, gathering steam. “So whichever episode gets the most views, that confers some advantage to that team and changes the story.”
Van Veen gets excited.
Then he pauses. He ponders.
“I wonder if it’s too on-the-nose,” he says. “When you’re in the business of getting views to videos, and you can make that part of a game, that’s smart. But you don’t want it just to seem like, ‘The more dollars you give to me, the more likely you are to win!’ ” This seems like an appropriate time to remind everyone: “Of course, the series itself has to be good.”
They table the discussion—not every question, no matter how compelling, has an immediate answer—and instead look at some retro-style promo slides for the site’s new slate of shows. “Now, these I love,” Van Veen says, as they gather around his monitor. “They look like old-time broadcast TV.” And just like that, he gets excited all over again.