Quarterlife's bad online-video bet

Hollywood, abetted by Internet pundits, has drawn the wrong lesson from the rise of YouTube: that the only way to make cash on the Internet is to offer bite-sized chunks of content. Hence Quarterlife, the microshow about 20-nothing artists. The only reason anyone cares about it is NBC picked it up for broadcast distribution, impressed by Quarterlife's 700,000-viewer debut, and will splice together 8-minute Web segments into six hour-long episodes that will air on broadcast TV this February. The only problem is that Quarterlife episodes, shown on YouTube and MySpace, are now averaging a mere 100,000 viewers.

That's nothing to sneeze at, but Quarterlife has been touted as the "first television-quality production for the Web," and 100,000 viewers would mean instant cancellation on broadcast TV. TV-level production values plus Internet-size audiences is a recipe for financial disaster.

But the real draw of YouTube isn't that the content is short; it's that it's easy to find and share. YouTube only implemented a 10-minute limit in an attempt to slow the flow of copyrighted content; users got around it by breaking up longer shows into 10-minute chunks. Plenty of people watch full-length shows online; indeed, that's one of the supposed draws of Hulu, NBC and News Corp.'s video joint venture.

The numbers are compelling. The number of people snagging free content off Pirate Bay has doubled to 8 million in the past year. According to SumoTorrent tracker, 50 percent of BitTorrent traffic is devoted to downloading television shows. And the audience viewing TV shows online is 25 percent more engaged with the show their couch-sitting counterparts.

The lesson: Web users can stomach full-length episodes. There's no reason to chop up narratives into bits for the sake of online attention spans. No, the real quandary is finding a big enough of an audience to support broadcast production values. Doing things the old way doesn't work: Eisner, the former Disney CEO, lost buckets of money on his "hit" Prom Queen, claiming it cost him $3,000 for every 90 seconds of footage.