On May 28, 2014, I woke to find the following message in my Inbox: “Important Change to Your Blip Account,” the subject line said, and I hereby award it AYTIWS’ coveted “No Shit, Sherlock” Award for 2014. Sorry, everyone, but that contest is over. We all lose.
The rest of the message read:
“We are writing to inform you that, due to recent changes at Blip, we will be closing your account. On July 7th, 2014 we will downgrade your account and no longer accept uploads. On September 1, 2014 your account will be deactivated and you will no longer have access to the Blip dashboard or your content. Your videos will be removed from our system at this time.”
Even though I asked what “recent changes at Blip” led them to this decision, I already knew the answer: they’re trying to become a TV network, despite the fact their own internal studies tell them (and the world) that people are fleeing TV in droves. They’re bringing their TV viewing habits with them (watching during prime time, after they’ve gotten off work, eaten dinner, and are trying to ignore their families) and they’re willing to suffer through an ad at the start of someone’s show…but the last thing they want is a recreation of the landscape they left behind. Yet that is exactly what my video host has spent the last two years pushing.
The reasons for this are rooted in Blip’s founding, almost ten years ago, and in the vast changes since that have completely altering the internet landscape several times over.
In November, 2005, PayPal employee Jawed Karim searched the internet in vain for video of Janet Jackson’s notorious “wardrobe malfunction” at 2004’s SuperBowl half-time show. I realize how insane that sounds to anyone younger than I am…anyone who does not remember the Internet That Was…before YouTube, before Facebook…back when Google was just getting around to becoming its own verb. Wouldn’t it be great, Karim thought, if there were one simple, easy-to-use website where uses could upload videos of celebrity nipples (or whatever), store them on some secure space, and email them to all their friends?
YouTube’s two other co-founders, Steve Chen and Chad Hurely, dispute Karim’s account. The way they tell it, the original idea came to them after one or both tried and failed to share videos they’d shot during one of Chen’s dinner parties. Whatever the case, by July, 2006, their less-than-a-year-old YouTube boasted of 100 million new views, powered by 65,000 new uploads, per day.
That’s how “You” became Time’s Person of the Year for 2006, according to the accompanying article….which, even at the time, struck me as the absolute worst kind of sycophantic, corporate-sucking hagiography. I hope it embarrasses whomever wrote it for the rest of their lives and then follows them down into Hell, where I have it on good authority a room next to the furnace stands ready, programmed to receive. It’s an embarrassing enough read now, not even eight years later – full of glowing praise for “the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia” (ha!) and “the online metropolis MySpace.” Jesus. I mean – sweet, bleeding Christ. The professional Smart People of 2006 were some dumb motherfuckers. But then again, it was the nadir of the Bush Years, and an organization’s tone is almost always set by the people up top.
YouTube’s success generated a legion of imitators. Veoh. Vimeo. Revver. iFilm. Break. Metacafe. Even ol’ Yahoo – once top of the Search Engine Heap – got into the game, only to fail as spectacularly as they failed to counter Google. Frustrated, five veterans of Yahoo’s video blogging group got together, pooled their money, and founded their own New York City-based video-sharing company. They called it Blip.com, and here is how they originally pitched it to us, their target audience, the web-video consumer/producer:
“We believe that the world is fundamentally changing as it becomes easier and easier for individuals and small groups of people to create their own shows. Our mission is to make this even easier by taking care of all the problems a budding videoblogger, podcaster or TV producer would run into. You should have to worry about creativity. We’ll take care of the servers, the software, the workflow, the advertising and the distribution…If you don’t have a blog we’ll give you one, and if you have one already we’ll make it a show. ”
No other YouTube competitor could boast such a claim, and the YouTube of 2006 never dared to tell its unpaid laborers (oops, sorry, I mean “user base”) that “You deserve to make money from your hard work.” Blip promised a 50/50 ad revenue split with all of us at a time when “exposure” (preferred currency of people looking to exploit artists everywhere, throughout time) was the only compensation one could reasonably expect out of YouTube…unless you wanted to move to California and become a code monkey, farting Diet Coke into your swivel chair and avoiding the Libertarians who’ve infested Silicon Valley with their Randroid nonsense and delusions of being John Galt. Blip’s founders might’ve been Grade-A certified NYC hipsters…but I’ll take a million skinny-jeans-wearing, UFC-watching, food-porn loving, Instagram-updaters over a single Milton Friedman fan, any time, anywhere.
Even better – Blip’s software allowed one to distribute one’s videos to other websites – meaning one could (theoretically) post to their own blog, MySpace, Yahoo and iTunes (and, within a year, Facebook) with a single click. Those were the good ol’ days.
Then, in March, 2007, the international media conglomerate Viacom (owners of Paramount Pictures, MTV, and Comedy Central, among other things) fired a shot across the internet’s bow in the form of a $1 billion lawsuit against YouTube. The suit held YouTube responsible for the “brazen” copyright infringement of its user base, due to the large quantities of Daily Show, South Park, and Star Trek episodes one could easily find at the time, never mind all those music videos. (MTV executives love to point to YouTube and say, “That’s why we don’t play music videos anymore,” when the reality is they don’t play music videos because MTV execs consider them a waste of valuable ad space, as they have since 1997.) Due to limits on how much users could upload at the time, such fair was almost always low-quality, and “full” episodes were always chopped up into ten-minute chunks. Still, Viacom’s lawyers considered each view a lost sale…the same line movie studios used against blank DVDs, CDs, VHS tapes, cassette tapes, and every other home media-storage system since the beginning of time.
But since Google had just paid $1.6 billion for YouTube, it was not about to risk paying for their purchase twice. That same year, the Universal Music Group filed its own billion dollar suit against Veoh, a YouTube competitor few of our offline citizens had ever heard of, despite the presence of ex-Disney chairman Michael Eisner on its board of directors. Again, UMG lawyers felt people were watching music videos instead of buying songs, like good plebs should. (A line they used against MTV years earlier.) Both sites reacted to this shakedown with massive deleting sprees, shuttering the accounts of anyone with even the slightest whiff of “infringement” about them. Several now-internet-famous cultural critics – including Doug “Nostalgia Critic” Walker of Chicago, Noah “The Spoony One” Antwiler of Arizona, and James “Angry Video Game Nerd” Rolfe of Parts Unknown – disappeared from YouTube during this period. Most fled to a little NYC outfit that, by then, called itself Blip.tv.
From 2007 to 2010, Blip reached out to venture capital firms, including Bain Capital…yes, that one. (Okay, technically a subsidiary of that one…but still, odd coincidence, no?) Since they never made the cover of Time, I never heard about Blip until the Second Great YouTube Culling of 2010. By that point, YouTube had won its case in District Court, but Viacom instantly filed a appeal. The appellate court would wait another year before kicking things back down to the district level, and in the meantime, quite a few of the web’s best Star Trek reviewers, historians, commentators and fan-fiction film makers disappeared down the memory hole. If Gene Roddenberry weren’t already dead, he would’ve wept to behold it. Christmas, 2010, sucked for a great many of my fellow Trekkies, since that period right before, or right after, a major holiday is always the best time to send out take down-notices. Or remove channels without any notice whatsoever.
I first learned of Blip’s existence after following one of those Trekkies, Chuck “SFDebris” Sonnenburg, over to this new video service. It’s ads were annoying, but that at the time they were also voluntary. One had to opt into them and, if you didn’t want to annoy your audience, all one had to do was ignore that particular check-box on the upload screen. Blip’s distribution deals more than made up for it, included YouTube (ironically enough) and several popular TV-set-top boxes, including the Tivo. (Remember Tivo?) It boasted 50,000 channels, 72 million views from around 22 million people – per month – and positioned itself, in many was, as the anti-YouTube.
Their Terms of Service made the rules very clear (as opposed to YouTube’s allegedly-intentional vagaries): no full episodes of TV shows, old or new. No music videos or full length motion pictures except those you’d made yourself. No seven hour play-throughs of popular video games with minimal commentary that’s never as funny once you sober up. No home movies. No funny cat videos. Reviews, though? Reviews were a-okay. So was Blip, at the time…even though it had yet to turn a profit.
According to conventional wisdom, start-ups should expect to run at a loss for the first five years. Blip’s founders bucked convention by sticking around for another year…but by 2011, the wear on founder and CEO Mike Hudack had become apparent in interviews. The site was in its third or fourth re-design and re-branding effort by then, positioning itself as “the” destination for “original web series.” Such re-designs can be a nightmare for all involved, no matter their level of involvement, so it was no real surprise to see Hudack and most of the other founders sell out and depart the site in December, 2011. Blip somehow managed to spin this positively, and wring another $6 million out of its major investors during that Christmas season. Obviously, the site was “not yet cash-flow positive,” which is Polite Tech Journalist-ese for, “They are straight-up hemorrhaging cash, you guys. Seriously, it’s getting embarrassing.”
At the time, to those of us who actually watched such things, “original web series” meant “our fellow nerds nerding out about nerdy things in front of a camera, to the general amusement of all.” This would prove not to be the case for the venture capitalists floating Blip’s boat, or the new management team they hired in 2011. To them, “original web series” obviously meant, “something like the TV shows I already watch…but on the internet!” And as 2012 wore on, we saw more signs of this increasingly apocalyptic future. Blip’s two-tiered system of “Standard” and “Pro” accounts disappeared around this time, just as I was gathering the money to “Go Pro,” as it were. The ability to distribute videos to other platforms also vanished, dropping almost one-by-one, like doors slamming in your face.
Blip’s current CEO, Kelly Day, is the former overseer of digital media and commerce at Discovery Communications, owners of the Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet and half of Oprah’s Network. Rather than invest in more servers, or more people to run the ones they already had (Hurricane Sandy flooded their facility in 2011, knocking everyone down for two days during Halloween Season, just for an example), New Blip took that $6 million of Series D investments and bought studio space in Los Angeles, the better to create (or re-create) exactly the kind of crappy programming some of us turn to the internet to avoid: reality game shows, sitcoms, cheap mumblecore dramas, and rip-offs of successful cable shows.
The L Word was a big one, for awhile. By the mid-summer of 2012, every show in the Blip’s Drama section seemed to focus on lesbians – always magazine-cover beautiful, always struggling to balance their career with their relationship issues, and almost always passing for upper-middle-class. Recently, I’ve noticed some Westerns creeping up through the ranks, and can only assume those are the product of Deadwood fans, as pissed off about that show only getting two seasons as I still am.
But me? I’m a critic. Can’t help it. See how that last paragraph veered off topic? And come March, 2013, the critic-centric websites and forums I frequent blew up as one showrunner after another announced they’d been put on notice. This was not limited to critics – Blip’s Senior Vice President of Production & Development, Steve Woolf, proudly boasted of narrowing their 50,000 channels down to 4,000. “It’s all internal and it’s not a science,” he told Tubefilter “it’s an art.” Meaning it was not open for rational discussion, or subject to any form of outside criticism. It was meant to be accepted, meekly and mutely, by we poor provincials. A great many of us did just that, because the message was clear and unequivocal.
Assuming you read the Tubefilter article, which was one of the few places that message was available. After fielding what were surely tens of thousands of emails, Blip finally stooped to tell us “An Important Update from Blip Regarding Account Removals”:
“After many years of being an open platform, Blip is now taking its mission to bring the best original web series to our audience more seriously.”
Translation: Party’s over. Time to leave.
“To accomplish this, it is essential that we fully support producers who are dedicated to their craft and are committed to making their shows successful. This renewed focus means that we have had to make some tough decisions about how and where we direct Blip’s resources.”
Translation: Move your shit soon, or it’s going to be deleted. We have to save spaces for all the precious “reality” game shows we’re making out in California, where the really young, dumb, hungry filmmakers live, and are all too happy to give us cash. You parasitic internet schlubs are nothing more than the losers your bullies always said you were. And you have no recourse. Suck on it.
“…If you are producing a high quality original web series, you have nothing to worry about. On the contrary, expect to get more love than ever from us!”
For most us, said “love” took the form of a truncated version of the same message, six months later (titled “A Final Word on Account Removals”) and the discontinuation of iTunes distribution in February, 2014.
As all this distracted us, the multi-YouTube channel network Maker Studios (originally formed to shield individuals from the automated copyright-policing system YouTube installed in the wake of Viacom’s lawsuit) bought Blip outright for what the usual anonymous inside sources say was around $10 million – less than half the amount Blip’s investors have sunk into the company over its nine-year life. With this, Blip became more than a mere financial failure – it became the kind of failure other Tech Start-ups tell ghost stories about around the campfire. Rumors about what Maker plans to do with Blip are flying fast, now, with everything from “shut it down” to “create their own YouTube competitor out of it.” Maker.tv is now a website, publicly beta testing itself and full of music videos from indy bands, 15 minute video game sessions with minimal commentary that’s not as funny as the commentators think it is, cooking shows, and fashion shows. It’s TLC, with just enough MTV2 to appeal to The Youth…but on the internet. And only two months after Maker finalized its acquisition of Blip.
Two days after Memorial Day, I and dozens (possibly hundreds) of others woke to the message that began this article. A day later, on a lark, I asked them, “Why? And what it would take to change your mind?” The response:
“Our business has changed and we are narrowing our content library to include only the best in original web series. We reviewed your account and concluded that your content does not meet our criteria. Unfortunately our decision is final.”
told me exactly what I already knew. Servers are expensive. Especially the kind you need to transmit 30 minutes of high definition video to hundreds of thousands of computers all over the world every week. Or every day. How much YouTube costs to run remains a closely guarded trade secret, probably because it’s shuffled into the even bigger miserable pile of secrets that is Google. On the other hand, you can’t find ten articles about YouTube going back to its investors with hat-in-hand. There’s no need. Google owns more fiber optic lines and sever farms than most countries and, despite the fact internet advertising rates remain locked at mid-90s prices, Google can make up for that in sheer volume. They literally own the lines. Ten percent of all the traffic on the internet goes through them, one way or another. They also own cached copies of everything every single one of us does, thanks to their Search Engine. They data mine it all, only to sell that data back to advertisers. That’s how they can afford to pay a few top-YouTuber’s six figures while the rest of us pinch pennies and get greenscreens from our friends for Christmas.
Blip had to pay their way this whole time, at the cost of about four million a year, on average. Its new owners just got $900 million from Disney, so they threw $10 million at Blip’s old owners to make them go away. Now they’re jettisoning everything, like an investment bank that bought up too many sub-prime mortgages. If I were Blip’s management, I’d be padding my CV and not believing a word in any of the contracts Maker offered me.
Meanwhile, the thousands of web-series producers they’ve put out of a host (including yours truly) are scrambling to make up what Blip’s cost them, monetarily or otherwise. YouTube is a nest of killer robots with hotlines to all the major movie studios/record producers. Veoh is even worse. Vimeo is so small and so high-end-niche they make you pay through the nose. And Dailymotion is so French, its home office is in Paris. (On the Right Bank, granted…but that still counts.)
There’s no neat end to this story, which is obviously ongoing. Only an opportunity to thank all the very nice people I’ve met over the course of putting this together. And to thank all of you, my loyal if not-quite-big-enough-for-Blip’s-purposes audience. I thank you for your patience in these trying times as we move our 84 episodes, two specials and one commentary over to their new home. Changes are coming, but our survival is not in doubt. The show must, and will, go on.