Is The Confession a Breakout Hit?

Last week, Variety published a report that the Kiefer Sutherland-starring Web series The Confession was set to become a full-length feature movie. So it must be a big hit, right?
As it turns out, a Confession theatrical is not necessarily happening, according to Chris Young, CEO of Digital Broadcasting Group, the production firm/network that birthed the project. In fact, DGB is prepping a 70-minute long-form version of the 10-episode series, which it will soon release to multiple sites across its network, then eventually on DVD across the globe as well as on iTunes and Netflix. Young said a big advertiser is close to signing on as well.
The Confession would seem a great test case of whether the Web can create the kind of mass-reach episodic content to rival TV. It has a big star and well-heeled backers. The trouble is figuring out whether the Web series really is popular. If The Confession was a TV show, everyone would know its Nielsen numbers. Not so online, where getting viewer counts for Web shows is exceedingly difficult.
Buzz has been hard to gauge. The Confession has 25,000 Facebook fans. Is that good? Sutherland’s 24 used to reach 10 million viewers a week. Fansites are hard to find, or even much in the way of chatter on message boards or on Twitter. Young, of course, claims that viewers love the series, which features a troubled hit man. “They tell me it’s too short, that it’s the best show on TV that isn’t on TV,” he said. “We think this is a sign that the digital living room has arrived.”
Clearly, DBG and Sutherland feel that The Confession clicked. But the crazy thing is despite the high profile nature of the show — some called it a landmark moment for original Web video — nobody has any clue how well the show performed (except, of course, Hulu and DBG). Not even basic stuff like how many people watched the 10 episodes, or how many views it generated.
Both comScore and Nielsen say they could track it, but their policy is to not publicly provide data on episodic content on the Web. That’s only for custom-client reports. Analytics companies like Visible Measures and TubeMogul can sometimes help fill the void left by the third part metrics giants, but in this case, neither is able to compile and viewership data on The Confession, because Hulu won’t play ball.
While ComScore and Nielsen might want to protect their clients’ interests, this lack of publicly available ratings data actually does a disservice to the still nascent online video industry. For one, it creates suspicion and/or doubt. The thinking is DBG or others must have something to hide. If the numbers for The Confession or any other Web original were any good, these companies would be screaming about it to any media reporter who’d listen.
Not to mention how confusing it appears to advertisers.
“We’re definitely in an evolving medium, and it hurts the medium when there isn’t one company that measures the success or lack of success for Web series,” said Dina Kaplan, co-founder of Blip.tv.  “When YouTube measures views differently than Hulu, and Hulu measures them differently than Blip, and every other site on the Web does it differently, for advertisers to have to sift through that, it’s a real pain point.”
Of course, a common retort is: “Web video isn’t about hits. We need to redefine what a hit is in this medium.” If a hit show is no longer defined by the basic requirement that a sizable number of people watched it, then the industry is in real trouble.
DBG clearly wanted to swing for the fences with The Confession. Young even invoked the idea that the company was looking for the medium’s “I Love Lucy moment.” The problem with that analogy is that CBS was easily able to explain to advertisers that Lucy delivered a 67.3 rating. And that was back in 1953.
There’s no question that brands gravitate to big numbers. If some company were regularly publishing a list of the top 10 Web series based on audience, it would lend some legitimacy to the medium, make advertisers more comfortable that Web video isn’t just about viral clips on YouTube and Family Guy episodes on Hulu. But instead, tracking success on the Web is a mismash of Facebook fans, blog mentions and tweets. Or worse, nothing but the word of those whose interest it serves to make these shows appear popular.
“Television has Nielsen. Radio has Arbitron. Both TV and radio work as advertising platforms because they have that third-party arbiter to keep score,” said Matt Fiorentino, head of marketing for Visible Measures. Fiorentino added, “Web shows need the same thing, an independent third party to measure their relative success. This is the only way that advertisers will be able to evaluate their media buys on an apples-to-apples comparison. Otherwise, it’s all relative, which makes it difficult for Web shows to demonstrate their real value to advertisers and difficult for advertisers to understand which shows they want to advertise against. Nobody wins.”
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