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Tech by VICE

How Yahoo TV Saved ‘Community,’ and Maybe Vice Versa

Yahoo has been trying, and failing, to get web TV right for years.

by Fruzsina Eordogh
Jul 3 2014, 2:59pm
Community promo image

Community, one of the cool-cool-coolest shows on television, was saved on Monday by Yahoo of all things—a tech company known for being not cool at all. Even Yahoo’s own CFO said in 2013 Yahoo wasn’t very cool, and then spent a billion dollars trying to get that youthful je ne se quoi by acquiring Tumblr. 

Now Community, the canceled then revived then canceled comedy hit about zany characters at a community college, may be just what the tech company needs in order to save it from its trap of uncoolness and dwindling profits.  

Like today’s other tech dinosaurs, Yahoo has maneuvered itself into the business of web entertainment, so the move to revive Community on its Yahoo Screen platform isn’t strategically novel or surprising.  

Yahoo’s reinvention from search engine, web portal, and email service to video content—just like Google and AOL—is all about holding viewers’ attention on the screen, which of course translates into ad dollars. Out of all the online ads, video pre-roll ads—especially on high-quality longer form videos like Community—bring in the most money. There’s a reason they’re called “premium ad dollars,” and why video ads are everywhere now, even in streaming radio services.

There’s big money in online video, if you do it right, and Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube are all pouring money into original programming. Yahoo has been trying to do it since 2011 with Yahoo Screen.

So far, the company has failed to garner a large audience for their original series, despite getting some press in the New York Times and Jezebel. This is a sad state of affairs, considering original content created by the company has won multiple Streamy awards, a Webby and hat tips from Variety. No one is watching Yahoo shows. Not even the web series created by CSI guy Anthony E. Zuiker that cost $6 million to make. Many people, like Salon’s entertainment journalist Daniel D’Addario, don’t even know that Yahoo Screen content exists.  

Why is that?

Part of the problem is that for a long time, you could only watch Yahoo Screen content on the company’s web player, which was awful. Back in 2012 when I was trying to watch Tom Hank’s award-winning animated sci-fi series Electric City, the Yahoo Screen web player kept breaking, freezing and glitching out, not even letting me click for the next episode.

electric city search.PNG

Fast forward two years later, and the player is better, but the content library system is even worse. Searching for Electric City reveals a jumble of related content, including episodes translated in French, episodes with Chinese subtitles, or related Tom Hanks interviews. There is no related show page for the actual series, no page that has all the episodes grouped together, unless you actually Google it, ironically enough. Yahoo Screen content wasn’t even available on Roku devices until March of this year.

It’s highly plausible that the people who had heard of these big budget A-list Yahoo web series years ago weren’t watching them simply because they couldn’t find the shows easily, or if they did find them, the buggy Yahoo Screen web player sent them running.

Community though, with its devoted 2.9 million fans, changes everything. For starters, it’s a guaranteed audience. This iTunes user who downloaded the Yahoo Screen app sums it up: “Thank you for saving Community! I had no idea [what] Yahoo Screen was before yesterday, but now I have downloaded the app and can't wait for season six to premiere!!”   

This dude is not alone. According to Topsy, mentions of Yahoo Screen on social media reached an all-time high this past month (and probably since 2011, let’s be honest). Community’s audience may be small, but they’re the demographic Yahoo is trying to reach: young, savvy, influential, including Weird Twitter, popular comedians, media elites, tastemakers and other consumer jargon ad buyers salivate over.  

Congrats NBC! Yahoo, the place I have my spam email sent now has more artistic cred than you. #community

— Jamie Kilstein (@jamiekilstein) July 2, 2014

Even if reviving Community was just a public relations ploy, it seems to have worked. Yahoo took a chance on a TV show the entertainment establishment discarded. Can that make the web company cool again?