HBO's Director of Digital Content, Adam Wolman, interviewed on On the Page, says that HBO is implementing new models for their Webisodes. Wolman directed the ABC's Micro Mini-Series one-minute, interstitial episodes, which aired during the commercial time (technially, after the scene-outs) of other broadcast shows. They were serialized, with cliffhanger endings, and there were several of them. They didn't fare too well.
Now HBO is trying the same thing, with a slight modification: they will start with 3-6 minute Webisodes, which can then be stiched together into a 30-minute or 60-minute episode and delivered via HBO On Demand's download service. If a series gets really popular, it might be re-shot and delivered on HBOs core channels.
In effect, HBO and ABC were using these short-format videos to test pilot new shows. It's a reasonable idea, and has the benefit of being quantifiable. But it does not tell the execs what kind of legs the show will have if and when it gets picked up, which makes it hard to decide how much production money it needs, and (consequently) how to price the advertising.
As I have said many times here, the television industry is looking more and more like the music industry circa 1998. As bands started selling direct to fans, they relied more on grassroots support from live shows (a concert is a small "test market group"), until they zeroed in on their most popular songs, style, and fans.
For those of us indie filmsters who can make quality stories for less than a gazillion dollars, this is good news. We don't have to compromise art in order to sell advertising; we just have to make good art- granted, easier said than done. But we can employ the same method HBO and ABC are: start a project, see how it does, put more time and money behind it if it takes off, and drop it if not. But like guerillas, we can move a lot faster, working together with other indie writers, crew, actors, and producers than the sluggish armies of the Big Studios.
So be quick, be creative, be nimble. Let's go make some movies.