It's not easy being an online video site. You face competition from hundreds of rivals, joust with giant media companies' legal departments and rely mainly on amateurs to contribute clips you hope people will want to watch.
But the executives behind Break.com, a Beverly Hills-based company whose site features such clips as "Girl Eats Praying Mantis" think they've found a way to attract buzz-worthy videos: Hire pros.
Break plans to announce today that it has struck a development deal with Endemol USA, the television production company behind "Deal or No Deal" and "Fear Factor," to produce a 30-episode original show for the site.
"The bet is that users want to see a mix of user-generated and professional content," said Keith Richman, Break's 34-year-old chief executive.
Richman bought a video site called Big-Boys.com in 2004 and turned it into Break. Since then, the site has made a name for itself as a destination for 15- to 35-year-old males with a mix of car crashes, pranks and comedy sketches.
Break ranked seventh among U.S. video websites in March in terms of the number of visitors, according to Web measurement firm HitWise. This puts Break behind online giants such as YouTube and Yahoo Inc. but ahead of the hundreds of smaller sites jockeying for viewers.
"Most of these sites are going to fail," said James McQuivey, a principal analyst at Forrester Research. "The whole trick is word of mouth, and word of mouth comes from content."
To attract more users, Break has been working with larger partners.
In March, the company announced that NBC Universal's digital studio would produce a series for the site featuring "beautiful women finding creative ways to break different objects" and that World Championship Sports Network would deliver videos involving more than 60 sports through a new channel on the site.
Professional production companies see amateur-video sites as a way to appeal to niche audiences and generate buzz for shows, said Jon Vlassopulos, vice president of new media for Endemol. Break attracts viewers and advertisers but allows Endemol to play with new concepts that might have a future on TV, he said.
"With Break, we can push the envelope a bit further," Vlassopulos said. "They're sexy, funny, entertaining -- a lot of other user-generated sites don't have that brand."
Richman, who began his career in Silicon Valley and bought Big-Boys.com with his own money, said he created that brand by highlighting the site's best videos. To keep the more talented amateurs from plastering their work across the Web, Break offers them $400 for their rights. YouTube, in contrast, doesn't pay for amateur content, while Break has paid out $400,000.
But Break may have a harder time distinguishing itself as more sites begin to pay amateurs for videos and share advertising revenue with them. The most talented amateurs are going to demand better deals, Jupiter Research analyst Joe Laszlo said.
Richman sees the investment in professional video as a way for Break to ensure a stream of good programming. But he doesn't want to leave his site's amateur contributors behind. He says he hopes to help them find a way onto television, just as TV producers are finding their way onto the Internet.
But as the subject of one popular Break video learned, a runaway hit on the Internet doesn't guarantee a clear path to show business.
A year and a half ago, two friends told Joanna Repsold, a pastor's daughter and a student at Claremont McKenna College, that they would go to church with her if she ate a live praying mantis. She did. They videotaped the feat and, attracted by the $250 that Break offered, posted the clip online.
It was viewed more than 11 million times.
Repsold was featured on VH1 and Dateline.
But the aspiring actress is now living in Los Angeles, working as a waitress at BLD Restaurant and wishing she had earned more than the $75 her friends gave her after divvying up the money from Break.
"If I earned a dollar for every time that video has been viewed," she said, "I wouldn't have to work for the rest of my life."