The Rise of Web Series

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Husbands-web-seriesI’ve been watching a series that’s co-created and written by Jane Espenson called Husbands. If you recognize her name at all, it’s most likely from her writing (and being show runner) on a number of sci fi/fantasy genre shows, most notably Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Once Upon a Time. Guest stars of this series have included Jon Cryer, John Hodgman, and Tricia Helfer. The channel it’s on? YouTube.

When television was first invented, it redefined media. Radio, up until then a home for comedy and drama series, started to transition to what it is today – a place for news and music, and movies had to become bigger to compete.

When the Internet was first invented, it also redefined media. But it’s really only been the last ten years that the idea of web series really started taking off, redefining what we call television. “It used to be the definition of the device,” said Dan Bucatinsky, co-creator of the web series Web Therapy, now on Showtime. “It’s now the genre – it describes the content itself. You sort of watch television on your phone, on your laptop.”

But what exactly is a web series, and how is it different from other web content?

A web series, as defined by Wikipedia, is a series of scripted videos generally in episodic form released on the Internet. Mike Farah, president of production at Funny or Die, says that a web series is more than just a one-off web video. Typically shorter than a television show (most episodes of web series are between 5 and 10 minutes long), it also tends to be programming that is a little more original or unusual than standard network fare. For example, Red Vs. Blue, a series that’s been around since 2003 and is still going strong, uses machinima (the concept of syncing video footage from a video game to pre-recorded dialogue and other audio) to create the ongoing story of a parody of first-person shooter games and the military. There’s a web series out there designed like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where at the end of each episode, you choose which way the story goes by clicking on one of two videos. And then there’s Chad Vadar: Day Shift Manager, which follows Darth Vadar’s brother as he manages Empire Market.

While Wikipedia places the first web series as taking place in 1995, it wasn’t until the mass use of broadband and the lowering costs of technology that made the Internet a viable place for telling stories.

In the past few years, YouTube – stereotyped as the home of cat videos and Rickrolling – opened up the ability to upload higher quality videos to their website. Then, in October 2011, YouTube created 100 commercial channels, each with their own line of programming, and each to be rolled out at a different time. Channels included The Onion (a plethora of mock shows), The Comedy Shaq Network (urban comedy hosted by Shaquille O’Neal), Nerdist (“a place where we nerds come together and share the nerdery that we find”), and Geek & Sundry (home of the web series The Guild, as well as other programming such as Tabletop, described as Celebrity Poker but with board games).

“The reason that web series are so important is that the barrier for entry is so low,” says Travis Richey, co-creator (and star) of Untitled Web Series About a Space Traveler Who Can Also Travel Through Time. “There is zero reason why you can’t as an actor or a writer or a director make content for yourself. If you need to act, then act. And if you need to write and you need to get yourself seen, produce it yourself because you can do it for relativity cheap. Creative people need to be creative. If you wait for a studio to buy your script or a TV show to green light your project or a network to put you on the air, you’ll be waiting for the rest of your life.” (Listen to my full interview with Richey here.)

But the idea of web content isn’t exactly new. Many television shows, from Battlestar Galactica to Warehouse 13, and many movies like Cloverfield and Star Trek (reboot) used specific content created for the web in order to better engage the audience into the overall mythos of the item in question. But Bucatinsky thinks this is actually where networks need to go even further. “Each of these networks that are creating web series on their own that are supplemental content to their existing shows: I think they should create original content. The amount of money that is wasted every year by networks making pilots: there is such a better way to test out characters, writing, and content – use the web as a way to test out content. The landscape is going to get wider and wider. It’s like the days of air travel: in the beginning, people could only go to certain places. Cut to now, and the world is a smaller place.”

Richey also agrees that web series is a way to test content. “If you want your show to be on TV, it’s a lot easier to bring them a product and say ‘This is what it’s going to look like’ or ‘This is what it is’ and have them say ‘Oh! Yes! I get that!’ and then they will work with you on it.”

Farah agrees. “The main benefit is anyone can do it and you can put this content anywhere. The vast majority is cheap to make: it all depends on your expectations for what you’re making. There’s also a downside. There’s no guarantee that anyone’s going to see it.”

But as with all online content, the main issue is how to monetize it. True, being on the Internet means the costs are vastly cheaper than producing a television series or a movie. As Richey says, “If you look at television now, a lot of times there is bad TV on the air, and there is no obvious explanation for it. You sit there and go, ‘Well I know a guy who writes better than that! Why isn’t he on?’ Well, now that guy can have his own show: it’s on the Internet and these companies are starting to realize that original scripted content is less expensive. It’s not terribly expensive to do.”

Yet there is still a need to make money at the endeavor, if for anything else to cover the costs of production. “You are producing something that you are going to give away for free,” Richey says of this inherent issue. “How do you pre-sell that? You can’t pre-sell free. What you have to do is come up with other things, other incentives to give people and so that is a difficult thing for web series to do.”

Bucatinsky agrees. “Ultimately, it’s not a lucrative model,” he says, “but the ability to monetize it over time is still the biggest area of question for everyone. You really want to exploit multiple platforms when you create content. As of right now, we’re at a model where TV still feels like the promised land. You want to find a platform that will pay you, but the revenue is not so high for it to sustain itself.”

One way some series are monetizing is via advertising, such as allowing ads to play before the video on YouTube. Another way is by getting a company to sponsor or advertize through the show. Web Therapy was sponsored by Lexus, and Bucatinsky is quick to indicate that the company’s involvement is less about advertising and more about brand recognition. “They weren’t looking to make money. They were wanting to have Lisa [Kudrow] affiliated with their brand in a unique way. The brand itself is spending its advertising dollar because they believe in the content. They back their product and they create a model for it.” Richey, meanwhile, used Kickstarter to help fund his second season with the hopes of creating a subscription model for supporters.

Farah’s recommendation is to look at the brands first, and devise content that would appeal to certain brands. “The top percentage probably make a ton of money, but most people don’t. Make something that leverages that branded entertainment. Brands care about brands: they don’t care about web series. You have to kind of make custom things that speak to brands tangentially.”

So, what’s next for web series? The rise of online-only series such as House of Cards via Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu is partially thanks to the increase in the amount of screens in our lives, from smart phones to iPads. But it’s also thanks to the increase in online web series. Farah thinks this is only going to continue. “I think that you’re going to get to a place where people can be beyond on-demand. Your phone can be whatever you want. You can make the experience what you want. There will be some brand loyalty because people are people and stories are stories, but it won’t matter what device is doing what, because it will all be one device.”