What is a Web Series? A Guide and Introduction October 9, 2009Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
Tags: online video, research, TV, vlogging, web series, youtube
What is a web series? To anyone in the industry right now, this post will be elementary. Apologies in advance. But I think for academics and maybe aspiring producers, this might be useful. I’ve had a bunch of hits on my old primer, but it’s rough at best. I’m also posting this so if you’re doing something with web series I don’t mention you can let me know — I want to have the most complete picture possible of this medium.
When I talk about researching web series to friends and colleagues, I often hear: “what do you mean by that?” There are hundreds (thousands, likely) of web series. Here’s my attempt to give people some basic information, based on ongoing interviews with producers, marketers, distributors and others.
Please, if I’m missing something or made an error, comment or contact! I’ll update with new information; I want this to be a resource.
People call web series (singular and plural) different things.
Web series appears to be the dominant term at this point. I’ve read web serials used, particularly by the Times’ Virginia Heffernan, and while I quite like this term, and I think I’m losing on that. Webisodes is often used. I believe this term started early because the videos were not really conceived as part of overarching narratives (especially if you think of transmedia extensions). I’m not sure if this term will persist. I also like web shows, which seems perfectly logical. Variations on several words have been used: online, content, programs, original, scripted, video, web (online scripted content, original web programs, etc.)
Content can be categorized most generally as fiction (scripted or original) or reality.
Under “reality,” I would put talk shows (Anytime with Bob Kushell), how-to shows (Get Cookin‘ with Paula Deen), news and information (Primetime Recap), vlogs (The Philip DeFranco Show; That Makes Me Think Of with Ze Frank), documentary/docu-series (Hungry Nation), “reality” (like docu, except closer reality TV codes, Freshman Year, The HotBoyz Show). I would even add reality sketch/satire as a genre to include shows like Barely Political and Newsweek‘s The District that riff of current events for comedy. Of course the line between “reality” television and “fiction” is consistently blurry, and even these categories are not discreet. A show like Rocketboom crosses a few of them.
Under scripted content, the divisions are only slightly more clear. Most television genres apply: sci-fi/fantasy (After Judgement; Valemont), comedy (The Guild), sketch (Comedy Gumbo), and drama (Quarterlife) appear to be the main categories. Whether something like ARG (alternative reality) is a genre or a strategy is I think up for debate. Of course, once again, there is genre-blending. The Crew is a sci-fi comedy; Legend of Neil a fantasy comedy; Fred is a comedy vlog (comedy crosses a lot of genres). There are probably several genres and sub-genres we don’t even have names for.
In general, web series have been treasure troves for narrative and genre experimentation, challenging conceptions of a lot of TV categories. The Fine Brothers’ ambitious experimentation with this model in MyProfileStory is just one example (shame it hasn’t been completed).
Under scripted content, I would again divide it into original and transmedia/derivative. This isn’t so much a distinction in story/narrative, so much as business model (next), but it’s an important one. I do think there’s a difference between content that extends a mainstream brand, i.e. transmedia extensions (the countless network-produced shows to build on TV properties like Heroes, Gossip Girl, 30 Rock, The Office, Ugly Betty, Psych and on and on) and most of the shows listed above, which start with little name recognition and have to build brands, franchises, narratives and characters from scratch. Of course, not all transmedia properties are derivate, and not all mainstream. One only needs to look at Sally Potter’s recent film Rage, made a mini-series on Babelgum (online and mobile), to see how serialized digital content are crossing media in very interesting ways.
In general I do think it’s important for researchers looking to study web series to take these distinctions into account. It makes little sense comparing the Heroes offshoot Slow Burn with The Guild, Fred, or Hungry Nation. People watch different types of shows for different reasons and with vastly different expectations.
Business Models (Production, Distribution, Exhibition):
Ah, the business of the web series. Online, as with television, business is as important as story. We are, as cliche as it sounds, in the age of niches, narrowcasting, micro-casting, targeting and all that, so the question of who you want to reach and how you reach them is integral to understanding what web shows are.
This is question zero. How do I get money to make my show? It seems creators take a number of routes:
Solo/Independent: Also known as the “debt” or “bagels” approach. Rack up credit card bills, get friends to come on as crew members, don’t pay anyone (except Guild-style, “with bagels”) and hope to have enough footage for at least six 5-7 minute episodes. An awful lot of web series are made like this to this day, and some even go more than one season on this model. Classic shows like The Guild and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog were famously produced on a dime, but only temporarily. Joss Whedon eventually paid for Dr. Horrible with distribution deals and DVD sales; The Guild funded part of its second season through PayPal before its Microsoft/Sprint deal. With rare exception, an independent producer can keep the series by creating its own revenue source. The most popular YouTubers (Michael Buckley, Lucas “Fred” Cruikshank) can accomplish this through the site’s partner program; relying on viewer support is not necessarily the best option (okay, it’s barely an option at all).
Many content creators self-produce the first season to pique interest from marketers, potential sponsors, distribution/network sites or TV networks themselves. Others simply use it as a portfolio item to get work in Hollywood. There’s at least one success story for each of those strategies (I’ve spoken to people saying this or that works, and stories are reported all the time) but my sense is success is rare. After all, with the wealth of shows being made, competition is fierce and quality has to be high.
I suspect we are in a special time when this model will still fly. I imagine, if the industry grows, that shows on such limited budgets won’t be able to compete if more money pores into the market. We might talk about this time of 100% independent production with nostalgia: “I can’t believe that actually worked!” we’ll say.
Sponsored: Having a sponsor pay for production is one of the ideal ways of getting a show made and distributed. How does one get a sponsor? There are many ways. Some websites that publish web shows will work with creators to find a sponsor that fits the show. In other cases, there are firms whose mission it is to marry concepts/scripts/series with brands (Gennefer Snowfield‘s firm Space Truffles is the only example I know of at the moment). Brands also have their own divisions within companies that are tasked with cultivating sponsorship opportunities.
There are numerous stories of how brand/series partnerships happen. Sometimes it happens contemporaneously: a website decides to distribute a show and sponsor comes on (BET.com and CoverGirl for Buppies; MTV and Verizon for Valemont; and I’m sure this is how it works for network shows like Sprint, NBC and Heroes or Mastercard, USA and Psych). Other times, the series and sponsor find each other without too many middle men (as I imagined happened with Ashton Kutcher’s KatalystHQ and Nestlé/Frito-Lay; or Candace Bushnell and Maybelline for The Broadroom). Shows like Fox and Altoids’ Brainstorm and Ikea’s Easy to Assemble are quite intimately connected with the brand.
Sponsorship deals come in a diverse array of packages. Some include brand integration (product placement, primarily). Others have their brand featured prominently near the show on its website. Pre-roll and post-roll ads are still being used, but I’m finding a lot people saying those words under their breath; pre/post isn’t much loved. Sites like Koldcast are experimenting with creative forms of brand integration (their show-shops, which would allow brands a space to provide more information/sales ops for their products in and around shows). Sponsorships sometimes come, as well, with interesting distribution opportunities (below).
Networked: “Networked” isn’t an official term. What I mean by this are the handful of sites that will pay for the production of your web show in order to place it on their site. Sony’s Crackle.com is a prime example; Koldcast, Babelgum, and MyDamnChannel are others. Getting on one of these sites involves pitching your show, either a script, concept or pilot.
Vertically-integrated: This is the WatchMojo option. Although WatchMojo isn’t really focused on web series per se, they do create videos around themes and topics and distribute them widely. Most importantly, the produce their own videos, with their own production teams and videographers.
Other Production Issues:
Length: It seems the growing consensus is longer is better. That being said, the vast majority of web shows still have episodes well under 10 minutes, largely, I imagine, for financial reasons. There is the notion that users won’t sit still for longer than 10 minutes, but with more people watching TV and movies online, this is increasingly untrue. It remains to be seen whether 22 minutes+ will be de rigeur for web series. What matters most right now are compelling characters and narratives.
Quality: Higher production value is better; pretty simple. Some shows get away with less (Fred) but for most, if it looks good, it’ll do better. I don’t have time to write down Film Production 101, but obviously I’m talking about lighting, sound, editing, etc.
Where to place videos online is really at the heart of where the web series market will go. Unlike in television, online distribution has lower economies of scale, meaning no three sites have dominated distribution like NBC, ABC and CBS did in the early days of television. What this means is that there are many central destinations online, organized by niches and programming types, much like TV today (lots of channels, no one dominates).
Mass – Large video aggregators take video uploads (without too much) discrimination or (much) curating. YouTube is the main portal, but MySpace and Facebook are equally powerful (increasingly Facebook). Blip.tv, Break, FunnyOrDie, Dailymotion, Veoh, Vimeo are just a few of a large slate of sites that allow users to upload videos. It all depends on the producer’s needs. Beginners should spend some time on each site getting to know the culture and the flows. A series that works on YouTube might not work on FunnyOrDie, or vice versa. Sometimes these sites change layouts and structure, so what would have worked no longer does or what couldn’t have worked may now have a shot (I’ve heard this particularly about Facebook, and it seems inevitable with YouTube). In general these sites have lots of competition and loads of professional content, so shows need to work hard to market and build communities. Some of these sites, like Blip.tv and Revver, have revenue-sharing deals and/or more involved distribution opportunities.
Network – If you haven’t noticed already, I use the term network in different contexts and not always in the traditional way. Here I mean network like we think of ABC or Bravo: sites that only publish certain shows based on quality and the site’s overall brand identity. Sites like Koldcast, NextNewNetworks, MyDamnChannel, Crackle, CollegeHumor, Babelgum, Strike.tv, Revision3, VisioWeb, RowdyOrbit, BBTV and Hulu all edit what they show on their sites to various degrees. Typically a show has to be pitched or picked up from being popular elsewhere to get on these sites. What they offer producers is a built-in fanbase, access to advertisers/sponsors (sometimes), and funding in various forms.
Brand – Brands and advertisers have been known to make their own sites to publish web shows. Hot Pockets’ Eatfreely.org for KatalystHQ and Post Shredded Wheat’s ThePalaceofLight.com are recent examples. These sites take on various forms, depending on what the brand wants.
Independent – New shows will often just create a website on their own, sometimes with/sometimes without advertising. Few saavy producers rely solely on their site however, and often use another site’s video player (YouTube, Veoh, what have you) as a way to keep a foothold in another space. This is a more advanced but favorable option than just publishing solely on a large site like YouTube. It gives the producer more freedom to craft the brand and set the tone for the show.
Fan Participation – For me, the main issue in exhibition (not already explained above in distribution) concerns audience engagement: how will people interact with and enjoy a show.
This is all site-specific. Different sites offer varied levels of interactivity — commenting, forums, character pages, etc. Nearly all sites allow comments, but certain sites are more known for comments than others. YouTube more than Hulu, for a general example.
Other sites provide rich worlds with tons of ancillary and narrative content. The shows from Electric Farm Entertainment (Brent Friedman, see the more recent Valemont) have been particularly adept at engaging audiences with complex web sites and narratives that include extra content (text/blogs, videos, mobile integration).
For those series publishing on more than one site, the consumer experience changes depending on the setting. YouTube, it seems to me, is particularly “view”-focused (having the burden of hosting most viral videos) while simultaneously being prone to active comment practices. Other sites like Crackle are cleaner and more professional-looking, perhaps increasing the distance between audience and show a bit more, but that’s just my opinion.
The sites of web shows are so diverse I’ll have to save the issue for another blog post. A few paragraphs cannot come close to describing the variety of ways users interact with shows and how those shows decide to interact with audiences.
My Web Series Biases
I should say that, in terms of what I like to write about and research, I have a bias toward original, scripted content. This pretty much follows my interests in television and film as well (I don’t watch much reality television, even though it’s fascinating, and not too many feature-length documentaries either). So when I talk about web shows, I probably mean more The Guild than Barely Political. It’s really just a preference. I don’t think any type of show is more or less valuable than any other. Personally I find it more interesting when an individual or a group of individuals has to create something culturally relevant and resonant from their imaginations or by remixing the events around them into something fresh.
For More Information:
There are a lot of websites that do this better than me, and the best way to learn is to read, read, read. Here are few sites I’ve found are really good to get you started:
NewTeeVee – Really the clearinghouse for all things online video, they have great writers who are brimming with knowledge and think both practically and intelligently about where online video is headed.
Blip TV – Great advice, helpful information and a bit of random stuff thrown in from one of the largest video distributors on the web.
Beet.TV – Very business-oriented with lots of video, great if you really want to know what the big players are doing and what they’re talking about (not solely focused on web series, though).
Daisy Whitney – Short, easy to understand advice and news on the business of online video.
Web Series Magazine – Also business-focused, very practical and clear.
I’m going to start this list now, but it’s a foolhardy attempt. I can’t keep track of all the web series tweeters. These are just a few I grabbed while scrolling through my list of follows, each one talks about web series with varying degrees.
Thanks for reading!
Are there any interesting or fundamental aspects of web series I am missing? Anything I just plain got wrong?