Web Series Are Coming Into A Prime Time of Their Own

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 17, 2009

Seen any good TV lately? I have. I haven't seen it on TV, though, not even replayed on Hulu.com. Hulu is amateur hour. I'm deep into Web-only stuff right now. And it's really, really good.

Take "The Guild" (I am obsessed with "The Guild"), which is so dorky-hilarious it makes you wish you were a serious gamer so you could hang out with Codex and her friends. And "Sorority Forever," which at first seems lame and blond until suddenly it turns spooky and kind of awesome. "You Suck at Photoshop" has an amazing voice-over, Rosario Dawson is gorgeous in "Gemini Division" (can you believe her fiance was a government robot?), and the dual story lines in "Before Judgment" and "After Judgment" are almost as ambitious as "Lost."

Used to be, these Web series were known as webisodes. But that term was a cutesy play on "TV episode," and implied a diminutive and substandard product -- an experiment that was not-quite-television, and that probably couldn't get picked up by NBC or its ilk.

Today, most of these shows still probably won't be purchased for prime time by a broadcast network, but that's not necessarily an insult. In the past year, Web series have grown into a separate genre of entertainment, with their own awards ceremonies, critics and rabid fan followings.

The shows don't look exactly like the traditional television series we're used to, but if you're willing to adapt to the medium you might discover something surprising: You can become a very satisfied television addict without ever straying from your laptop. When done right, the experience can be more intimate, more creative and more personal than you ever expected.

* * *

In the beginning, there was LonelyGirl15.

Grainy and amateurish, she vlogged into her webcam for all of YouTube to see, and as her story got creepier, her audience grew. Was she a real teen, dangerously involved in a religious cult? Or were the videos actually teasers for a movie, something "Blair Witch"-y?

The actual answer, when it was revealed in summer 2006, seemed the most bizarre: LonelyGirl wasn't a prelude to anything but rather an independent series, one that eventually spanned hundreds of episodes and thousands of fans. How odd. What kind of series would broadcast online only, with episodes just three minutes long? What was this thing?

How far online TV has come.

To find a Web series today, you could sift through the vastness of YouTube. But why bother when there are entire networks out there that produce or aggregate series for you? Most media corporations have online counterparts: Warner Bros. has TheWB.com, for example, which hosts 14 original Web series; NBC's Web site has 12, including "Gemini Division"; and Sony's Crackle.com has about 40, including its biggest hit, "Angel of Death," which is about a reformed assassin who decides to go after her former employers.

And then there are the smaller-name channels -- Strike.tv offers more than 40 original series; Koldcast.tv has around 70 -- as well as the hundreds of independent filmmakers who self-promote their shows. Most series comprise short episodes topping out at four or five minutes apiece and are released online in a variety of ways -- a new episode a day, 10 new ones at once or on a traditional weekly schedule.

"A couple of years ago we would cover every new series," says Liz Gannes, founder of NewTeeVee.com, which launched in late 2006. "Now there's no way we would think about it. ABC just launched a whole new interactive Web series and I barely had time to look at it."

"There are literally thousands of shows out there," says Marc Hustvedt, co-founder of TubeFilter.tv, which has been reviewing Web series for a year. "I think 3,000 would be a conservative estimate."

The recent feast is in many ways a result of the writers' strike famine of 2007-08, in which professional screenwriters found themselves out of work and lacking a creative outlet. Some used the time to go online, away from Writers Guild restrictions, and pour energy into low-budget pet projects.

Joss Whedon of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fame wrote "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," which chronicled the romantic mishaps of a wannabe nemesis and persuaded Neil Patrick Harris to star. With songs inspired by Stephen Sondheim, the three-part series gained a cult following and garnered critical acclaim from both rabid Whedonites and mainstream media outlets. Time magazine, ignoring the show's online identity, named it the fourth best TV show of 2008 -- ahead of "The Wire" and "Lost."

Remembering the success of LonelyGirl15, online production company Big Fantastic cast Jessica Rose, the lonely girl herself, in "Sorority Forever" on TheWB.com. She plays Julie, a Phi Chi Kappa pledge who discovers secret passageways and unexplained disappearances in addition to the frat parties and mandatory weigh-ins.

Rose also landed a role in the forthcoming Web thriller series "Blood Cell" and co-founded her own Web production company called Webutantes. "It's not the career I envisioned when I set out to be an actress," says Rose, who had assumed that she would transition to movies after paying her dues online. She'd have more money in that scenario, she says wryly. Though bigger-name Web series do have ad partnerships and sponsors, no one's making the profits -- or getting the salaries -- of movies or broadcast television.

But practical matters aside, Rose has learned to view online stardom as its own endgame. The Web has become, she says, "the new mainstream."

* * *

If there are 3,000 Web shows and if each series has, say, five episodes, and if each episode is roughly two minutes long, that represents 500 hours of online television available online, with more being produced every day.

Which is enough to make you want to crawl back to the sofa and regress to a bunny ear antenna.

And to ask two questions:

(1) How do you sort through the online madness when you can't even keep up with "24"?

(2) What would the Web have that "24" doesn't, anyway? In other words, what makes the online TV-viewing experience compelling, unique, worth your eyeballs?

In more ways than one, watching Web series is the perfect modern experience -- the ideal answer to a packed schedule. Entire seasons can be watched in 40 minutes, which (pathetically?) can feel like an accomplishment for a task-oriented person who likes to finish things.

But watching them is an isolating experience. Hits like "The Guild" aside, the average Web series might have only a few thousand regular viewers. Good luck stumbling across a fellow "Lonely Corn Muffin" fan.

The most intriguing Web series are the ones that recognize this -- that realize these shows are being viewed by solitary people on laptops, not by families piled on sofas. They work the intimate to their advantage.

Consider "Gemini Division": The twisty sci-fi mystery is largely just Rosario Dawson's face as she looks into her webcam, detailing her investigation into her fiance's murder. "The Guild" is anchored by a World of Warcraft player's video diary of the day's awkward events, as is Strike.tv's "With the Angels," in which a Southern transplant vlogs her attempts to understand Californians. In these series, the fourth wall exists to be broken, characters speak as if you're a good friend, as if they made this little show just for you. (And in fact, they probably did -- with 3,000 shows, entertainment becomes insanely personalized; there truly is something for everyone.)

Or consider the practice of "screencasting," in which the viewer sees nothing but someone else's computer screen. "You Suck at Photoshop" is simply a view of your "instructor's" Photoshop window. But as the instructor -- in voice-over -- shows you how to use the program, he weaves in tales of his own pathetic life. It's surprisingly funny and even more surprisingly poignant. All around, it's surprisingly . . . surprising, at least for a viewer used to a standard three-camera sitcom.

"It's not just because it's coming out of a box in your living room that you know it's a TV show," Gannes of NewTeeVee says. In some ways, seeing new forms online is even more gratifying than seeing some of the wacky story lines. (In "Lonely Corn Muffin," the protagonist is an ultra-conservative bread product looking for friends at anti-abortion rallies.) These don't feel like TV shows so much as like a nascent form of entertainment, still developing and codifying itself.

In March, TubeFilter paired with a few other sites to put on the first Streamys -- an awards show dedicated to honoring the best Web series. Nearly 1,400 people attended the sold-out ceremony in Los Angeles, which was streamed live online. Honors were given out in 25 categories, including best editing, best art direction and best ad integration. There was one audience-choice award; the others were selected by members of the International Academy of Web Television, an 88-person organization founded this year by Hustvedt and other industry players.

"What's happening is a unification of the space," Hustvedt says. The Web TV community has historically been fractured, he says. "The YouTubers, the podcasters, people from Blip.tv or Vimeo -- people stayed where their audience was in these defined bubbles. . . . It took everyone getting together to say, 'Hey, we're more than cat videos on YouTube.' "

As these series come into their own, gaining fans and advertising, there's always the chance that some of the very lucky ones might gain something else as well -- the attention of broadcast networks, which might want to transport the shows to the well-funded land of traditional television.

That's what happened with "In the Motherhood," a Web series that began online in 2007 starring Chelsea Handler and ended up on TV a few months ago starring Cheryl Hines. The Web version was arch, pointed, personal. The TV version flopped. Same thing happened to "Quarterlife" a few years back. Its huge numbers online were pathetic numbers on television, and in its single broadcasted episode it lost whatever spunky appeal it had had on the Internet.

And you wonder if, for shows meant to be viewed online, a move to television will ever be a lucky move after all.

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