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For cutting-edge TV, look to the Web

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Previews of online shows "Girl Number 9," "The Guild" and "The Bannen Way."

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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 2010

The International Academy of Web Television revealed its selections last week for the best original online programming at the Streamy Awards in Los Angeles. Nearly 200 shows were nominated for 35 categories on the live-streamed show, which ran about as long as the Oscars -- remarkable when one considers that a typical Web series can be watched like LensCrafters, from start to finish in about an hour.

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There was even a very geeky cause-du-jour -- white ribbons on lapels worn in support of "net neutrality." Save the Internet!

Over-ambitious, much? Maybe. After all, only the highest echelon of Web television producers can make full-time livings off of their content. The Streamys ceremony included one woeful segment in which passersby were asked to name their favorite Web series, and most everyone responded with blank stares.

But those looking to escape down the rabbit hole of online television have no shortage of watchable stuff. Try "Easy to Assemble," in which toothy Illeana Douglas and Justine Bateman play underemployed actresses who decide to abandon the Hollywood grind for jobs at Ikea. (Guest stars include "Glee's" Jane Lynch doing an appalling Swedish accent.) Try "Web Therapy," in which Lisa Kudrow plays the world's most self-absorbed shrink, dispensing wretched online advice. In "Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis," the hairy guy from "The Hangover" bumbles through excruciating celebrity interviews -- feel free to skip to the episode where Charlize Theron calls him a "fat garden gnome."

Since the inaugural Streamys last year, "Major studios are investing more time and energy into this space," says Liz Shannon Miller, a critic for NewTeeVee.com, which covers the Web television industry and which co-hosted the awards. "And individuals are investing the time and energy necessary to compete with bigger players." Mainstream corporations that have Web-only divisions include Sony, the WB and NBC.

"The number of deals we're doing is definitely growing," says George Ruiz, director of new media at the talent agency International Creative Management. Ruiz specializes in clients whose careers exist primarily online, including "The Guild" creator Felicia Day -- the Cinderella of Web television whose show is bankrolled by Microsoft -- and Kevin Pollak, a film actor ("The Usual Suspects") who has moved to the Web to host "Kevin Pollak's Chat Show."

Whereas the early wisdom of Web series was that no-names would use them to achieve mainstream fame, now it's equally common to find recognizable faces using the Web as a playground for creative experimentation.

"Web video is the new Sundance," Day says. "You can tell stories that wouldn't necessarily be sold right away -- stories that are much more personal." Niche is king -- it's difficult to imagine a show about nerdy online gamers succeeding on television, which is where Day originally envisioned "The Guild."

On traditional television, "There's a huge lag time between the content you envision and when that content is actually available," says Pollak, who recently launched an online comedy about a dumpy vampire trying to find work in a culture obsessed with the chiseled undead of "Twilight." But Web series can be posted immediately, without endless test audiences or muddling execs.

A lot of it is bad -- real bad -- but that's true of regular TV, too (Have you seen "Cougar Town" lately?). A more apt observation might be that it's still searching for an identity. The current state of Web TV reminds Pollak "of those early days of HBO, where literally half their programming was some bizarre shot of three women in leotards doing exercises."

Then came "Six Feet Under," "Sex and the City," and "The Sopranos." It's unclear what future viewers will view as the Web's magnum opuses. Still, "There's no question," Pollack says, "that the promise and the potential is just as grand here."

Says Bateman, the former "Family Ties" actress who recently testified before Congress in support of net neutrality and keeping the Internet unregulated: "I think this is the most exciting time to be in entertainment since the development of movies. . . .

"Don't make the Internet the place where you dump your worst work. Make it the place where you showcase your best."


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