At a recent conference in LA,* a producer on a panel to an audience of convergent content creators boldly declared that web series should just be called series, dropping the heavy-laden word “web” from the phrase. He is not alone in this viewpoint. We’ve seen increasing efforts from various people to change the language around web series the more TV converges with digital. Recently, a plethora of confusing terms have been bandied about in order to escape the hangover of “amateurity” that web series and vlogs are often accused of. Netflix, for instance, refers to its original programming as “Original Series,” neither employing the words “TV” or “web” (see Glossary below).
It might seem like a no-brainer, more and more TV series are being legally distributed and watched online through broadcast website portals and apps. And with digital subscription portals like Netflix now producing shows, there is almost no distinction between comedy and narrative series produced for a broadcaster and an online/digital portal (although Arrested Development’s “binge” release strategy informed the non-linear “arc” of its second season on Netflix.)
Further to conflate the issue, online distribution platforms are beginning to behave more and more like broadcasters: see Youtube’s investment into MCNs for the production of original content, and Maker’s takeover of Blip and all that entails for example.
At the end of the day, does the audience care if it is called a web series or TV series, as long as they enjoy the content when they want, how they want? Aren’t web series just like TV Series that are distributed and watched online? Shouldn’t we just start calling them all series?
NOT ALL SCREEN CONTENT IS THE SAME
You want to watch a show, and everywhere there are screens to access it: from the large “monitor” in the living room to the smartphone in your pocket, video content seems to be delivered the same way.
While on the outset the delivery might appear to be the same, TV production for digital series online is produced and distributed in entirely different ways than most web series. What we are now seeing with the convergence of screens and the conversations around them is a “blackboxing” of the production of narrative content. By judging only on the output of screens, web series and TV/Original Series appear to be exchangeable. Even Mashable called House of Cards a web series. But is it really?
We need to crack open past the blackbox of the screen in order to understand the internal complexity of how web series is produced and distributed in a much different fashion to TV/Original Series, and to understand why this is important.
TV PRODUCTION MODEL VERSUS WEB SERIES PRODUCTION MODEL
Although TV series are now being produced for online distribution, and in fact more and more broadcasters are delivering their entire roster of content digitally, in many respects despite the method of delivery, it is business as usual. For example, there are many routes to be in a position of the creator or showrunner of a TV series if you are a storyteller, all of which are long and complicated unless by nepotism or a strange quirk of the universe. And most showrunners have to counter constant creative interference from the broadcasters who OWN the show. This has not changed.
For web series, anyone can pick up a camera and start creating content and post it online.
I repeat: ANYONE can pick up a camera and start creating content to tell the stories they want to tell and reach the audience they want via this magical series of tubes known as the internet also commonly referred to as the web. And while yes that might mean there are millions upon millions of hours of video content uploaded, much of it is unwatchable, this new distribution model allowed for a new and vibrant scene of storytellers to emerge: web series has been called “the independent film” of narrative serial screen-based content.
This is revolutionary. Storytellers can tell the stories they want with a direct connection to audiences and build to a sustainable existence while bypassing gatekeepers. They are not creating TV online because TV has never been created that way. Rather, over a decade, independent web series creators who pioneered this form of storytelling have learned to make the most with the least by becoming the lean start-up of serialized video content production: forming new hybrid entertainment business models. It is not business as usual, and we have only just begun to identify the emerging sustainable models for this revolutionary democratic form of storytelling.
A few years back, I recall a famously known media conglomerate was launching an online distribution portal. Its representatives were explaining to the content creators in the room what they were scouting for. “We are looking for producers who get story, we are looking for producers who understand how to develop and deliver audiences, we are looking for producers who can deliver the most production value with least expense, we are looking for producers who get online forms of distribution and how the web works,” the voice in my sketchy memory recalls. And then someone tweeted in the room: “If I get all that, why the fuck do I need a FAMOUSLY KNOWN MEDIA CONGLOMERATE?”
PIONEERING STORYTELLING TECHNIQUES
It can come as quite a surprise to some that web series are not simply a TV show or film re-edited as a series. Battlestar Gallactica’s Blood & Chrome, although distributed as a web series, was always a TV pilot, and this really affected the flow of the show where audiences felt unsatisfied with the lack of arc for each individual episode. TV and Original Series, regardless of which screen it is consumed on, follows a tightly followed story structure despite the presence or absence of commercial breaks or not. It is standardized in a way that became formulated over many decades for reasons ancillary to storytelling (and continues to do so).
Web series don’t have to follow the rules, and while some do, the most exciting series do things that a TV series will not deliver simply because the medium has not become codified the way TV narrative series have. While House of Cards and Mad Men are structurally indistinguishable in terms of length, arcs, act breaks and the like, the Lizzie Bennet Diaries (with 180 bite-sized episodes and intense transmedia/social storytelling integrations) and other popular web series are of a completely different animal in terms of structure: and that is something to be celebrated not denigrated. We don’t want our shows to look and behave like TV online or we would be telling stories that look like TV online. There are many reasons we might not, innovation being just one reason. And yet while some web series might look quite a bit like TV series, if you look intently you will find various tropes unique to the medium embedded.
AN APPROACH TO AUDIENCES
What many content producers fail to understand is that TV broadcasters are not in the business of buying ideas to produce and sell amazing stories. TV is only interested in investing in content that they gamble will deliver sizable audiences to SELL to advertisers. Ratings are therefore kind of a big deal for broadcasters, online and off, and the content needs to attract the broadest base possible of their target demographics. Ad sales are a numbers game. You need a quantity of eyeballs for any return on investment. Even in cable or subscription models the stories themselves are moot, it is a quantity of eyeballs. Netflix does not care if people watch Arrested Development or any other particular show. They care only that people subscribe.
What this means is that in broadcasters strive to be mass media, they neglect and negate specific audiences that are either niche or underserved. While there have been a smattering of quality LGBT dramas or characters on TV over the years, it is in web series where they are flourishing. In the Greater Toronto Area alone we have: Out with Dad, BJ Fletcher, Leslieville, Gay Nerds, Who the Fuck is Nancy, Simple Events and Boystown (just to name a few off the top of my head) that have been produced in one city’s region alone (with a plethora more in development)! The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl features the story of a shy black woman in resistance to the often employed sassy snapping fingers stereotype we find on TV, and this show would not have been made on TV until it had proven that it had a significant audience attractive to advertisers.
Niche and fetish content would also not find a home on TV or broadcasting digital portals: look at the wide range of web series in the D&D/Larping arena or shows such as Clutch and Venus Spa that have sizable audiences that enjoy content that speaks to them. Content that is not appealing to large companies that by ad space for TV.
Bypassing Gate Keepers
And while the success of some web series can speak to the dearth of underserved audiences, it also can speak to marginalized producers that broadcast media has not been kind to: specifically professional writers, producers and crew that are women, LGBT, and/or people of colour. I do not have to pull out the statistics to prove how dismal TV is to women producers, writers and directors. Women’s careers in TV end ten years before men. The opportunities dry up for women at a certain age, as Jill Golick has said: no one wants their mom in the writer’s room. When the calls dried up for her, she took manners in her own hands with an entrepreneurial spirit to produce the well-regarded Ruby Skye PI.
Even kids have produced web series, bypassing a system that would have taken them decades to move up the ranks before being entrusted to showrun a series, allowing them to become mini media moguls full of entrepreneurial savvy. Rather than being “amateurish” as many of have accused for a lack of the high production values of TV, there is a whole generation of “amateurs” who are the pioneers of R&D in web video content, audience development techniques, and new business models. And there are more young and emerging generations ready to follow suit who will bring new and exciting ways of doing things. This should be celebrated rather than denigrated.
AUDIENCE APPROACHES TO WATCHING TV ONLINE AND WEB SERIES ONLINE
As I’ve stated, broadcasters delivers eyeballs to advertisers and online portals develop subscribers. This is often for a passive viewing audience that consumes the content. The approach by web series producers is often different: they are by their very nature of being producers on the web – social, nurturing and developing audiences for direct communication. They are in the seat of command in terms of when they make appearances to speak to fans online and off. And what connects the web series creator to the audience is story.
While many web series creators are keen on making a sustainable living, even a grossly profitable one, the impetus for producing can often be for a myriad of reasons: web series creators might want to serve an underrepresented demographic, they might want to acquire a new skill set or cultural capital that will lead to other gigs to smash through barriers of entry imposed by a system that marginalizes them, they might want to pioneer a new form of storytelling. Or, they might just have a story they are busting to tell and they don’t want someone’s permission to do it.
Broadcasters and subscription portals are purely profit driven. That isn’t to say TV is not in a golden age of storytelling but its relationship with audiences is distant and disconnected. Sure a show might employ a social media campaign or transmedia elements for interactive components outside of the tent-pole property, but it is the TV producer who is the exception NOT the rule that has an intimate connection to their fanbase. Despite Josh Whedon’s connection and love of fans: it is FOX that decides to send cease and desist letters to them over fan-created products developed from the storyworld he created.
It’s Not About The Media
Despite all the differentiations between TV & Original Series online and web series, there are countless examples of web series that behave and look like TV whether they are pursuing a mainstream audience or following the standardized storytelling structure. However there is one element that makes web series distinct for those who embrace, rather than move to shed, the term. Web series creators who embrace the term are disrupters, voyagers, captains of their content in a vast sea of entertainment.
These creators understand that web series is NOT a media: it is a movement, one that allows content creators to bypass gatekeepers with disruptive media and taking ownership of one’s distribution chain with a direct connection to their audiences.
And even if new media portals behave more and more like broadcasters they will not yield to an old system with new masters.
We acknowledge definitions are always in flux. Our definitions represent the terms as they are often used, and through this writer’s specific lens (full disclosure: she is also the Executive Director of the IWCC).
Feel free to disagree with the presented definitions in the comments, and offer your own.
web series: a series created from within a movement, one that allows content creators to bypass gatekeepers with disruptive media and taking ownership of one’s distribution chain with a direct connection to their audiences; sometimes called “the new independent film” or the “lean start up” of serialized entertainment.
web show: a web show is produced via the same model of web series but usually defined as non-narrative content, though web series is often used as a short hand for either; not a vlog. Epic Meal Time is an example of a web show.
vlog: a video blog produced via the same model of web series and web shows that is personality driven by “vloggers”; vloggers is often synonymous with “Youtubers”
web TV: a misnomer that went out with “cyberspace” and “information super highway” and as quaint and antiquated to call movies: “Talking Picture Shows” (although still often used un-ironically even as recently as this article by the New Yorker).
webisodes: the episodes of an online companion series to a tent-pole TV show (although less and less in use today); episodes of web series are commonly just called “episodes,” although some independent creators still employ the term for their standalone series
mobisodes: another misnomer that fell out of favour once it was simply acknowledged that there was not much distinction from mobile and web distribution
appisodes: never really caught on, “app based episodes” is a term that can be used when the series distribution method is primarily through a singular app; sometimes used to describe companion short series to tent-pole TV property to describe; Disney still seems to favour this term
digital series: An original series produced for digital portal such as Netflix or digital arm of a broadcaster, can include documentary series.
It also has been used to define ‘BIG BUDGET’ series that “look” like TV but can behave like web series. H+ is defined as a Digital Series but on IMDB as a TV series.
indie series: a word rarely used for web series per se but might catch on to make distinction between web series and TV series distributed and watched online, the Indie Soap Awards is one such champion of the term; however indie series is most often referred to a curated series of independent films “screened” online
original series to web: a phrase predominately used by Yahoo to express: this is just like a TV show but ONLINE! It can now be a phrase for creators to elude that the series was produced with intent to be debuted online with plans to distribute in other ways such as for traditional broadcast or even re-cut as a feature film; it might also imply the series is standardized like a TV series is in terms of length, act breaks, etc.
“original series” or “series”: a catchall for all screen series despite of production and distribution models. Netflix favours original series for its shows in order to make its production value and quality indistinct from TV
* This quote, which was the impetus for this article, was said while I was not in the room, but I heard of it later in the hallways and greenroom. I have failed after several attempts to confirm who it was or to source which panel.