Taking TV Online

easytoassemble300With the Comcast/NBC merger on the horizon, Hollywood has been abuzz about how all this is going to affect the beleaguered TV industry. Now that the biggest Internet and mobile-phone provider in the U.S. is buying a vast vat of premium TV and film properties, will audiences finally be able to watch what they want where they want it?

As we fret about whether we’ll still get to watch The Daily Show for free on Hulu (Comcast will scoop that up in the deal, too), we may not notice the quiet revolution that’s taking place in the murky world of online-only Web series. “Webisodes” have been around since the late 90’s, but ever-increasing broadband penetration rates, and destination video sites like YouTube have made it much easier to distribute original, scripted video content online. As media conglomerates wring their hands about monetizing online content, some creative industry insiders decided to throw caution to the wind and put their stuff online anyway.

For film and TV writers, who are often deeply insulated from audience feedback, it can be pretty bracing. Web series are a relatively new creative outlet, and they’re often cheaper andeasier to produce than plays. Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild, dedicated an entire issue to digital media issues, including a long article about TV industry veterans trying their hand at Web series. Ylse, which is written and produced by a working TV actress, Ruth Livier, airs online every two weeks, along with an intervening sub-series every other week. After developing the idea, Livier realized there was no way her off-color Spanglish creation would get picked up as a TV pilot so she decided to post it online instead. She became the first person to become a WGA member based on writing a Web series.

The Guild, an online soapie about gamers, was created by Felicia Day, another working actress (and World of Warcraft addict). Geeky, niche-driven content works really well online, and The Guild has been tremendously successful, racking up 25 million views so far. The show is completely financially supported by fans using PayPal to make donations. Microsoft noticed, and now the show’s going to run on Xbox . . . in nine languages.

While the Web is a great place to test out a new idea, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a built in audience. Andrew Miller knew his Web series Imaginary Bitches would have an immediate foothold because he cast as the lead his Daytime Emmy award-winning wife Eden Riegel, of AllMy Children. Soapie fans were more than happy to follow her online for racy material that could never be aired on ABC. Now Imaginary Bitches has won a daytime Emmy in a new category called New Approaches to Daytime Entertainment.

But where’s the money in all this? Well, there’s not a lot, but there are several new distribution options out there, well beyond DVD. For instance, Virgin Australia has picked up Imaginary Bitches for its in-flight entertainment, and the marketing campaign matches the spirit of the show: “now screening exclusively on Virgin Australia, the only bitches you’ll find onboard.”

Writers are, by definition, content providers, and regardless of all the anxiety about monetizing that material, it’s nice to know there are people out there who can actually generate quality content when they have the time and energy to do so. Got a writing block, like Diablo Cody recently had? She said she loosened it up by writing something for Funny or Die (not sure if she ever sent them the script, though). Ruth Livier, creator of Ylse, was thrilled that she didn’t have to mess with the Standards & Practices suits and she could interact directly with fans about her work. And Josh Whedon’s much-beloved Web series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, now sitting happily on the “New Releases” shelf at my neighborhood video store, is a truly genre-bending sci-fi musical that would have boggled the minds of network TV gatekeepers.

And, believe it or not, even if you don’t have Joss Whedon’s fanatic following, there are opportunities to make money with serialized Web content. There’s interstitial advertising, of course, like you see on Hulu, but there are also affiliate opportunities that allow the creator of the Web series to choose products to promote on the show’s site, and click throughs result in kick backs. And Web series writers have the option to do a lot more than just write webisodes. They can continue the story outside of the video frame, creating blogs and Twitter accounts in the names of the characters they’ve created. Add behind-the-scenes commentary and comments from fans and you’ve got a treasure-trove of cohesive, targeted, interactive content. Stick to a regular schedule for uploading new episodes and you’ve got something like the holy grail of television: appointment viewing.

These days product placement isn’t just for American Idol. One very funny Web series starring Illeana Douglas, Easy to Assemble, managed to cut a deal with IKEA. And a site called PlaceVineplays matchmaker between content creators and brands that want to latch onto content that complements their product (Funny or Die is apparently a client). And in the magical world of online, product placement can take place in the video, in a character’s “personal” blog, and in the behind-the-scenes commentary by cast and crew. For better or worse, it looks like the age of advertainment has arrived.

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