A book chapter on web series networks for “Crossmedia Innovations”

The following text is a chapter proposal for a chapter about web series for an upcoming book called Crossmedia Innovations: Texts, Markets, Institutions, Education. I am currently looking to interview web series creators about their experiences in finding audiences for their shows. The book will be published late 2012. The first round interviews will be conducted via email between 3 – 16 March. If you are a web series creator and interested in participating, please email me on s.ellingsen@latrobe.edu.au.

Web series networks: How independent media are pushing the boundaries of emerging genres (suggested chapter title)

In 1995, then aspiring filmmaker and ad agency employee, Scott Zakarin created The Spot (thespot.com). It was the first interactive episodic drama on the web, and followed a hip twenty-something crowd living in a Southern California bungalow – often likened to TV’s hit show Melrose Place. The innovative web site garnered big-name sponsors, and even won a ‘Cool Site of the Year’-award in 1995, an award that was the origin of what is now known as The Webby Awards. For two years it was a major success story, until it eventually came to an end due to money troubles (Macavinta, 1997).
Two years later, NBC launched a series called Homicide: Second shift on the Internet. Rather than being a spin-off of the network’s already popular cop show, Homicide: Life on the streets, the web series existed within the same universe, and ran alongside the original story. The shows were set in the same Baltimore police precinct, and when the TV detectives clocked off, another cast of online detectives clocked on. As both shows developed, they became saturated with intertextual references and characters would at one point cross over from the web to make cameos in the TV show, further connecting the storylines. It was a groundbreaking use of the online platform for a broadcaster, as up until that point in time the web was seen as little more than a promotional tool for what was on the TV screen. Second Shift was short lived, but it received acclaim for being “cutting edge of network TV on your PC” (Mannes, 1997). However exciting and promising NBC’s innovation, the business model failed despite it being a low-budget production, and technological limitations made it too difficult to convert a great idea into equally great content. Thus, with the exception of some brave experiments, the development of the web series genre was a slow drive for some years to come.

From the start of the new millennium, online delivery systems gradually became quicker and capable of handling more technologically demanding media. New platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo emerged around 2005, providing new ways to offer content. Perhaps most revolutionizing about these new platforms was that they also provided independent content makers with unprecedented means to potentially reach thousands, if not millions. In mid-2006 lonelygirl15 began posting on YouTube. At first posing as the work of a teenage girl video blogger, the series became an overnight sensation, and one of YouTube’s most popular series (see Heffernan 2007). Around the same time, a new Scott Zakarin creation, the comedy series Soup of the Day, also saw the light of day. The series was posted across several sites, but on YouTube alone the 19 episodes of the first season registered more than six million views (Arnold, 2006).

While the success of YouTube has been remarkable, and the revenue-share business model has provided enough income for a select few to be able to quit their day jobs (see Wei, 2010), the “viral” nature of the site and other such content farms has been criticized for celebrating low-quality content for its high advertising impact (see MacManus, 2009). Thus, making it difficult for ‘serious’ independent content makers to cut through the noise and find a solid audience.

Perhaps in response to this criticism, the last three or four years have seen the rise of a number of online TV networks focusing almost entirely on independent series made exclusively for the web. KoldCast.tv, Blip.TV, Strike.TV, WebSeriesNetwork.com and Nextnewnetworks.com – the latter was acquired by YouTube in March 2011 – are some examples. Like YouTube, these networks are liberated from the business and distribution models of legacy media, and their business model is similar in that it is based on shared ad-revenue. Beyond that, these networks provide better branding for the content, and focus on optimising the viewing experience, making it easier for audiences to discover and follow consistent and ongoing independent programming. Big businesses have latched on to this development, and realised the need to help facilitate it, as with YouTube’s acquisition of Nextnewnetworks.com in March this year. Businessinsider.com wrote this about the acquisition:

The idea is to help partners create deeper, more professional content that can draw repeat, longer-term viewers, instead of just the “dog on skateboard” stuff, music videos, and pirated TV clips that represent a lot of YouTube traffic today (Frommer, 2011).

This proposed chapter will be looking at web series as a maturing form of the web video phenomenon. It will look at web series networks as emerging economic markets with new cross-platform distribution models, as well as they are community-building and talent-furthering strategies within an up-and-coming industry. The main focus will be on the potential benefits online TV networks offer for emerging content makers, how they provide alternative and additional platforms to video aggregator sites like YouTube and, in turn, how these networks are pushing the boundaries of emerging genres on emerging platforms.

Steinar Ellingsen is a Norwegian journalist, PhD candidate and Lecturer in Journalism at La Trobe University (Melbourne, Australia). His PhD project is a practice-based thesis, a documentary web series chronicling a ten-week odyssey in Australia, called The Inland Sea: An Australian Odyssey. Before shifting hemispheres, Steinar spent seven years as a freelance writer and photographer, and worked as a casual sports editor at the newspaper Laagendalsposten in Norway. In 2007, he was nominated for a Norwegian SKUP award, as part of a reportage team investigating a crisis in the local age care service in his hometown, Kongsberg.

 

Works cited:

Arnold, T. K 2006, ‘From the Internet straight to DVD’, USA Today February 10, 2006. Available: http://www.usatoday.com/tech/2006-10-02-net-dvd-shows_x.htm

Frommer, D 2011, ‘Google, Really, Officialy Is A Media Company’, Business Insider March 07, 2011. Available: http://articles.businessinsider.com/2011-03-07/tech/30078337_1_online-video-google-music-videos#ixzz1YIJL9Sg5

Heffernan, V 2007, ‘YouTube Awards the Top of its Heap’, The New York Times March 27, 2007. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/27/arts/27tube.html?_r=1&oref=login

Macavinta, C 1997, ‘Death marks The Spot’, CNet News July 1, 1997. Available: http://news.cnet.com/Death-marks-The-Spot/2100-1023_3-201052.html

MacManus, R 2009, ‘Content Farms: Why Media, Blogs & Google Should Be Worried’, in ReadWriteWeb December 13, 2009. Available: http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/content_farms_impact.php

Mannes, G 1997, ‘Nbc Tv Works Second Shift On Web’, NYDailynews.com December 21, 1997. Available: http://articles.nydailynews.com/1997-12-21/news/18050365_1_nbc-digital-productions-studio-8h-media-metrix

Wei, W 2010, ‘Meet the YouTube Stars Making $100,000 Plus Per Year’, Business Insider August 19, 2010. Available: http://www.businessinsider.com/meet-the-richest-independent-youtube-stars-2010-8

Pickett, T 2011, ‘Superchargingthe “Next “ phase in YouTube partner development’, Broadcasting ourselves: The official youTube blog March7, 2011. Available: http://youtube-global.blogspot.com/2011/03/supercharging-next-phase-in-youtube.html

 

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