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Let’s Save the Web Series

The web series genre, as we know it, is dying.

There, I said it.

I know that The Guild just got an article written about it in the Wall Street Journal and I know I just announced that Break a Leg got a network deal — but, as a whole, the web series genre is laying in its hospital bed and watching its life ebb quietly away. It lays there and it remembers what once was — it remembers the fetal kicking of The Burg, it remembers the crowning head of Break a Leg, and it remembers the bursting forth of LonelyGirl15 out of its vagina.

And now it stares listlessly into space as the nurses give it a periodic injection of The Guild, Season 3 or a short-lived, celebrity-laden web series that prolongs its life by just a few more months.

The web series is dying, but I’m hopeful.

Do you know why I’m hopeful?

Because I’ve periodically, in articles, blogs and to drunk people around me, muttered bitterly about the fact that the genre just isn’t working. We as a community have often celebrated the wrong successes (oh, wow, “Fred” the high-pitched talking 16 year old got a network deal?! There is a chance for high-quality content to succeed after all! Write more about it, NewTeeVee! Everyone must know of his genius!) and stopped short of fostering the talent that could’ve pushed us forward.

In general, we’ve treated one another as star performers in the Special Olympics — yay, you made a video! You’re so good! Instead of critically judging one another, we’ve set the bar so incredibly low that a show with a few marginal actors and one or two laughs is sheer genius. We also, as I wrote in my article from a year ago, celebrated the low-budget show — the show with non-actors, non-writers, non-filmmakers — as if we were talentless hippie San Francisco artists desperately hoping to be artists in our failure to do art (sorry, San Francisco hippies — you’re not all like that, but I live here, I’ve been to art shows and plays — it’s not pretty).

I’m hopeful because it seems to me that we’ve finally dropped the act and now just think that the whole damn genre is failing. But that’s okay. Bitterness passes and I desperately hope that it will open into a debate, an open forum where we can think of ideas to recreate prior successes and build something much bigger, much more potent than anything we had before.

That said — I’ve decided to start the discussion that will, because I’m eternally optimistic, change entertainment. Okay? Okay.

So, here are four of my own suggestions to remake the web series genre:

1. Let’s stop bashing TV and figure out a way to work with networks. The fact is, unless it’s a network-funded show, very few web shows can compete with TV shows, and I’m talking about in everything — writing, visuals, acting and so on. Network TV is hurting though, and aside from maybe the Colbert Report, none of them really know how to utilize the web to increase viewership. Not only that, but most of them refuse to even think outside the box to attempt new media-style marketing.

My solution? We need to get to a place where web shows are like the minor leagues to TV’s major leagues.

We need network people to step up and start working with prominent web creators and people in the space. People like Quincy Smith from CBS Interactive (who I hear is quitting the network… fantastic) have the power to, say, create a site that would specifically focus on finding the best of the best web shows and both shop them to networks while helping them gain a following.

People like Felicia Day, Kent Nichols, the Big Fantastic guys and hell, even me and my crew, can work together to create and help others create content that isn’t good for the web but just good.

2. Tilzy.tv, Tubefilter.tv and NewTeeVee.com should not only review shows and throw them into their ever-growing mammoth collection of web series but also focus on finding the cream of the crop. As journalists, it’s their job to find the little nuggets of gold — shows that perhaps no one is watching — and not only review them, but champion them. The Guild, Dr. Horrible, any show with a celebrity — these will always get constant write-ups. And I can’t complain, because that’s mostly the same thing with Break a Leg, the Burg, and the other bigger shows — but I have yet to see them really push a show I’ve never heard of to the mass public.

Tim Goodman of the SF Chronicle was a huge supporter of Arrested Development and one of the reasons that helped them continue production. Yes, it’s the SF Chronicle — but I know the guys at Tilzy, Tubefilter and NewTeeVee — all are extremely talented journalists and I think if they tried hard, they could really help propel shows forward.

3. The Streamys were a genius way to give the genre credibility. On this next go around, it has to get bigger, better, flashier. It has to feel professional. Every joke has to hit — Lisa Kudrow, while brilliant, should not out-perform every presenter by messing up on the teleprompter. It should be a show that not only YouTube-dwellers want to watch, but people who’ve never watched a web show in their life would want to watch. The Streamys have so much potential that if we all work together and nail it, it could be a huge help to the entire genre.

4. I’m fully embracing branded entertainment. What I don’t understand is how bigger companies haven’t picked out a high-quality show, funded a season and asked them to, say, create a few shorts that both advertise their show and the product. Then what you end up having is a running internet show and ready-to-air commercials that can have the whole, “See more at: www.blahblah.tv” slate at the end. $100,000 isn’t that much money for someone like Proctor & Gamble — but it can create them a full web series and a buncha TV commercials. It would also drive traffic to the site and market itself circularly.

How is this not happening yet? How many Burger King burgers does David Penn have to eat?

Right now, the web series is dying — and maybe, just maybe, we can replace some of its limbs with bionic body parts and help create a super hero.

These are just some of my ideas — they could all potentially be awful and bankrupt the entire world (who knows these days?!) — so, let’s hear yours and let’s fix this damn thing.

Written by

I am a writer, director, producer and co-founder of HLG Studios.

32 thoughts on “Let’s Save the Web Series

  1. Wow. While at the same time your blog impressed me, it made me genuinely frightened.

    Frightened by the fact that one of the many passions that I take seriously and love unconditionally may be coming to an end.

    And also at the fact that giving birth just sounds absolutely awful.

    But I digress.

    My own opinion on why web series are “dying” is that that the spark isn’t there. When “LonelyGirl”, “The Burg”, and my all time favorite “Break a Leg,” came around it was something especially new. The world hadn’t gotten used to turning on a computer and having entertainment at their fingertips. And when the public unfortunately saw how easy entertainment could be made and put out there, they wanted to join in on all the fun as well. And so, the birth of Britney posers, gophers, and tiny little kittens were all mushed together in an entertainment category along with talent.

    My solution to your problem is simply, Mr. Baranovsky.

    Web series has reached the end of its cycle, in the fashion world we would call it the end of its “Fashion Wave.” The point in which we find out that cheetah spandex pants aren’t that fabulous after all, and we don’t really know why they came back and why we all thought they were so wonderful to begin with… for a second time. This is the pivotal moment when you need to give the whole world another reason to turn on their computer and have all the major TV networks calling you — because you came up with the new “big idea.”

    What is this “Big Idea”?

    No clue.

    You’re the director.

    But if you can convince a gal who’s allergic to gluten to shove 10 cupcakes in her mouth for a scene that wasn’t even used, I am pretty sure you can provide the world with the next “big idea.”

    Whatever that may be, sire.

  2. NBC put out a great one (available as a podcast) CTRL. The thing I noticed and it angered me slightly is this: the fan comments – albeit great ratings- lead back to the, “…when will this become a full length network series…” and other nonsense. Now, I love the show. But reading that, over and over in most of the comments sickened me. Why is tv the standard that should make a series “better”? The other issue I have with it because my writing style falls in this category: sometimes an idea loses coherency when you drag it out. I can write some interesting stuff at 5-8 minutes versus having to add useless fodder to hit a 22-24 min goal.

    Unless you were doing a small show online that appeals to those turd licks at nickelodeon and Disney, just aim to keep it online. The onion video news makes it work- they even have advertisers. For those who read the nickelodeon and Disney picks up family and kid appropriate web material, ask yourself: knowing how bad spümco (ren & stimpy, ripping friends, the goddamned george liquor show (one of the first animated web series)) was screwed by Fox, and by Viacom where are they now? “Making fiends” started out as 7 shorts that Nickelodeon picked up and glossed and fattened up a bit to fill a full 00:24:00 slot.

    Money is a major issue. No one has it and things cost. We once filmed a movie short using graduate student loan cash, the blood and sweat (and nearly fractured pelvis) of volunteers and breaking into campus buildings or bribing corporate security to borrow a location for a few hours. The guys and gals making episode 2 & 3 for the I.M.P.S. web series have halted after years stuck in post. Resources are short and first seasons can be brutal. Another series that had promise was American Heart distributed online by KoldKast, I think. People may just associate success and longevity to tv networks.

    Look at the “Simpsons”, had the technology in the 80’s not been Apple IIe and comodores with ASCII menued “Internet”, I think Groening would have begun the series not as shorts on Tracy Ulman, but as web shorts dreaming of a network deal. Even now, there are many online sites geared towards promoting web series- so they say. Honestly, lately I have been lucky to find the great series’ I have.

    Podcasting helps. Make the media portable for the public on-the-go. My iPhone is loaded with movies, podcasts, videos. I travel alot and like to be entertained during a 2 hour layover in jersey. It is how I introduce new content to my friends.

    Don’t worry, my Ambien fueled late night insomnia rant is drawing to an end…

    The web series can work. It needs help. Challenges from the veterans, and goals worth fighting to achieve. It needs it’s top talent to not turn their back on the rest when the “brass ring” of a network is offered. Or, if it will be unavoidable to accept the rat race and compromise creativity for the inflated dollar, bring back formats like Mtv’s “liquid Televion”. A series made entirely of shorts. Mike Judge was there. Plimpton was there, joes apartment was a short on there, aeon flux. A show with a similar format that shows the best the webseries has to offer. It can promote the creative team, the producers, the site that hosts content.

    Get advertisers. Legit advertisers are looking for a way to break into the true potential of the web. Days of simple pop-ups are over. An ad before content and after could cover some costs. Right now, the tv shows are coming to the web doing it. Separated into bite sized chunks and sandwiched between an ad on either end, I can watch “heroes” pull in more ad bucks online. Car and boat companies do it. Their webseries is the ad. I am sick of getting into a show that halts production indefinitely because funding can’t be secured.

    Integration may be the key. A webseries that isn’t strictly confined to online. Podcast, portable formats, sites that coop and promote each other- not just themselves. (another way to promote competitive endeavor)

    I m need to rewrite this later, the ambien is kicking my ass.

    Viva la webseries! This revolution must not be televised.

    Thank you, and goodnight,

  3. Yuri, I couldn’t disagree more. Web series are not dying. Quite the opposite in fact. As a creator that others in this nascent medium look up to, your implication that they are hurts the entire space.

    Most of the early adopters of any medium won’t ever make a buck. 99% of them will probably give up or fail. But a few (mostly those that mix perseverance with hard work, talent, and a little bit of luck) will succeed. They are the ones who will inherit the future of television.

    Major corporations won’t shoulder the risk of trailblazing in this space — that has and will continue to be left up to independent content creators, startups, and visionaries. It is up to us to map out the future of this medium. Don’t worry about preserving the status quo.

    You’re right, we need to focus on making content that is ‘good’ — not just content that is ‘good’ relative to the medium — but if we start to think of this medium as the minor leagues of television, that’s all we’ll ever be.

    Your other points about the Streamys, branded entertainment, and critical coverage of the space are valuables insights into the industry. So please keep the dialogue going. There are a lot of critical issues that we as a community and an industry will have to solve together, but we need to be our own champions.

    You may have showed up to the party a little bit early Yuri, but don’t let that distract you from the fact that we’ve barely gotten started. The best is yet to come.

  4. Some very solid points, and I think it points strongly to the future of both web-series and television itself.

    I think in our current state, the novelty of the web-series has begun to wear off, which puts us in a place where only quality and drawing power can move us forward.

    TV seems to be headed towards merging with the web. I don’t think its’ going to be long before we start seeing televisions that offer services or connections similar to HULU (already out there with OnDemand and DVR to an extent.)

    I never watch TV anymore, I don’t like sitting down at a scheduled hour. I enjoy the freedom that comes with being able to watch a show that I like whenever I want to, and being able to start from the beginning of a series at any time I choose.

    That’s where I think TV is headed, and I think that the future of the web-series is meshed in there.

    If Television becomes less about what’s on the air, and what shows are available to watch overall, advertising for these shows becomes more about “featured” shows or programs. Essentially what you see on YouTube or Hulu.

    In order for us to keep the Web Series alive, we’ll need to produce content that can rival network programming in entertainment value, and will need a strong push into the public eye of these series.

    So it still comes down to the universal web-series cry of “we needz moneyz”.

    There’s an incredible amount of potential here, to create affordable quality content. With the proper backing and advertising we can make this happen.

    I just don’t see how networks/companies looking to advertise can pass that up.

  5. Soooo… I guess that Proctor & Gamble thing didn’t pan out, huh? Drat.

    Everyone’s said everything that can be said. I agree/disagree with you 100% Yuri/Dashiell/Brady/Dave/Seciona.

    Actually, I don’t think the web series was ever truly alive except in our own little web-series world. It’s a zombie; a shambling, emaciated, decrepid bogeyman that’s used only to scare network execs into tossing a scripted show into the mix every fall (“Someday the internet series will take over and then you’ll be out of a job. Booooooooooooo!”).

    Partially joking: but really, how “alive” was the web series and can it truly be dead? I think whats-his-name above me is right, the novelty is just wearing off now. For the most part the “web series” up until now has been a big circle jerk, hasn’t it? We pat each other on the back but nobody else was really noticing.

    Right now is when the work really needs to start happening. Up until now it’s just been experimentation. I think Break A Leg’s experiment was the best, personally: writing, acting, directing, editing, done like the “big boys” do it, and as far as it could have on the limited resources available, it worked!

    So what I think we’ll see now is what everyone is saying needs to happen: money, advertisers, enhanced production values. The natural evolution of any emerging technology market. Networks can’t ignore the internet content producers for long, just like Hollywood couldn’t ignore independent film producers.

  6. I’m fond of the idea of the web series being the minor leagues to TV’s major leagues. For the time being. The majority of web-series and web content producers are exactly that; minor leaguers looking to make it big aren’t they? Or are all web series creators and enthusiasts happy with having their series’ strictly on the internet. NBC – “Hey, how about a million bucks to put this show on our network?” Web Creator – “No thanks, we’re doing just fine!” Eventually though I hope that web content can develop into something even better and form more of a REAL partnership. Am I dreaming too big?

    That’s just the way it is right now. And we’re working hard to change the game.

    I feel that the web series, not just a particular show or crew, but the whole genre of the web show needs its big break. Web shows are still obstinate teenagers growing up and finding their way; extremely talented teenagers with a lot of growth and potential but still youngsters nonetheless. Most web content that has been highly successful or marketable are short and cute (and sometimes not so much) but I want to see content that started out on the web make it to TV’s prime time, big network spots. I want to see Break A Leg on NBC, Showtime, whatever! Where else does it have to go? Am I dreaming too big again?

    The web show needs its big break! And I’m always hopeful because I know there are a ton of talented folks (like you Yuri!) who are working hard to make it happen and just stubbornly, luckily, won’t give up. The fact that there are already thousands upon thousands of actors in LA all looking for the same job doesn’t help. The fact that adding more content, namely excellent web content, into the already massively over-flowing pool of potential doesn’t help. However what gets picked up out of that pool has with it the possibility of being even better than what could have been before because it’s refined, confident, and it’s been through a hell of a lot to get there.

    The web series isn’t dying, but it’s very ill. Patience, hard-work, and integrity is the cure and though it looks grim, I think it’s working. Let’s rally for the web genre and keep up all of our hard work! The best IS yet to come!

  7. except hollywood does, and will continue to, ignore independent film producers left and right as they make less and less films. but you are right: it has been a circle jerk. those who came in early will think theirs was the best, and the first, etc., and it won’t matter a whole bunch until somebody writes a good enough book about it.

    but as for what’s happening now… blip.tv might have solved the distribution problem, guys. their new partnerships. the next problem up for bat is promotions, and then, filtering in a way that’s not based exclusively on lowest-common-denominator. after that, we really can live up to the ideal of tv faster, cheaper, but still just enough out of control that we appeal to new markets.

    in other words: why try to steal the office’s audience when you can be creating break a leg’s audience.

    in other other words: why do we need tv networks to validate us? if the answer is money, that’s not the answer.

    it’s not dying. it’s just starting. but it’s not big yet and it won’t be until all of us turn around and get back to work.

  8. I’ve got to agree AND disagree with your thesis, Yuri. I think web series genre as we know it is CHANGING. But then it had to, didn’t it?

    You’re right, however, we do spend an inordinate amount of time congratulating the talented (and somewhat lucky, let’s not kid ourselves) few who seem to have broken into the lower echelons of the “mainstream” (I mean, seriously, I like the Guild and all, but you’d think that Felicia Day practically INVENTED the freaking concept of web series). And, as a “community” we have a bad tendency to equate “popular” with “good.” And I also agree with Thom, we have to be careful not to equate “good” with “budgeted” or “sponsored” either. But I think these are familiar growing pains for any medium like this.

    But I think the real solution to saving web series is just to make them as good as possible (whatever that is). No matter the budget.

    My god we spend a lot of time telling each other what to do. With the amount of knowledge imparted you’d think there would be a few more web series millionaires walking around out there. But there aren’t. There are a few people eating through their venture capital, that’s for sure. There might even be the odd series or, more likely, web series “news outlets” out there who are making a small (or large, hell I don’t know) profit, because Tubefilter et all know that it’s far more profitable to TALK about web series than it is to actually create web series. A web click is a web click after all (which is probably why more companies aren’t sponsoring web series. It’s not really all that cost-effective). We hand out a lot of advice like; “build communities!” and “create a fan base!” and “find a niche!” and “legitimize the genre!…” Well, excuse me, but… no shit.

    My advice (yes, I’m full of it too. Advice AND crap) is just to make the best show you can and tell as many people about it as possible (advertisers and sponsors included). What else is there? I’m not saying “if you build it, they will come,” but I think the reason that no one’s cracked the key to monetary web series success is that the internet’s not really set up for the monetary success of web series right now. And it’ll never be WHOLLY supportive of web shows, especially indy ones, simply because there is just too much background noise to shout over.

    But I think it WILL get friendlier.

    …To a very lucky few anyway.

    In the meantime, I’m just going to take what I’ve learned from doing my show and try to do all of it better the next time. As long as everyone does that and doesn’t get discouraged (like Brady mentioned), the genre is safe. Don’t fret, Yuri!

  9. I agree with everything you said.

    Too bad that half the people who don’t are most likely full of themselves.

  10. Wow. Quite the ruckus you raise, Mr. Baranovsky!

    What I like: that you’re being proactive and positive in your approach to what I see is a big problem.

    At least, it’s a big problem for me, now. I used to not care about it. You watch what’s good and turn off what’s not. But after becoming a BaL fan, it felt more urgent and necessary, somehow. As a fan who doesn’t get the industry at all and really only knows that you’re brilliant, it’s difficult to just sit by while terrible shows get funding and deals–and it’s awful because I think you deserve it so, so very much. Sometimes being a fan is a completely helpless thing.

    So I’m glad that you’ve got a vision; I’m happy you have a plan. Because aside from the genre, your fans kind of need you to save THEM, too: from mediocrity, frustration, and ultimately, a kind of disillusionment.

  11. Yuri, dude, I don’t have the attention span to read that whole thing, but wow, you are just so fucking forceful it made me want to do something about this. i looked at some of the points you had listed and you’ve got some great ideas, I’m not really anything to closely related to this field but if you ever need an amateur graphic designer i’d love to help! (soon i intend to not be amateur though, so it’s all good)

    Good luck to you and your goals, I’d love to help with this, even if i couldn’t really do much.

    but really, I was just really impressed by the passion here to the point that i was just moved to comment, sorry if i’m not making much sense…

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  13. Ooooh you touched a neeeerve–NewTeeVee has already responded with an article? Heheh. I love that they call your blog a rant. I must say, Yuri, that your rants are awfully 1. structured, 2. constructive, and 3. positive. It’s like you’re the crazy guy on some soap box on some random street corner, yelling: “I LOVE THIS COUNTRY! HERE ARE THREE WAYS WE CAN MAKE IT EVEN BETTER!”

    Some call that a rant. Others: a campaign. Or to borrow Jake’s wording: “fucking forceful”.

    Keep ranting, crazy soap box guy!

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  16. Passion is good. Love of craft, double plus good. Money from your passion and love … well there in lies the rub.

    Commercial art is just that … a commodity that drives revenue.

    Major media outlets that can support creative endeavors do so not out of altruism, but for profit.

    The web as it stands is not a profit generator. It is a discretionary expenditure. And there is very little direct evidence that shows sponsorship of a “series” will drive willing viewers to purchase a sponsor’s goods or services.

    From the sponsor’s perspective, the question isn’t whether you can bring a million eyeballs to the content, it’s whether the eyeballs will taking action in a meaningful way for the dollars spent.

    The big promise of Web content is that it is targeted, and the demographic can be identified in such a narrow way that the sponsor can get a bigger bang for his buck by laser focused ads on that demo than it could by a broader “Scatter shot” campaign in mass media.

    Again, this hasn’t been born out.

    So is this a reason to give up? Absolutely not.

    As the saying goes in Hollywood, if you really have a great script, it will be bought.

    In the end, just focus on your craft and make something really compelling. Take a step back and see where it could be tweaked. Is your product really unique? How can it be improved from a production stand point. Do you REALLY know your audience.

    My simple thought is that it isn’t the “web series” genre that is dying, it is a weeding out of the well intentioned but ultimately uninteresting content that was put out there in hopes of being monetized.

    Works fine in an economy where money is flowing freely and speculatively, but in a tighter environment, it becomes risk adverse.

    So, this is a rather long way of saying … you can’t wax poetically about the vague plight of others, you have to fight for yourself.

    BAL stands on its own, and it has separated itself from other content with strong writing.

    If you have a network backing your show, than you have met and exceeded what is needed to be recognized as marketable good.

    Dog eat dog, brother.

    Revel in your success, don’t feel you have to be a martyr for the industry.

  17. i think the underlying thesis here is right on–the minor league/major league analogy is just right. the problem though is that doing a shaky-cam web series with your buddy that has one joke–the concept–isn’t even the minor leagues. it’s high school ball.

    i produce a bunch of this stuff for the powers-that-be and i only will work on something that has a look and feel that a broad audience would be comfortable with. whether this is the “right” way is another question i don’t want to get into–others here whose positions aren’t as compromised as mine can have the philosophical conversation. i just believe that the audiences of the web series will want what all audiences want–excellent writing, great performers, a good looking mise-en-scene etc. that all costs money. not a ton of money, but a reasonably substantial amount, more than most people want to spend on their own production or ideas.

    i expected that the democratization of distribution and the onset of digital production would lower the cost of showing your work to the point that you could do anything with very little money, but that hasn’t proven to be the case, nor (as i sit here on set with 20 people working around me) do i think it ever will.

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  22. The “web series genre” is dying? Are you crazy? Web video is just getting started.

    …And depending on TV networks isn’t a wise choice. Why jump onto a sinking ship? So you can go down with it?

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  25. That’s a bizarre and lazy response, Mr. VonHummer.

    That isn’t at all what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the web series being competitive with TV, being to TV what independent film is to Hollywood movies. Making money is a part of it — and having a web series become the next Seinfeld should be the goal.

    But, that said. You’re probably right. Waah.

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  28. Well, it’s been 5 years now and this conversation *still* hasn’t started. Sure, we still have regular injections like VGHS and VidCon, but the mainstream media still refuses to acknowledge the web series as a potential artform.
    Probably doesn’t help that film and TV don’t wanna feel threatened.

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