This lecture is the handwritten version of the lecture. It’s nearly identical to the online video version, except the embeds here contain the entire content of the webseries talked about rather than just a short segment. I implore you to watch all the episodes through, but in the sake of time, I understand that’s not possible. This is an extremely brief history of web television. It will act as a survey of the material. I know this because I am pitching a book on the topic that will probably be 200+ pages.
This is in a print version because something very odd happened on Friday when I tried to upload the lecture, it got kicked back for copyrighted material. Now, this may not seem crazy to you, but I’ve been studying web television since 2007 and the content I study is television made specifically for the web, no traditional, corporate outlet. The content therefore is web-based, remixable, and free for academic use to be repurposed. In the year 2013, that changed. More on that later.
I started a web television study in 2007 when three of our alums, Brian Amyot, Steve Tsapelas, and Angel Acevedo (the founders of Hofstra Filmmakers Club HFC) began posting their webseries We Need Girlfriends online. It garnered a small, but very loyal audience and fandom and I knew that a new type of television had been created. Alternative television, one that didn’t need the notes of traditional media. In traditional media, not only does money and advertising play the largest part in the creative process, but often, your idea won’t get picked up without a “package,” and agent, a publicist, a sponsor, a network already on board. In web tv, it’s you, your idea, and the content created and posted online.
Let me just say one thing first, YouTube did not birth web television. It actually did exist previous to YouTube. In the mid-90s, when people started having access to digital creation, that’s when the inevitable alternative television was produced. People saw the success of CD-ROMs like MYST and the potential of interactivity with the Stargate website (the first interactive website) (Geirland, 1999) and ventured out to create content. The first web television show was called The Spot. It was kind of like a fictionalized version of a chat room. We’d consider this reality television today. Then, it was narrative. More on that in a bit.
Soon after, a guy who made a buttload of money off the early dotcom era by creating great analytics algorithms named Josh Harris, created a web television venture channel called Pseudo.com. This channel had tons of content and produced a lot of live streaming shows. The downside? A ton of audience and only dial-up (we call this sound dubstep) speeds. The shows looked like they were going a frame a second. If you get the chance, you should watch the documentary We Live in Public. It’s eye openingly frightening how much of the present was predicted in the mid-90s.
Anyway, jumping ahead to 2005 and 6, YouTube opened up and so appeared UGC, User Generated Content. First came virals, then the vloggers, then the narrative creators. It was inevitable. Give a creator the potential audience television has without all the nonsense of going through television advertisers and you’ll have television made for the web. Another movie you should watch, especially if you are television major, is the film The TV Set. VERY accurate to how television is made for the traditional media. People wanted to side step the notes, the hassle, the executives who only thought about money, they just wanted people to see their show online.
When the shows did begin to appear online, something was different about them. It didn’t resemble the television that was made for a large screen. The difference was the characters. They were based on You. The big You, not the you that is singular, the You that is the first part of YouTube, the You that is a culture, a character, a people. This is why, in 2006, Time Magazine declared You to be the person of the year!
Those that have access and can relate to one another via this new and wonderful outlet. This new character was nicknamed the Beta-character. Not an Alpha character that you were used to seeing on television. An Alpha character is Vincent Chase from Entourage or Jack Shephard from Lost. They are someone you can watch, but the are not someone you can readily be. The beta-character is also Self-Aware. As you are seeing with your vlogs, you are aware of yourself doing them and knowing that people can see you but you can’t see them. This creates a meta-narrative. The meta-narrative (you can learn more by going to PBS Idea Channel and seeing that lecture) is a narrative of self-awareness and acknowledgement of oneself to the presentation of themselves. It’s the subtext of your nature, spilled out for the world to understand along with you. These characters are, above all else, AUTHENTIC.
Some of the original web series show this with extreme accuracy. The show The Guild starring Felicia Day, is a story of a girl who is part of a World of Warcraft guild and starts to meet her teammates in real life.
Another webseries that began in 2006, was the webseries, Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager. In this, Darth Vader’s sad cousin, a day shift manager at a supermarket, tries to assert his power of him employees.
But my personal favorite, and one that is well known for being an inspiration for future web television creators, is the show our alums made, We Need Girlfriends. It gives away the plot in the title. This show would never have been aired on traditional television because the characters are too niche. Yet for the web, it works perfectly. (It created such a cult following that there were walking tours in Astoria based on this series.) You can read about the Beta-character in this article about The Beta Male’s Charms by Stephanie Rosenbloom in the New York Times.
While these were inspirational to a small group of people, they were vastly ignored by traditional media who thought the internet was just a sandbox. That was until … The Writers’ Strike in 2007.
When the writers went on strike, they were interested in making a bit more money for their work. Writers profit by how much they are paid and then again in residuals, money made in DVD sales and television reruns. Their demands were this: they made %0.3 on DVD sales, they wanted %0.6; %0.4 on reruns, they wanted %0.7; %0.0 on new media like Hulu, they wanted anything more than 0. So it wasn’t a big deal, but for advertisers and people supporting it, it was pretty big. And that’s because the audience had begun to fragment even more than cable fragmented it. In 1987, when the writers went on strike, it inadvertently caused Reality TV to begin with the first reality series, Cops.
In Cops, you don’t need writers, you need perps, brave camera people, cops, and producers. That’s it. Loophole. So in 2007, guess what happened, more reality television. Here’s a fun stat: How many reality shows were there in the year 2000? 5.
Guess how many in the year 2012? (2013 isn’t over yet, so it’s not finished counting.)
Ready for this? 356. (!!!) It was 354, but some spinoffs like Honey Boo Boo came out late in the year.
So, not only did reality television explode once again, but as did the alternative outlet of the web. If you were a creative, and you have the creative bug, you live to create content. So let’s say you are some guy named Joss Whedon (you may know him from his work as a writer on Roseanne) and you want to create. Well, you call in a few favors and a few friends and you create Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog, a musical webseries with a three episode run starring Neil Patrick Harris, Felicia Day, and Nathan Fillion. The story is about Dr. Horrible, a beta character with a very strange meta-narrative: he is a supervillian who loves a girl his enemy the superhero Captain Hammer is dating; but he also wants to be part of the super villain league. This is on Netflix and you should watch it, here it is, but I don’t know how long it will be on YouTube.
Now the value of the web is becoming quite obvious and post-strike, creatives and professionals are jumping in the sandbox and making quite extraordinary sandcastles. The next thing that occurs is the creation of web channels. Rob Barnett, the former programming director of VH1 and MTV, moves out of the traditional television sphere because “notes are bullshit,” creates MyDamnChannel, a web channel that pays its creators. One of the earliest shows was called You Suck at Photoshop. The show is about Donny, a very disgruntled divorcee who teaches webinars on photoshop. The entire narrative is told through the lessons as side stories. Donny is never seen, so this is especially meta.
Another successful channel is Funny or Die, Will Ferrell’s channel. This debuted with the short The Landlord.
The channel helped create some shows that you’ve heard of and have migrated to traditional outlets (that’s for the next lecture) like Drunk History. In episode one, starring Michael Cera, you see beta characters who are the drunk narrator telling a meta narrative (since it’s their version) and acted out by professional actors.
Sony’s channel Crackle also offers a lot of web television programming. They launched with several webseries including an out of the comedy genre action series called The Bannen Way.
Since this is a short lecture, I’m giving you examples of the best webseries out there, but how would you find out the best shows? The website Tubefilter which has been reporting on web tv sits the beginning, put together an awards show called The Streamys which recognized the best in web television programming. You can see from the awards winners of three awards shows (One, two, and three) that the majority of the winners were often professionals. That’s because they came with the knowledge of making television and film.
Brian Stelter of the New York Times recognized that users were now actually making money on YouTube in 2008 after the site started offering partnerships. The most successful of which were the vloggers and those that understood their audience like Smosh, Ray William Johnson, and Shane Dawson among the MANY MANY more.
Let’s jump ahead to today, the landscape is altered, so much so that even I was taken by surprise about how different it is. The television made for the web today IS television. There are some big budget, major television shows made specifically for the web.
Shows like Bryan Singer’s H+ digital series:
Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (Crackle):
Sponsored entertainment webseries called Blue starring Julia Stiles (Wigs):
And web television’s favorite Neil Patrick Harris in Neil’s Puppet Dreams (Nerdist):
There are hundreds of webseries made weekly, many of which are produced professionally. As you know, as of November 2011, YouTube switched to the channel based version of the site which makes You the programmer.
Why does this matter? Well, because it is big business. You, as a vlogger, could potentially make a six-figure salary making web television. For example, Freddie Wong’s Video Game High School, whose episodes run from 10 minutes to 30 minutes, produced his series which cost over a million dollars! (Infographic here.)
YouTube is opening a Creator Space in New York City in the Chelsea Market. That’s very big news.
You better start caring!
Your homework is make a vlog that is about you that affects the You of the web. Be creative. See this playlist of all different versions of vlogs. Many are quite successful and are profiting. This is your chance to shine. Be whoever you want to be, but be AUTHENTIC.