It doesn’t matter who you ask these days—there seems to be almost unanimous agreement that television has never been better. Thanks to a higher quality of production, stories and acting, TV has been heralded as “cinematic,” especially on premium cable networks like HBO and Showtime. But alongside these smaller-screen wonders, even smaller screens are making waves: TV made for the interwebz! We asked Monica Heisey (author of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better), Jazmine Hughes (associate digital editor, New York Times Magazine) and writer-producer Katie Nolan (Hot Mom) about the changes web series are prompting in the world of television. Who is behind this influx of web-based storytelling, and what stories do they choose to tell? In other words, has the internet allowed for a democratization of TV (the word “television” has itself evolved, no longer simply referring to what device people are watching on), with new voices and fewer constraints? Or is it just a matter of time before the same old moneyed network voices take over this innovative web genre? – cléo editors
MONICA: I was in New York recently and was both surprised and excited to see massive ads for the second season of High Maintenance everywhere. It’s really my go-to example of a web series that has transcended what people think of the form, in that it’s not a web series that became a TV show (like Broad City, another show often cited when lauding the form, but which is actually a very different thing now that it’s a full 30-minute TV show). High Maintenance is an extremely successful web series that is still exactly that, and it’s fantastic. Broad City is also fantastic—duh-no-duh—but if we’re talking web series that are to the public as Bridget Jones is to Mark Darcy, we’re talking High Maintenance: we like it just as it is. It’s exciting for a lot of reasons, not the least because web series and the internet in general are valuable outlets for people who haven’t historically been able to have their voices heard, or who were written off as “niche” or “hard to sell” or any of those other euphemisms that tend to mean “not catering explicitly and exclusively to straight white men ages 18-35.” When you have access to such a huge potential audience, “niche” isn’t a bad thing. Finding a dedicated niche is how a lot of successful web series got their start, and it’s an important way of showing the entertainment industry that topics and writers and performers they’ve ignored need to be looked at as valuable, worthwhile investments.
I do think the web series as a medium is democratizing: they tend to be made with much lower budgets by a much wider range of people, for a more diverse audience than mainstream television. Working outside of the confines of a network or television channel’s production demands also allows artists to really see their vision through from start to finish (I shudder to think what a team of aging white dudes at Channel 4 would have tried to do to the resplendent Ackee & Saltfish, for instance), which is empowering for creators at all levels of serialized media. With the smaller budget and production capacity of a web series, the person with the idea ends up playing a lot of roles and doing a ton of work, but they also have a control over the finished product. That is unprecedented in mainstream TV production. This means we’re getting more stories told by people who know what they’re talking about, more jokes from people who understand the implications of their humour, more nuanced drama, and more truth on screen, which can only be a good thing, right?
JAZMINE: The first sort-of web series I ever started watching was Jake and Amir, which I discovered early on in college and very quickly became obsessed (but still very chill) with, for (very chill) reasons other than the fact that Jake is from my hometown and his sister went to my college, and I may or may not have figured out where his house was? But in a chill away. Jake and Amir captivated me because it was so weird and experimental. Each episode was a sketch, but the characters remained the same (this was before I found anything like Key & Peele or Portlandia; I was just watching The Office and was convinced “that’s what she said” was the funniest joke in the world). They filmed in real places and not on sets, they had a genuine relationship with each other. I thought the whole thing was so fresh, so different, and I felt as if they were actually my friends. I got more emotionally invested in Amir finally getting Jake to admit that they were friends than I did in some of my own friendships. The series is ending soon, and may take a similar path to Broad City, in that they are in talks to have a “real” TV show on TBS. Not sure if TBS has ever done this before, but my suggestion (TBS ARE YOU LISTENING): stay out of the way and let Jake and Amir do the talking. Most of your budget will probably just be spent on chicken nuggets anyway.
KATIE: I’ve been pretty much waist-deep in all things web series related for the past couple of years. The first web series I started watching was Nirvana the Band the Show by Matt Johnson and Jared Raab. I was blown away by the DIY feel, and the fact that these guys seemed to do whatever they want and then post it on the internet for all to see. It was like entertainment anarchy—there were no rules, no TV or commercial guidelines, no specific time slot during which you could watch the show.
When my writing partner and I started to make our first web series, Hot Mom, we initially wanted to work with a production company or broadcaster, but realized that it would be way easier (albeit more expensive) to just do it ourselves. We wrote what we thought was funny, for the audience that we wanted to write for, and it quickly garnered a following. For me, what has been so gratifying is the opportunity to wear several hats throughout the development and creation of a series, and to really suss out if the episodic world is the one for me. The possibilities are endless with a web project: nine times out of ten, if you know who you are targeting, then your audience is already there, ready and waiting on the internet for you to find them.
When Broad City came out, after the original web series had been around for a while, it was like this surge of motivation swept through every female writer/comedian/actress across North America. Here was a show that was asking us to say something new, something fresh. Lena Dunham was onto something with her 2009 series Delusional Downtown Divas, as well, but it wasn’t until recently that web series were actually taken seriously. I also believe that the web series phenom has the baby boomers in a bit of a panicked state. The millennial generation is becoming less dependent on watching conventional TV on the boob tube—the internet is more accessible, and for the most part, free. Not to mention the content turnover on the web is getting faster and faster, and it is available 24/7. Not only can the younger generation create and curate exactly what they want to see, but they have the power to influence viewership and reputation.
MONICA: It’s not even just millennials, though. Teenagers straight up do not watch TV. I won’t get into YouTube celebrity right now but oh my god, teens have an entire world of famous people they consider their friends and who us greying 26-year-olds have never heard of. The inclusivity thing is interesting, and something that speaks to an emerging New Audience. Space Janitors, a fantastic web series made by some friends of mine, features a post-show “Comments Sweep” where actors from the show respond to literally every single comment under that episode. Sexy Nerd Girl did a similar thing, creating social media accounts for the characters and interacting constantly with viewers, who even had some say over the plot. Engagement outside the world of the show is something that seems to be required for web series success, and I’m not sure how to feel about all that additional labour.
I think with original web series being commissioned and funded by TV networks, and more traditional 30- or 60-minute comedies being sold to streaming services, people are very quickly abandoning the idea that quality serialized storytelling needs to happen on a television for it to be fantastic entertainment and/or worthwhile art. Now that that’s established, I think the issue is more about production value, and then you get back into some of the privilege issues that have historically plagued and continue to plague the television and film industries: if you want to make a web series that gets noticed, it has to look good. (Katie, do you think this is the case?) It has to have been shot and edited with some level of skill. The sound quality cannot have that thing where all you hear is wind. You can’t just throw some garbanzo you filmed on your phone up on YouTube and hope it goes viral. So the question is still: who has access to the kind of time and money required to make a series like that? Even though the money required is less, there’s still a lot of capital (time, some cash, and talent) needed to put a good web series together. I’m not sure it’s the democratized production paradise it seems to be.
JAZMINE: Well, now we’ve moved on to my favourite topic: teens. They are the way, the truth, the light, and the futch. Like grey-haired, cane-holding, AARP-card-carrying (do you guys have that in Canada!?!) [Editors’ Note: No, we do not. We googled its meaning] old fart Monica Heisey, I know very little about YouTubers. But with regards to what Monica said about there being privilege in even making a web series (and I totally agree!), I can’t help but think that teens and other aspiring actors/comedians/producers are going to stick to the quick and dirty, and flourish on Vine. Creating a “longform” (god, I know) web series that has several episodes does take a lot of work, unless you’re a millionaire who’s doing this for fun, who has time to rent a camera, assemble a cast, shoot, edit, find music, and promote your work? This isn’t to say that creating a Vine is easier or inferior, but the bulk of the process seems to be conceptualization: how can I tell this entire story in six seconds? What’s more, popularity on these shorter videos can still get you far. (King Bach, for instance, was on the Mindy Project!) I think that the People in Charge are paying attention to these micro-webseries, and it’s still garnering the same sort of return: fun and fame.
KATIE: It’s definitely true that YouTube has its own star system. But it’s also interesting to see a shift in working actors gravitating towards web projects (like Greta Lee on High Maintenance; she booked The New Girl after her work on the web series). It feels like in this “Wild West” of internet timez the rules are obsolete: everyone wants to make the best thing ever, but there is no right or wrong way to start. In terms of the quality factor—yes, a web show nowadays needs to look pretty snazzy. Five years ago, when web series weren’t yet the “it” thing, creators could get away with shooting two different angles on a shitty camcorder and pasting it on the internet without a sound mix. But now, when you look at the highly regarded web projects, the production value is huge. (Check ma lady Hannah Cheeseman’s new series Whatever, Linda.) These shows are intensely packaged, edited, thought out, and executed.
Monica, I think you nailed it when you said that web series are not necessarily an easy feat. There are a few web funds out there that will support web content, but a lot of creators are hitting up brands and web-channels as alternative means of distribution. I’m working with two pretty established production companies right now, and even though they take care of the more corporate side of things, I’m still writing, casting, sitting in on editing sessions, and running all the social media and Tumblr pages. These web projects are smaller in length, yes, but definitely not in workflow.
MONICA: I think that’s the big difference with web-to-TV shows, and with the web in general: fewer big deal companies or producers are telling creators what to do, which means a greater diversity of voices and those voices are freer to be authentically themselves. Abbi and Ilana of Broad City were able to build an audience, a style, and a voice that was theirs, and because of that, it’s probably harder for someone to come in now and say “can’t you make it this way, for the focus groups?” The internet is your focus group, and they’re into it already. Web series might not be the only way to get your voice out there as a writer, director, or producer, but the more options there are, the better. I wonder if that’s why TV is so good right now: because it knows it has to keep up with the non-stop stream of quality entertainment going up online daily.
An interesting note to end on, and that opens a whole other discussion for the readers of this roundtable, might be: how do you think web series and web-to-TV series have changed your viewing habits, or have they? I watch most of my TV on my laptop, whether it’s a web series or not, and I do find my attention span is shorter. I loved High Maintenance because the episodes were closer to the amount of time I feel comfortable devoting exclusively and intensely to one thing. I think an interest in clips and clippability has made TV shows in general more interested in compact, stand-alone scenes, and is maybe why sketch shows are happening in larger numbers again. Like, The Kroll Show is technically a television show, but I’ve only ever experienced it through YouTube. I’m not particularly worried about my attention span or ~what this means~ for the teens, or the art form, or anything else. It’s just the next evolution of visual storytelling, and so far I’m very into it.
Monica Heisey is a writer and comedian from Toronto. Her first book, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better, is out in April.
Jazmine Hughes is the associate digital editor of the New York Times magazine. She’s pretty chill.
Katie Nolan is a Toronto-based producer, writer, and actor. She is the creator behind the web series Hot Mom (FunnyOrDie) and is currently developing two new projects with Muse Entertainment (Montreal), Vanessa Matsui (Crankytown) and New Metric Media. Katie is a co-founder of Babe Nation, a collaborative collective for female voices and work.