Web Series and Web Television: An Introduction

A web series is an episodic fictional narrative in video format,1 broadcast on the Internet or for mobile devices, which is part of the emerging medium known as web television.2 Web series can be either live action or animated and original programming or a supporting story based upon a broadcast television series or film. Web television, then, is a form of digital entertainment which differs from traditional broadcast television in that it is delivered originally online or through mobile networks, and the series are generally short-form in nature. Most episodes of a web series (sometimes called “webisodes”) are generally two to nine minutes per episode, build upon each other, and are produced in seasons.3


Web television obviously has its roots in traditional broadcast television. Though it has deviated from it in several ways, it nonetheless takes much of its form from the earlier medium. Both live-action series and animated series are familiar forms in broadcast television, and, before television, in cinema. The mediums which preceded and influenced cinema were theater, magic lantern shows and other forms of public entertainment.4 In-home entertainment via videotape and DVD were already popular, and users were becoming more and more familiar with the idea of the computer as a “universal media machine, which could be used not only to author, but also to store, distribute and access all media.”5 Therefore, web television was the next step in a steady progression from the advent of public entertainment thousands of years ago.

The leap from broadcast television to web television began in 1995 with The Spot, which was similar in concept to Melrose Place. Characters lived in a Santa Monica apartment complex and the storyline took place online through blogs, movie clips, email and interaction with users. Another early pioneer in web television was another Santa Monica based series in 1999, Muscle Beach, which consisted of 8-minute episodes that were a mix of sitcom, fitness program and news. Episodes were viewable in Windows Media Player.6 From 2000 to 2005, the technological advance which increased broadband bandwidth allowed for the delivery of online content through high quality streaming, and You Tube and Vimeo were launched.

In 2006 and 2007, several web series were launched and found significant popularity: lonelygirl15, Soup of the Day, Prom Queen. These shows highlighted interactivity with the audience over the narrative story involved, taking advantage of the connectivity of web community. They were also produced on fairly low budgets. Then came Sanctuary. Sanctuary is now a successful series on SyFy on broadcast television, but it started as a web series. It stars actress Amanda Tapping of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis fame. Sanctuary’s first online season cost $4.3 million dollars. It was nominated for an Emmy and its phenomenal success online led to it being picked up for a full season run on SyFy.7 2007 also saw the launching of Felicia Day’s The Guild which began as a PayPal financed endeavor without any other platform: it premiered on YouTube and was written, shot and launched in between other acting jobs Day worked on. The Guild follows the adventures of a guild of gamers in a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) as they meet offline and are forced into non-gaming interactions with each other in all their social awkwardness. It quickly became a cult hit and various gaming platforms began to sponsor the show, allowing it to continue. It is currently in its fifth season.8

TheGuild became the inspiration for another project starring Felicia Day, which some have argued changed the face of web television by bringing it fully to the attention of the mainstream and Hollywood. In 2007-2008, the Writer’s Guild of America went on strike over negotiations of contracts with the Hollywood studios and networks. On the picket line, Joss Whedon (writer/producer/director of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse) was walking with Day who he had worked with on Buffy. Joss was trying to find a way to bypass the studios and networks and produce and deliver a quality show directly to his fans. Day told him about The Guild, and the idea for Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was born.9

Whedon worked with his younger brothers, Day, Nathan Fillion and Neil Patrick Harris and wrote the script and music for a musical tragic-comedy about the origin story of a nascent supervillain. It aired online with no marketing but word-of-mouth and went on to be able to be purchased on iTunes and later on DVD. It won an Emmy that fall and went on to be named #15 on Time Magazine’s “Top 50 Inventions of 2008.”10 While the web had already been teeming with small projects without Dr. Horribles star power, Whedon’s project showed just what could be done and how high a web series could aim. The Internet was already a testing ground for new talent—with the increase in popularity of the medium this has only grown more true. People with cool ideas who were tired of waiting for agents to call realized they did not need agents to call and set about creating content that allowed them to stretch their boundaries. The short-form storytelling, the episodic nature, and the possibilities offered to reach both mainstream and niche audiences: all these led to the further explosion of the medium.11

The entertainment industry took notice. In 2008, the International Academy of Web Television (IAWT) was founded with the mission of advancing the arts and sciences of web television and furthering the common good and general welfare of industry professionals by encouraging public appreciation, honoring excellence, developing specifications and standards, encouraging the development of quality content and fostering a spirit of community through social media to encourage cooperation and cordial relations.12 In 2009, IAWT held the first annual Streamy Awards—the Emmys of web television meant to recognize excellence in web television.13 Like the Emmys, the Streamys include awards for acting, directing, producing and writing in 36 categories including Audience Choice and a Visionary Award.14

In the last two years, web series have continued to explode in popularity and number. They fall mostly into three categories: Hollywood stars “slumming” it in projects that allow more creative expression without studio censorship, talented second-tier talent interested in using the Internet as a medium in itself and to gain notice for themselves, and talented every day people in possession of a video camera and a computer.15

Possible Future

Because web series are a digital medium and the product of the digital age, it seems likely that they will not only survive in coming years, but thrive. The question we have to ask, then, is in what form, or possible changes that might overtake the medium? In the beginning, web series were often user-generated and created, done as forms of creative expression that either had no home in the mainstream media or were produced solely by amateurs. However, now that the entertainment industry has begun to become interested in the potential commercial success of web series, the medium is in a state of flux, like many other new media, and the form that the change could take is not yet clear.

One change brought about by Hollywood’s interest is clear. In the past couple of years, several web series, like Sanctuary, have been picked up for television which seems to be the goal for many in the industry: using web television for discovery and a launching ground to then move to the older, traditional medium of broadcast television. It is possible that this, however, is simply a case of the medium still coming into its own in terms of profitability. After all, the golden ring of Hollywood is to reach more people, to sell more advertising and thus make more money while gaining more exposure which can lead to movie deals and even further stardom. It is how the system of celebrity works in the industry at the moment.

One way web series are looking to make this impact is by being able to show they are profitable. More and more to garner the money needed for production and to gain an audience, web series are turning to advertisers and sponsors. Web series can be either sponsored or branded. Sponsored content is funded by a brand, but the content of the narrative generally has nothing to do with the sponsor, nor is there much, if any, product placement. Branded content, on the other hand, consists of content directly relates to the product and thus is often made up of a great deal of product placement. With branded content, it is sometimes difficult to tell if you are watching a story or a commercial. This can be well-done, but as resistant as people are to being “sold,” it is a fine line a series must walk. However, past experience on broadcast television has proven it can be done well (think of the Folger’s ad campaign which told more and more of the story of a couple meeting and falling in love through each commercial, or other similar commercials of the past). People do not like being tricked into making a commercial, so transparency is the key to success.16 While many series have made do without sponsorship, now that Hollywood’s attention has been gained, it seems likely that web series will find themselves needing sponsors to be able to compete with Hollywood’s efforts online. Sponsors are difficult to win without an established fan-base or for content that is too far out of the mainstream, which brings us to the next possible consequence.

It is possible that this injection of studios and advertising into web series will threaten to stifle the free-flow of creativity, or to drown out the independent endeavors through the production of slick, “professional” web series which are more akin to mainstream television than series like The Guild or Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. One of the draw of web series is this lack of input from studios or advertisers. Network and cable TV producers have to gear their content toward the mainstream and fight for the best time slots. Web series are able to cater to a niche audience, have no time slot issues, and offer viewers more choices. Finding an investor to invest in niche series can be difficult, but it is not impossible. The Guild did it quite successfully, by attracting sponsors whose target audience is the same as those who most watch The Guild – online gamers.17

When it comes to looking at the success of a web series, professionalism may win out over amateur efforts, as so often happens. On one hand, both The Guild and Dr. Horrible were created and produced by professional entertainers and storytellers, and much of their cult success has been because of the high production value created on a limited budget. Unlike a series shot by someone with no training in their backyard or home, both series are well made and well written. In addition, both have a ready made fan base because of those involved, which helped them find success. As Liz Miller put it on her blog, “what Dr. Horrible primarily proved was that you could make online distribution work — if you had a huge, previously established fan base.”18

On the other hand, as more and more people access the Internet for their entertainment, and the desire for short, mobile entertainment series grows—something you can watch at the airport or in line without feeling like you’re going to have to cut off in the middle—the audience for web series will grow, and more people will be searching for this kind of content. In May of 2010 alone, Americans watched nearly 34 billion videos online.19 These numbers have only continued to grow and there is no indication that this will change in the near future. In addition, while Dr. Horrible and The Guild might have catered to an existing fan-base or niche market, and have been produced at a higher quality than the average amateur can manage, they both espouse a theory and a credo that serves as an inspiration to talented amateurs creating new, original content, trying to break away from the studio molds. As Joss Whedon so eloquently put it:

Once upon a time, all the writers in the forest got very mad with the Forest Kings and declared a work-stoppage. […] During this work-stoppage, many writers tried to form partnerships for outside funding to create new work that circumvented the Forest King system.

Frustrated with the lack of movement on that front, I finally decided to do something very ambitious, very exciting, very mid-life-crisisy. Aided only by everyone I had worked with, was related to or had ever met, I single-handedly created this unique little epic. A supervillain musical, of which, as we all know, there are far too few.

The idea was to make it on the fly, on the cheap—but to make it. To turn out a really thrilling, professionalish piece of entertainment specifically for the internet. To show how much could be done with very little. To show the world there is another way. To give the public (and in particular you guys) something for all your support and patience. And to make a lot of silly jokes. Actually, that sentence probably should have come first.20

Fan-base aside, Dr. Horrible did trigger a vision of a potential future for web television. Whether that potential will manifest or not remains to be seen, but the idea of original content and a wider field of entertainment appeals to a lot of people, and it seems likely that these sorts of projects will continue to prosper.

1Samuel Axon, A Beginner’s Guide to Made-for-Internet TV, Mashable Entertainment, http://mashable.com/2010/02/22/web-tv-series (October 22, 2011).
2Wikipedia, Web Series, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_series(October 22, 2011).
3Wikipedia, Web Television, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_television (October 22, 2011).
4Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2001), 79.
5Manovich, 69.
8Wikipedia, The Guild, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_guild (October 22, 20110.
9Mark Clamen, Life After Dr. Horrible: A Rough Guide to Original Web Programming, Critics At Large, http://www.criticsatlarge.ca/2010/10/rough-guide-to-original-web-programming.html (October 22, 2011).
11Melissa Jun Rowley, The Future of TV?: The Story Behind Crackle’s “The Bannen Way,” Mashable Entertainment, http://mashable.com/2010/04/01/the-bannen-way/ (October 22, 2011).
12International Academy of Web Television, Mission Statement, http://iawtv.org/about/mission-statement/ (October 22, 2011)
14Wikipedia, The Streamy Awards, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streamy_Awards (October 22, 2011).
16Stephanie Marus, How Hollywood is Finally Cashing in on Web Video, Mashable Entertainment, http://mashable.com/2010/07/16/hollywood-web-video (October 22, 2011).
18Liz Shannon Miller, Has Dr. Horrible Really Helped Build the Web Series World? GigaOM, http://gigaom.com/video/dr-horrible-retrospective (October 22, 2011).
20Joss Whedon, as quoted in Alyson Buckman, “Go Ahead! Run Away! Say it was Horrible: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog as Resistant Text,” Slayage: The Journal of the Whedon Studies Association 8:1 (Spring 2010): 29, http://slayageonline.com/essays/slayage29/Buckman.htm (October 22, 2011).