I realized as I spoke about web series history, the first real web series I knew about was the BMW film series, The Hire. It was a series of eight short films (averaging about ten minutes each) produced for the Internet in 2001 and 2002 by Anonymous Content with huge directors aboard (one for each episode). A form of branded content, all eight films featured popular filmmakers from across the globe, starred Clive Owen as the “Driver,” and highlighted the performance aspects of various BMW automobiles.
But that kind of content on the internet was new. Actually, Prior to 2005, there wasn’t much regularly delivered online video content. Two websites before 2005 that regularly released online content, namely Icebox and Atomfilms, dated back to the 90’s. But many of these early websites died out during the fallout of the first dotcom bubble in 2000-2002.
By the time 2005 rolled in, young artists, comedians, and film enthusiasts began posting videos online—in hopes of getting seen on one of the new “social networks” – like Friendster or MySpace.
Then came YouTube and it’s instant popularity opened the eyes of millions of digital video creators, who began uploading millions of videos, both legal and illegally ripped from television or DVDs. Studios, agencies, and traditional Hollywood businesses didn’t know what to make of YouTube. But average people did—they began posting personal “home videos” of their children and cats and personal diaries called “webcam confessionals” or “vlogs.”
In 2006, entertainment studios became interested in the space, but very few saw an immediately profitable future in online video; there wasn’t a consistent audience yet. Corporate advertisers were curious, but couldn’t figure out how to justify an ad spend in an unfamiliar medium.
User-Generated Content (UGC) became huge starting in 2006. A few videos went “viral” like the two “scientists” performing experiments with Diet Coke and Mentos. Video Bloggers (Vloggers) became big as well. Like mini-talk shows for the Web, they didn’t have high production values, but they allowed an individual with a point of view to share their voice.
Vlogging & USG are important to the history of the web series because as the medium evolved over time it became social and interactive.
This is especially true with one of the most famous online series launched in the summer of 2006, LonelyGirl15. LonelyGirl15 was a completely fictional video blog that racked up millions of views and a huge following because the creators engaged the established world of video bloggers. Viewers thought the girl in the video was real until a year into the series when fan buzz forced the creators to out the girl as an actress. Watch the very first episode here: LonelyGirl15 (You’ll notice it has 4.7 Million hits)
A few other notable web “networks” did grab a toehold in 2007. Although some of these networks had been around for a few years longer, their organic ground-up approach allowed them to grow at the same pace of the industry. They work by either aggregated independently produced content or actually acquiring the rights to a show and paying for production. They then incorporated ads into the viewing and sometimes offered to split ad revenues with the original owners.
Some popular networks: My Damn Channel
– Next New Networks
Most of the shows on these channels were/are geared to the 18-34 male audience. In 2007 they were the ones looking to view their entertainment online, and they were used to it as most come from “gamer” backgrounds.
Other notable Web series started in 2007:
The Guild helped finance its first season by asking for donations from their dedicated fan base.
Prom Queen – Prom Queen was created by the same team that created Sam Has 7 Friends and aired daily 60-second episodes over 12 weeks.
Afterworld – Originally created for Bud.tv, the creators of Afterworld figured out how to turn a profit by selling the concept internationally.
Also in 2007, digital studios attached to large traditional media slowly emerged:
Sony bought a Web video aggregator site called Grouper.com and renamed it Crackle.com to showcase both shows from their internal library as well as original content.
ABC created their own online studio called Stage 9 Digital, with a stated goal of lining up sponsors for their original online shows before they went into production.
2007 marked the first time when ABC.com made it possible to play full episodes of their shows on their Web site.
Will Ferrell launched the website FunnyorDie.com which featured comedy videos.
In November of 2007 the WGA Writer’s Strike began in Hollywood. This put a halt in production around the entertainment industry. Traditional media companies and viewers alike began looking online (among other places) for their content. And out-of-work creators started doing the same…this is when the web series industry really stared taking off…
In 2008, traditional talent agencies created online divisions to sign and monetize a new kind of talent: online producers, writers, and directors (oftentimes the same person). There was definitely a growing audience but still, most series had a short run and then they were left for the next project when the viewers didn’t show up.
Easily the biggest highlight of 2008 was the success of the Web series, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog. TV veteran, Joss Whedon who created shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, created it. The show starred Neil Patrick Harris among a few other larger names. Whedon produced it on a small budget and called in tons of favors, but the end result was an extremely entertaining project, huge viewership and tons of exposure. Its success gave the web series credibility it desperately needed.
In traditional TV, Fox and NBC joined the likes of ABC and started airing full-length episodes of their shows on the newly launched website, Hulu.com. It has since become a go-to site for both traditional TV and original web series.
It was around this time a number of traditional networks also began capitalizing on their Web savvy audiences. Shows like The Office, Dexter, Weeds, Battlestar Galactica, and 30 Rock started to have web series that “accompanied” their existing content. These episodes existed online only with ancillary cast members and usually lived on the official website of the show.
On the sponsored front, 2008 saw some nibbles but still no bites from large brands. One of the first branded series to find success was an IKEA sponsored show, starring actress Illeana Douglass called, Easy To Assemble
At this point most sponsorship or integrations were made by more progressive brands or brands that only existed online. For example, the show Back on Topps which is about two executives who work for the Topps trading card company, won awards for integrating the product, Skype. Other notable web series from 2008: Web Therapy – starring Lisa Kudrow, which was picked up by Showtime, and The All-For-Nots.
2009 saw even more growth in the online web series world. Home Internet speed caught up to those at work and more people were watching online everywhere. This didn’t mean that everything was going well though.
60frames, an online-only production studio which invested aggressively in original Web series in 2008, folded in 2009 after not receiving the brand backing they were expecting. Likewise, ABC’s digital studio, Stage 9 Media also folded after brands didn’t give them the attention and financing they needed.
Still despite some of these setbacks, a large consortium of industry experts created a group called the International Academy of Web Television (IAWTV) which made up the voting body for the “Streamys,” an inaugural award show which took place in March of 2009 to celebrate the Web video creative community. Dr. Horrible dominated the evening and won across most categories. Its success at that award show helped keep the medium extremely relevant. It even led to a brief cameo during the 2009 Emmy telecast, which Neil Patrick Harris hosted.
In 2009, Sony’s online division, Crackle, became one of the few companies who figured out a business model for the Web series. They did this by treating their web series like an independent film. First they would fund a low-budget genre movie and structure the script so that it can air online in 10-minute segments. Later they edited the series into a 2-hour DVD. They sold ads against the first online airing of the content, they made money from DVD sales and rentals, and finally, they sold both the Internet version and DVD to international markets. Crackle.com released a few projects this way and made money.
2010 saw more expansion, more production and further monetizing of original web series through ads on YouTube (In my workshop “Marketing Your Web Series” I explain this in more detail. If there’s enough interest after this workshop I’ll do it for you).
So in 2010 I entered the web series space with my show Dating In The Middle Ages and like I said earlier though the space still catered mostly to the male 18-34 demo, producers targeting different age groups became more popular.
Even with the demise of a number of online studios, NBC/Universal dipped their toes into sponsored original programming.
In Gayle We Trust – (no longer filming) sponsored by American Family Mortgage
• and Ctrl (no longer filming) – sponsored by Nestea.
Sadly NBC’s digital division folded so after it opened – late in 2010. My story here is personal because they were interested in buying my web series, “Dating In The Middle Ages” in 2010 right before the division closed down. Ouch!
Another fun, quirky series showed up online at that time as well. It’s called, Pretty, The Series, and Steve Silverman, its creator/writer/director also directed Season two of “Dating In The Middle Ages.” Like my show “Pretty, The Series” is geared towards a different demo than the male 18-34.
2011 and beyond…
Larger brands began showing up to the table looking to invest in their own Web series. They’re realizing that for a fraction of a traditional media buy, brands get to be much more involved in a new media production.
The challenge still remains for these series to be seen as more than an extra long commercial.
Brands have also showed up to either sponsor one (or more) seasons of an existing show, or have invested in multiple seasons of their original shows. Some have simply bought traditional banner ads and overlays similar to a traditional model, so no integration is needed. This sponsorship money means a better looking product and a bigger payout for the creators.
In 2012 “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” was released. A modern day retelling via vlogging of the Jane Austen book, “Pride and Prejudice.” The show was created by Bernie Su and Hank Green and broke standards when cast members behaved like real Internet citizens, with their own Tumblr, Lookbook and Twitter accounts. This gave the audience that transmedia interactive experience that was/is so hot at the time. Even though the show has a niche audience it still it broke 1.6 million views and counting. The duo now has “Emma Approved” another Jane Austen novel, but it hasn’t had the appeal (so far) that “The LBD” had. *Note – The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was the first web series to win an Emmy in the creative arts category for Original Interactive Program.
And even more big name actors/celebrities jumped into the web series space around this time as well. Tom Hanks, created an animated web series, Electric City, picked up by Yahoo. It was released July 17, 2012 and contained 20 short episodes totaling 90 minutes in length.
And today 2013-2014 – on Crackle.com is still going strong, and big stars are getting into the web series arena. Check out Seinfield’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee there. Notice the brand placement and advertising before the episode starts. (this episode features Tina Fey)
Now a days beside individual content creators, there is what’s called MCN’s (Multi-Channel Networks) on YouTube. These channels rack up millions/billions of views a month. These are channels where content creators can submit their material to the channel, and if the channel likes the content creator’s material they put it up on their channel. The content creators split part of their gross revenues from the ads that play on their videos to these channels (I get into detail about this in my “Marketing Your Web Series workshop) so that they can be listed there with their videos.
See more at Most viewed MCN, TubeFilter. Please note most of these channels still appeal to the male 18-34 demo, as well as “gamers.”
Today the TV industry is still a 70 billion dollar a year industry vs online which just broke one billion dollars a couple years ago. With all that money still in traditional media most web series creators still want to produce and create for traditional TV. And so do many studios. Plus most actors and writers still use a web series as a “calling card” for their work. And why not? After all, many actors, actresses and content creators have gone on to have careers in Hollywood.
The web series industry is booming, however, very few are making huge amounts of money in it. Monetizing it is tricky, but not impossible and more and more brand sponsors are getting onboard with online shows. Case in point, “Farmed and Dangerous” an original series on Hulu is completely sponsored by Chipotle. It doesn’t quite fit our model of what a web series is and it isn’t free entertainment. (since you have to pay $7.99 a month for Hulu). Still, it shows what big brands today are capable of.
Yahoo, AOL, and even Google are looking for original content and pay content creators for shows that fit the criteria they are looking for.
But know there is still a lot of junk out there to sift through because there is no way to police what kind of quality could/should go up on the net. As the web series market grows hopefully the industry will turn more to “quality instead of quantity” and show creators will have our chance, not so much to get rich, but to at least be fairly compensated for a great story, higher production values and the in-depth character development of our series.
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