Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Internet Killed The Television Star...

It's pretty apparent that the emergence of original programming on the internet, debuting at only minute-and-a-half to three minute clips, was geared directly at the teenage set-- playing into the whole shortening attention span and need to get their entertainment from the same rectangular box that they get the research for their term papers and with which they network and communicate with friends. Web series, as they were deemed, didn't officially become an official part of new media until they began to gain widespread popularity with lonelygirl15, a video blog from a so-called teenage girl's bedroom, where she dished on her friends, her school, and her love life. Partnering with MySpace, the producers behind lonelygirl15 built their brand on the assumption that most of their viewers were young and naive enough about the entertainment industry to assume Jessica Rose really was the character she was playing. Sure there was a little backlash when she popped up on Greek, and fans learned she was, in fact, just another actress. Though some may have felt duped, the impact of such accessible material had already been felt; Michael Eisner and the guys at Big Fantastic had already taken off with Prom Queen, garnering promotional tie-ins from Hairspray the movie and Fiji water and sold their rights overseas. Needless to say, after the success of giving The CW a run for its money in teen programming, other more "adult" writers, producers, and stars began to take note of the medium.

Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog may be the best (and most mainstream) example of a heavyweight in television stepping behind the camera for an even smaller screen. Though he admits he produced the three part musical web "miniseries" because he and his friends were bored during the writer's strike, he pulled out all of the stops, delivering production value previously unheard of for the medium. It's almost ironic that during a strike in which writers were fighting for a fair contract in the sales and distribution of new media, which includes web series, such a piece would be released and completely blow open the possibilities for said medium. Starring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, and Felicia Day, and costing what Whedon would only admit to being in the "low six figures" (hopefully he was kidding), Dr. Horrible took web series to a whole new level, incorporating fight sequences, fantasy sequences, green screen, singing, and even a giant horse. The combination of such talent drew in a much wider demographic than a web series had seen before and has subsequently released a soundtrack and held a panel at Comic Con San Diego.

Before Whedon's imagination took over the internet, though, web series were one of two things: melodramatic serials (like the aforementioned Prom Queen) or improv-esque crude comedies, such as Mary Birdsong (Reno 911)'s 99 Cent Whore, a MySpace and YouTube video collection of video diaries, in-studio recordings, and live concert performances from the fictional country singer/songwriter. 99 Cent Whore was based on a character Birdsong created years ago and often performed on the UCB stage, making her web series more of a pet project than a real moneymaker for the actress/producer. She followed the "less is more" formula of lonelygirl15's first season, just a girl and a handheld camera, as if to give the illusion the character was real, and she was simply sharing her daily (albeit exaggeratedly low class) life with strangers on the internet. Similarly, Kerry Kenney will be following suit shortly with her own spoof of a madam at a ranch bunny house, and even Seth McFarlane has gotten in on the action, teaming up with Google for a series of animated web-only shorts.

And since the medium is still so new, and opportunities to profit can be few and far between without the deep-pocket advertising connections of Eisner and Whedon, many web series follow that docudrama/reality formula, modifying the definition of verite in production. Wendi McLendon-Covey (also of Reno 911) created GILF, which follows the escapades of a thirty-something woman who lives with her teenage daughter and her infant granddaughter, tries to market a brand of leisure clothing to young grandmothers featuring words like "jealous" across the backside, and has many misadventures in dating. McLendon-Covey employs the handheld, reality-style camerawork not unlike the show that made her famous and instead relies on her dry, witty dead-pan to ensnare audiences. McLendon-Covey is just one fine example of the many television stars turning to web series production as an outlet that will allow them to release what they want, when they want, how they want, and oh yeah, without worrying about network censors.

Web series seem to be to the entertainment industry what television once was: an extremely affordable and accessible way to bring stories not only into one's home, but also into their purses and pockets, and now countless others are getting into what they surely must hope is not just a fad. NBC has Gemini Divison starring Rosario Dawson and Justin Hartley, which takes a page from Whedon's book and offers slightly longer episodes, at an average of seven minutes each. Centering on a detective trying to unravel the truth behind her boyfriend's death, Gemini Division crosses into the sci-fi genre with a conspiracy involving simulated lifeforms that are walking and working among the human race.

On the flip side, Kate, Dating, a web series about a single thirty-something determined to get back into the dating scene in Los Angeles, a place where she affectionately admits "dating goes to die," is currently in development now for Circes World Films. Though no cast list has yet been announced, there is plenty of room for famous faces, but since it is based on the real life experiences of the writers, it is safe to say it will feature some unknown "every" men and women, as well. Where Gemini Division proves to be a highly stylized serial production, smaller, independent companies, like Circes World Films, are still getting in the action of web series with more "day in the life" projects, proving that just like on television, there is much room for representatives of all genres.

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