Americans have so many entertainment choices it’s remarkable anybody watches anything. Blockbuster ratings and opening weekends are fewer and farther between. Nothing “pops” anymore.
Web networks grew up in this environment and learned to survive in it without breaking the bank. Sites like YouTube thrived on amateur and independent content that viewers couldn’t get elsewhere, from makeup advice and music videos to Black sitcoms and Asian American sketch comedies.
College Humor and Funny or Die excelled by executing humour too niche, punchy or disposable for traditional media dollars. All of those videos have been incredibly popular – arguably more popular than most of TV’s offerings – but not very profitable.
Now, the big video networks are continuing to step up their game, developing robust programming, working with big stars, competing with cable for new shows and aggressively marketing themselves to advertisers.
Does the market need a hit show?
Viewership for high-budget web shows is growing, but awareness is low. Industry types have always said the key to legitimizing the web as an entertainment medium was a slate of programs that could capture mass awareness. I’m not sure monster hits can still happen in our age of surplus. I believe online networks have to work on developing shows that grab and hold people’s attention.
The majors have been investing millions in web TV for years, and this year quality has improved. Online TV networks are starting to deliver compelling stories worthy of marquee producers, bigger budgets and viewer attention.
Following the success of major film studios and sites like Machinima.com, many of these new web shows are science fiction, a genre that appeals to the desirable young male demographic and gives producers a chance to impress viewers with graphics, extras and complex narratives.
Watching the first episode of Dr0ne, for example, I was immediately struck by its assured storytelling and direction. Broadcast on Justin Lin’s premium YouTube channel, YOMYOMF (You Offend Me, You Offend My Family), the show follows the story of a drone and its programmer (Kenneth Choi, Captain America, Sons of Anarchy) as they work to solve a mystery and take down a corrupt commander (Lance Reddick, Fringe, The Wire).
The series begins by placing the viewer in the mind of the drone in an episode that’s part silent film, part first-person shooter game. It’s a smart gambit for targeting cinephilic gamers. Not to mention the topic of drones is – or should be – front and centre in American politics.
Web TV raises its game
Dr0ne is just one of YOMYOMF’s pulpy, cinematic and ethnically diverse series. Others include the teen-girl Sucker-Punch-style high school comedy BFFs, Danny Pudi’s strange thriller-comedy Book Club, and the post-apocalyptic drama (another trend) H+, which boasts X-Men and Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer as a producer.
But if there was a premium (read: studio quality) web series hit this summer, it wasn’t a sci-fi project but rather Yahoo!’s sitcom Burning Love, a Bachelor-style reality show spoof produced by Ben Stiller and featuring a number of your favourite comic actresses (including Jennifer Aniston and Kristen Bell).
Yahoo! has been marketing itself as the web network that goes big. It has two, 90-minute, post-apocalyptic dramas from producers Tom Hanks (Electric City) and Anthony Zuiker (Cybergeddon). Yet both of those sci-fi series, while shot with aplomb, have failed to excite critics.
Perhaps the most anticipated of these “tipping point” shows is Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, a $10 million series distributed by YouTube-based Machinima Prime in advance of the release of Microsoft’s video game.
Machinima is a master at this genre, having had success with their Dragon Age: Redemption series, starring the ever-popular Felicia Day, and a Mortal Kombat show, starring Michael Jai White. But the Halo franchise is huge.
“This program has the potential to be for Machinima what Oz was for HBO,” Machinima CEO Allen DeBeVoise told an audience at a conference this summer.
So far, web entertainment has a spotty history of creating compelling high-concept drama. No competitor on HBO’s level has arisen, though Netflix hopes it will get there next year with eight-figure investments in remaking BBC’s House of Cards and bringing back Fox’s Arrested Development.
Can web originals beat them to it? Without HBO’s massive revenue base, I can’t see how. But the internet always surprises. A hit may be on its way.