When new technologies emerge a host of new companies tend to sprout up. Tons of independent radio stations catering to diverse interests existed before 1970s-style deregulation. Digital technology brought dozens of new channels to television; that same technology fostered numerous production companies making independent TV and films. Now the drive to create original web video — a trend that dates back to the late 1990s, but has gained new steam with broadband and YouTube post-2006 — has attracted new voices previously unheard. We have corporately produced web series, but also black web series and series made with virtually no budget at all.
Well, that’s great. But how do you distribute and promote all these shows and videos? Anyone can create a video, but if, like my YouTube videos, nobody sees them, then there isn’t much point. Sure, decently endowed websites now fund and promote web shows. But what about black content, in many cases prone to smaller audiences?
Enter the sites pictured above. Entrepreneurs, keen to the problem of distribution, have created sites where folks looking for black content can go. Surprisingly it looks like all these sites are coming out around the same time — now. As noted in my article in The Root, BET.com is just now getting into the market for original web shows; there’s been a lack of visibility from major black media companies. In my interviews I found numerous black producers didn’t know of the other black shows debuting online.
BetterBlackTV (BBTV) looks like one of the more well-funded of the sites: it counts among its list of backers both Denzel Washington and Will Smith and is headed by Percy Miller (Master P). (If the site is smart, it will do what FunnyOrDie did when it launched and have both of those actors star in short, funny videos for BBTV, as Will Ferrell did for FoD). The site calls itself “family friendly,” which could be a potential boon or a crutch.
BBTV looks like good business. It feels like a network, offering a diverse slate of programming, slickly organized and easily accessible. Not to be outdone by BET.com and Blackplanet, it has a built-in social networking site and hopefully will allow users to connect via Facebook and Twitter. Most important, I think, was the decision to include music videos, which are among the most popular kinds of video online today. That’ll bring young people, if the videos are new and high quality — and landing exclusives would be crucial. There’s a store attached to the site, which, if the creators have some vision, might be used to sell products integrated into the original programming made for the site (see Koldcast’s “ShowShops.”)
Of course, the main draw for me, and hopefully for others as well, will be the original programming. Once again, black producers are responding to the lack of interest in black stories on television today (although I think this is going to change pretty soon).
I’ll be following the launch of the site, set right now for 2010.
RowdyOrbit is an independent start-up by Jonathan Moore, whose background is in the ad business. Moore is more explicitly focused on series and particularly scripted shows. The idea is to be something like a Hulu for black shows online. The site will continually upload brand new shows and new episodes of shows it already features — the more shows, the better (the goal is to publish hundreds). Moore is focusing on professionally produced series; it’s already landed Jaleel White’s new show, Road to the Altar, currently distributed by Koldcast. Still, despite this professional focus, it aims to be much more expansive than BBTV.
RowdyOrbit (see additional coverage at BlackBoxOffice) is fueled by a recognition that in a Web 2.0 environment, distribution and marketing are key. Where shows are placed, how many places they are published and what experience those sites support are the critical questions for success.
“With a lot of the more-focused websites,” Moore said, “it’s all about placement now.” The question becomes: “what’s going to be the best opportunity for me as a creator?”
The point behind RowdyOrbit is visibility: better and more complex representations of people of color. “The end product has to be for people of color, and the majority of people on screen have to be of color…This is an opportunity for us to be seen in a completely different light.”
Already he has a diverse slate of shows on the site, from a fantasy series about woman’s empowerment called Chick to a cooking show, and a number of shows with an international flair, from Africa (Botswana) to bilingual shows in Spanish. For its list of shows, click here.
Tickles distributes comedy — what appears to be sketch comedy — using YouTube as a platform. Most of content isn’t serialized in the way Itraditionally consider a “series.” The model appears to be more NextNewNetwork, which focuses not on scripted, narrative videos, but on either informational videos or potential viral videos (BarelyPolitical or, as popularly know, “The people who made ObamaGirl”). However Tickles’ content is at times very erudite, signaling, once again, that these are not representations the average viewer is used to looking at.
Among the sites listed above I’m struck by to themes. One is the concern with representation, the idea that mainstream television and film do not properly account for the diversity in black communities, and, in the case of BBTV, might even be harmful for families. The other is the inclusion of Spanish-speaking individuals in representations of blackness, a nod to the fact that, however much the media discusses the divisions within those communities, blacks and Latinos live side by side in many areas across the U.S. with fraternity and without conflict.
As in both articles I wrote for The Root, it seems the web, while rife with as much if not more racism as exists in society at large, is space where entrepreneurs are looking to counter and expand what it means to be black in the 21st century. Whether these will be “popular,” is another question, but we should at least look upon this media moment with a degree of hope — hope, as always, supported by a healthy degree of skepticism.