UPDATE: Hulu is premiering its own scripted show, Battleground, along with some other new programs.
ORIGINAL: We’ve always had ambitious programming on the web. But new announcements and series premieres suggest a change in the air, that the combination of low production costs, the maturation of web video networks and growing advertiser comfort with new media sponsorship has resulted in a significant upgrade in the kind of original programming we can get over-the-top.
This became very clear when I started to watch RCVR, one of the latest series from Machinima.com, which is fast becoming the premiere venue for original dramas online — with Mortal Kombat: Legacy, Bite Me and the new Walking Dead web series among its roster of recent hits.
RCVR and its guerilla marketing plan have been praised by video critics, with Tubefilter‘s Marc Hustvedt claiming it represents how web drama is “getting good now” and “we’re in for a feast of new programming this next 12 months.”
He’s right. The next year will bring huge shifts in web programming, much of it for the better.
Of course this isn’t new. RCVR creator David Van Eyssen’s connection to the 2001 BMW film series, among the first high concept transmedia projects out of Hollywood (read up if you’re not familiar; it was huge in its day), reminds us we’ve had quality content for ten years at least.
Still, there’s reason to believe seismic changes are in the works.
Nearly all the stories I’m bookmarking these days show networks are buying up high-cost content, from Yahoo delivering half a dozen reality-based series, to Aol picking up twice as many, including an expensive, much-hyped series from McG, Aim High, already popular in advance of its premiere. I’m a big fan of Cambio‘s CliffsNotes series, which featured an awesome, whimsical and completely unabashed placement for the film Anonymous (about Shakespeare being a fraud) in a recap of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Genius (and somewhat awful)!
Netflix is emerging as the would-be titan of quality over-the-top programming. Aside from the House of Cards deal, Netflix has been making bids for a ton of incredible shows, perhaps in response to its PR-nightmare this summer. It’s rumored to be bidding for the Arrested Development comeback series. It’s been picking up a slew of programming from the likes of Dreamworks (Animation), AMC, and — most excitedly — two ambitious European series Lilyhammer and Borgia (from Oz‘s Tom Fontana), both of which could generate chatter among critics along the lines of new HBO premieres. Netflix’s greatest strength has always been its understanding that, like a pay-cable network, you have to spend money to make money.
YouTube’s endless march toward becoming a next generation TV network got closer to reality when news broke it’s moving to scheduled channels fast. Crackle is already gearing up to release TV-length programs.
Even Hulu, the in-limbo network known essentially as a conduit for mainstream TV content, is making serious plays for its own stuff, moving quickly past The Confession and The Booth at the End. It’s possible that Hulu Plus subscription revenue will give it a Netflix-like ability to compete with cablers, though its possible sale makes speculation about the future pretty futile.
And of course next year will bring the first major TV-to-web conversation with the arrival of All My Children and One Life to Live.
The web becoming more like television is, for now, a good thing. Most people pay for the web with their cable television, and more quality programming is more bang for the buck; for those who don’t have TV, it’s an even better deal.
But it also raises the bar for independent filmmakers, who now must compete with seven- and eight-figure production budgets — still somewhat rare — not to mention celebrity stars and powerful producers, including possibly the likes of proto-Spielberg JJ Abrams. Already squeezed out of Netflix as the company fazes out the DVD, independents are in a precarious place. It may be the beginning of the end for the littler guys. Though a silver lining might come from the continuing appeal of short-form programming, potentially the last bastion of diversity in over-the-top programming in the coming years as the big guys shift to long-form.
Don’t get me wrong, the indies are stepping it up. Most recently I profiled the spurt of sci-fi series from producers of color, and they rank among the most aesthetically sophisticated content on the web, produced for pennies on mainstream TV’s dollar. Programs like Black Box TV, and the numerous shows on Blip TV, give web audiences short, innovative series to watch whenever they want.
With all this happening, over-the-top viewing will become even more primetime than it already is. The tense and paranoid RCVR looked gorgeous on my projector. I felt like I was watching a solid SyFy or AMC drama. In 2011, that’s the way it should be.