Final version published at Sparksheet.
Americans have so many entertainment choices it’s remarkable anybody watches anything. Blockbuster ratings and opening weekends are fewer and farther between. Nothing much “pops” anymore.
Web networks grew up in this environment and learned to survive in it without breaking the bank. Companies like YouTube thrived by harnessing amateur/independent production and offering viewers programs they couldn’t get elsewhere, from makeup advice and music videos to black sitcoms and Asian American sketch comedy. College Humor and Funny or Die excelled by executing humor 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. Or at least not profitable enough for companies looking to outgrow their old media parents.
Now, video companies are continuing to step up their game, developing robust programming slates, working with big stars, competing with cable for new shows and aggressively marketing themselves to advertisers.
Viewership for premium web shows is growing, but awareness is low. Does the market need a hit show? 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 user’s attention. If audiences are going ot try something new, it has to be worth it and earn every second.
The majors have been investing millions for years, and this year, quality has improved, even from the last. Channels from YouTube to Yahoo! are starting to deliver compelling stories worthy of marquee producers, bigger budgets and viewer attention. Following the success of major film studios and Machinima.com, many of these shows are sci-fi, which 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 I was immediately struck by its assured storytelling and direction. Broadcast on Justin Lin’s YouTube channel, YOMYOMF (You Offend Me, You Offend My Family) the sci-fi 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 Dr0ne, 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 center in our politics. Dr0ne is just one of YOMYOMF’s pulpy, cinematic and ethnically diverse series, from the teen-girl Sucker-Punch-style high school comedy BFFs to Danny Pudi’s strange thriller-comedy Book Club.
Created by John Cabrera and Cosimo De Tommaso, and boasting Bryan Singer as a producer, H+ is a post-apocalyptic drama (another trend) about a world where humans live with computers embedded in their brains. The series begins with virus that infects humanity and moves forward while uncovering the mystery. Viewing the program on my television I was impressed by how briskly the narrative progressed compared to earlier web shows in the same vein. The acting was competent, the story intriguing and the production quality crisp, if simple.
If there was a premium web series hit this summer, it wasn’t a sci-fi project but rather Yahoo!’s sitcom Burning Love. Executive produced by Ben Stiller, directed by Ken Marino and featuring a number of your favorite comic actresses (including Jennifer Aniston and Kristen Bell), Burning Love is a Bachelor-spoof. ABC’s The Bachelor is an easy enough target, but the highlight of the show is the great performances from the actresses, who bring their A-game. The show is brisk and funny. It’s refreshing to see resources and talent put to good use. 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 and filled with extras, have failed to excite critics (see NYT reviews for EC and Cybergeddon).
Perhaps the most-anticipated of these “tipping point” shows is Halo 4: Forward Until Dawn, a $10 million series distributed by YouTube-based Machinima Prime in advance of the release of Microsoft’s 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, and the series looks impressive, if the many teasers and trailers are to be believed. The show debuts October 5.
“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.
That’s quite a tall order. So far, web entertainment has a spotty history of creating compelling high-concept drama. And no competitor on HBO’s level has yet arisen. Netflix hopes it will get there next year with eight-figure investments in remaking the 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.