ARE WEB SERIES DEAD?

February 3, 2020 Carrie Cutforth

ARE WEB SERIES DEAD?

(AND DOES ANYBODY CARE?)

Image remix using photos by cesarstrings, Alexander Antropov, and Paul Barlow from Pixabay.

Feature image remix using photos by cesarstrings, Alexander Antropov, and Paul Barlow from Pixabay.

A LONG SOMEWHAT UNNECESSARY PREAMBLE FOR CONTEXT (YOU CAN SKIP AHEAD)

Back in the fall of 2013, I penned an article Are Web Series TV Online? that addressed the rising convergence of screen content during the dawn of the early over-the-top (OTT) media service gold rush years and the burgeoning efforts to erase the term web series, which had become synonymous in Entertainment Industry eyes as ‘amateurish’ in favour of more nebulous terms such as original series (popularized by Netflix) and digital series. Soon after, the terms short-form and snackable screen content began to circulate in an effort to further displace the term along with short-lived buzzwords webisodes, appisodes, and the hideous mobisodes.

It was also a time when TV prodcos, who had, with the exception of some outliers, previously held up a nose at online shenanigans, and were now looking to capitalize on the explosive massive popularity of Youtube (with Facebook video soon following), and, in Canada, the ‘growing’ pool of funding available to short form content.

By dropping the term web series, TV prodcos, entering online video distribution after the heels of web series’ turbulent R&D years, were eager to separate their ‘wheat’ from the perceived ‘chaff’ of ‘dabblers’ and ‘hobbyists,’ namely: the conspiracy theorists, the dollar store dilettantes, the kids with too much time on their hands, the cranks, and even the professional ‘upstart’ indie creator in cargo pants equipped with a DSLR, a kino light, and ‘two turntables and a microphone’ eager to make a name for themselves at a time when there was no upward mobility as crew positions were locked by boomers who promised never to retire.

Although my article was written only less than seven years ago, to think how early days this article was written in INTERNET YEARS (which always seems to pass like dog years as opposed to human time), Vine had just become a ‘thing’, the term ‘influencer’ would not gain traction until a full two years later, Patreon was yet a gleam in its founders’ eyes, and memes were not quite three years away from becoming ‘dank’.

As the then-now former Executive Director of the Independent Web Series Creators of Canada (IWCC), a non-profit professional association I had formed with a pioneering motley crew of professional upstart indie creators and traditional TV veterans, I felt, at the time, an impetus to defend against dropping ‘web’ from web series for ideological-reasons and to define web series to align with the IWCC’s mantra at the time as distinct from digital and original series in that it was independently driven (a creator with something to say unhampered by stakeholder interests or in reliance of a ‘broadcast trigger’), audience-focused (a specific community to engage with rather than for mass appeal), with a direct connection between creator and audience that was socially driven, or more so, communal. I had also clearly bought into the promises of Web 2.0 hook, line, and sinker, and now cringe on reading passages such as:

“Over a decade, independent web series creators who pioneered this form of storytelling have learned to make the most with the least by becoming the lean start-up of serialized video content production: forming new hybrid entertainment business models. It is not business as usual, and we have only just begun to identify the emerging sustainable models for this revolutionary democratic form of storytelling.”

And:

“Web series creators who embrace the term are disruptors, voyagers, captains of their content in a vast sea of entertainment.”

LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL!

Oh the heady days of Web 2.0’s youth! The unbridled passion! The naivety!

If only us indie creators and TV prodcos alike had known at the time that Youtube’s algorithms would ensure sustainability foremost to those conspiracy theorists and the cranks, that the business models we were forging on platforms were by in large part to the benefit for the platforms themselves, and that rather than developing our own audiences, we were developing them for Facebook and Youtube who would prove to yank them away without a moment’s notice (if that audience had ever existed at all). And, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the only thing we upstarts managed to disrupt is a living wage for the Creative Class. Old Boss meet the New Boss, it’s the Old Boss…

But I digress. And now for the meat of the article…. Drum roll, please:

WHAT ARE WEB SERIES AND WHO CARES?

First: the Gloom & Doom

Although I’ll admit, there was never really any formal agreement on the definition of a web series was, other than by those in the industry who used it in the derogatory, in my 2013 article Are Web Series TV Online?, I attempted to define web series as:

“A series created from within a movement, one that allows content creators to bypass gatekeepers with disruptive media and taking ownership of one’s distribution chain with a direct connection to their audiences; sometimes called ‘the new independent film’ or the ‘lean start up’ of serialized entertainment.”

Today’s media landscape only serves to make any attempt at definition confuzzled as the features that marked a web series distinct from TV series have been all but removed now that broadcasters have either dived into the platform streaming game or have licensed their content to one. What is the distinction between a series that is released on TV and OTT and/or all screens simultaneously? Or the distinction between a series and a cut-up eleven-hour film for that matter?

Web series can no longer be defined by the particular features of its format as, creatively, the pioneering techniques developed by web series creators during the R&D years in which they seized on the flexibility of online distribution to play with narrative structure (such as interactivity with branching choice-based narratives, chaotic episode lengths, arcs, etc. that served story needs over the advertiser-driven TV series structure) is now often being credited to Netflix a decade after the fact while those same pioneers are erased from history with the internet’s notorious goldfish memory (with the exception of this rare great article and a few like it).

 

Defining web series by length also becomes problematic once nebulous terms like short form and snackable became bandied about, terms that suggest anything as long as a Tiktok (as long it is serial somehow) and less than the traditional 22 TV minutes. And then there are the web series being written and produced in a scaffold style to distribute as short form and repackaged simultaneously as traditional 22 minute TV episodes or even feature-length film.

Another once attractive core feature for independent creators back then that made web series distinct apart from online distribution was the promise of direct social connection with (and potential commercial exploitation of) audiences. As I had written in the aforementioned article:

“A few years back, I recall a famously known media conglomerate was launching an online distribution portal. Its representatives were explaining to the content creators in the room what they were scouting for. “We are looking for producers who get story, we are looking for producers who understand how to develop and deliver audiences, we are looking for producers who can deliver the most production value with the least expense, we are looking for producers who get online forms of distribution and how the web works,” the voice in my sketchy memory recalls. And then someone tweeted in the room: “If I get all that, why the fuck do I need a FAMOUSLY KNOWN MEDIA CONGLOMERATE?””

In today’s climate, however, the famously known media conglomerates have caught the fuck up, every series (and their dog) has a social media presence, we are ALL content creators (and so is your mom), and the ‘cutting edge’ tools and techniques pioneered by the independents during the aughts have now been codified to the point that now, ten years later, a social media marketing certification is a bare minimum requirement in the ever-growing list of bare minimum requirements for entry-level jobs in a sector that scant existed prior to 2006. Today, the promises of direct social connection to audiences are more and more hampered by social media platforms’ use of shadowbanning content and/or demonetizing to please some ideological base while organic reach is dead as platforms push creators to pay-to-play (which has turned out to be the long-term strategy all along). For content creators in the kid’s market, Youtube has moved to disable comments on children’s content by default, with fuzzy answers on how to address legitimate creators’ concerns on the potential negative impact on their channel’s growth. Likewise, web series dependent on branded content as part of their model are also subject to ever-shifting restrictions and requirements, whether it is laws catching up to the times, or again, the whims of the platform they are distributed on.

If every screen content series, regardless of distribution platforms, has social media marketing with a direct connection to audiences, in which at the same time, those with big marketing budgets ala broadcaster/OTT platform support are increasingly positioned for viable connection to said audiences while indie creators are increasingly being shuttered from the audiences they built for those platforms by the whims of the ever-shifting alchemy of algorithms, then this feature of the ‘web’ in web series has all been swallowed up. In fact, many creators are only beginning to pay attention to the critics who have been questioning how ‘web’ Web 2.0 was all along for years:

“JWZ reminds us that all social media is some variation on the walled garden strategy, designed to lock you in and lock value away from the open, interoperable Web into a silo where it languishes and rots,” ~ Boing Boing, March 26, 2016’s post on this article by JWZ.

The result of which means the sentiment of a decade ago, ‘why the fuck do I need a FAMOUSLY KNOWN MEDIA CONGLOMERATE?” has been flipped on its ass, as many web series creators can no longer (if they ever could) depend on direct connection and distribution to audiences. Rather, increasingly, web series producers are pitching to platforms indistinguishable from (or very much the same as) broadcasters of yore, with the ‘broadcast trigger’ requirement in Canada for funding access being quickly displaced by ‘broadcast or OTT trigger’ requirements.

Meanwhile, mainstream platforms, Netflix, and even CBC’s GEM,* who have built substantial libraries for niche audiences such as LGBTQ, are becoming more attractive for the weary indie producer tired of being subjected to the whims of platforms that talk the walk of inclusion while (putting the DEMON in demonetize) demonetizing their audiences for whatever is the latest reason this keeps ‘accidentally’ happening.

Web series can no longer be defined by budget constraints of the grass-roots bootstrapping can-do attitude. Traditional TV prodcos moving into narrative web series less than a decade ago with the attitude of ‘move over bacon, here is something meatier,’ have had, for the most part, the samesy success as their former ‘upstart peers’ (whose production values have caught up) while budgets for reasons too complex to discuss herein overall have stagnated wages for crew regardless of distribution platform.

The question then of what is a web series is of particular interest in Canada where web series funding has been in its own distinct category or included in categories such as interactive or convergence. But now that all screen content has converged and is ‘somewhat’ socially interactive, does it still make sense to demarcate web series as distinct from any other type of screen content?

Digital series pioneer Jill Golick.

‘Web Series’: In Spite of Itself And Everyone Else

And yet, web series, as a term, is flourishing in various sectors, either regionally or by genre, and despite ongoing concentrated efforts by various platforms to qualify their series as not ‘web,’ audiences and media outlets alike use ‘web series’ interchangeably with digital and/or original series to the chagrin of those platforms. And while North American narrative web series creators soon discovered as early as the late aughts that Youtube’s algorithm’s favoured factual content, vlogging, and sketch over narrative drama and comedy series, increasingly ‘web series’ is being associated with instructional and informative shows driven by an ever-growing pool of influencers. Web series, the former derided term, has quickly and quietly shed its former ‘amateurish’ stain. Even Michelle Obama is getting into the web series game.

Meanwhile, narrative web series has exploded in India, in spite of all the reasons they failed, for the most part, to gain traction in North America, and web series festivals continue to pop up all over the world, the caveat being that many of these webfests are still creator and/or industry-focused rather than audience development drivers. This speaks more to aspirations of narrative web series creators, in particular, who see web series as (according to conversations with my friend Dan Speerin), “the new portfolio calling card to mainstream industry ins that short film was in the ‘90s” rather than an avenue to creating one’s own sustainable and viable direct-to-audience micro-media empires as their creative peers in factual series have accomplished.

And while some may argue that gone are the days when popular web series could aspire to be picked up by TV (BROAD CITY, DRUNK HISTORY, HIGH MAINTENANCE) or serve as a launchpad for the careers of pioneering web series creators, most notably Issa Rae, long-standing festivals like Catalyst Content (originally ITVFest aka The Independent Television Festival) are quickly becoming go-to places for industry agents and executives on the talent acquisition hunt in this current ‘streaming wars’ market craze.

In some ways, there is a growing expectation for emerging creatives and crew to have ‘cut their teeth’ on web series as a first gate training ground before being considered for viable gigs in what used to be considered the mainstream industry (and now surprisingly and increasingly web series themselves), which, while positive for some, adds an additional barrier of entry for a talent pool that cannot afford to make their mark on the continual demand of sweat equity against less talented creators from affluent backgrounds who can chug along longer before burn-out (and even then).

In Canada (as in many parts of Europe), where talent acquisition is even less of a straight(ish) line than in the States, and somewhat dependent on a seemingly never-ending Russian Nesting Dolls of industry programs, initiatives, and funding opportunities that intend to ‘christen’ talent from one doll to the next till emerging talent is simultaneously seen as both too qualified or not qualified enough to qualify for the next perplexing round (TAKES DEEP BREATH TO FINISH SENTENCE), long-standing webfests like TO Webfest and Vancouver Webfest (currently on brief hiatus) can offer guidance, knowledge and skills exchange, networking with funders and distributors (another nebulous term), and camaraderie while navigating through Canada’s funding labyrinth and its ever-shifting floors and walls.**

Rather than dying (as the aforementioned terms webisodes, appisodes, mobisodes did), the term web series is experiencing a sudden explosion worldwide (even in parts of North America where it had been most derided), in spite of web series as a format not being clearly discernible in any way from any other form of serialized screen content, whether distribution, genre, marketing, production style, talent pool, and so on. Attempts from industry insiders to favour more ‘professionally’ sounding terms have gone unheeded by audiences who just don’t give a fuck what we call serialized content, other than the assumption ‘web series’ suggests something other than a Netflix Original (and even then).

Institutional bodies and initiatives that support web series, who have the most invested interest in defining web series very specifically to service eligibility for their programs, find themselves caught in an increasing conundrum by the contradictions convergence has caused. Webfests are wavering on the neverending rebranding question to be either more inclusive of all content creators (such as podcasts) or to draw lines in the sand over which content creator they serve as traditional TV markets now serve ‘web series’ regardless of the term employed also.

In fact, more and more web series are being made (with sustainability and viability outside of the OTT model most afforded to factual) while narrative web series (outside of India and the few successes in North America where it thrives on Youtube), collides with ‘what was once traditional’ TV on OTT.

The impetus of my original defense of the term ‘web series’ is now irrelevant (and maybe it always was), as the promise of bypassing gatekeepers has proven to be a chimera, particularly for niche creators in which the narrative serves an underrepresented audience that has been traditionally oppressed by the mainstream.

Therefore I now present to you…. Drum roll, please….

THE NEW DEFINITIVELY NEBULOUS DEFINITION OF WEB SERIES

 

Web Series *cough* are:

 

  • narrative or factual serialized content for screens (which may include vlogs or not depending on who you ask) that are not podcasts or serialized games or a series of content that is text and static image in nature despite also being distributed for ‘screens’;

 

  • that are most likely short-form (which is perhaps under traditional 22 TV minutes depending on who you ask) or snackable (which is at least six seconds but can be considered up to fifteen minutes or more long depending on who you ask), or potentially long-form (if you consider any series streamed by a platform to be web series;

 

      • UNLESS you are employed by such a platform in which disavowing the term web series from your content is mandatory or some such snobbery);

 

  • in which each individual episode does not have to adhere to a determined length or a five-act structure;

 

      • UNLESS adhering to the criteria to qualify for awards and potentially not to suit the needs of advertisers but yet in which the story structure, episode length, etc. suits the needs of advertisers but not in the traditional sense;

 

  • that is distributed on the open ‘web’, behind the paywall of an OTT subscription service or the ‘walled garden’ of a social media platform/s but NOT distributed for TV/cable;

 

      • UNLESS the series broadcast on TV is simultaneously streamed behind the paywall of an OTT;

 

          • or repackaged/licensed to a streaming platform in another market, or potentially the same market after the fact;

 

      • or UNLESS it is a feature film/TV pilot or other form of screen content that has been previously traditionally distributed (or not) which has now been sliced up to be repackaged in serialized short form to be streamed;

 

      • UNLESS the series that is distributed simultaneously on broadcast and OTT wants to distinguish the main series from a branching short form series distributed OUTSIDE of the broadcast network and OTT by defining the latter as ‘the web series’ (ala The Bad Place — the web series companion to The Good Place season four of the TV??? series) component;

 

          • UNLESS the component/companion series has been defined as clips, extensions, bonus screen content, etc. by the powers that be and therefore not a web series;

 

  • that may or may not take advantage of the real-time, on-demand, socially interactive aspects of the open web

 

      • UNLESS behind an OTT that is not inherently social BUT can still have a Facebook page to make it social whether or not the page is used other than to ‘broadcast’ a minimum of two posts with news about the series and still call itself interactive because somehow that is what interactive means in 2020;

 

      • UNLESS the distribution platform IS inherently social but for some current reason a particular genre or topic of web series is not allowed to be social subject to the whim of the platform’s current appeasement of advertisers and investors (or the law);

 

  • that may or may not have a direct connection to the audience of said not-OTT platforms;

 

      • UNLESS it has been shadowbanned subject to the whim of the platform’s current appeasement of advertisers and investors;

 

      • or UNLESS increasingly pushed to a pay-to-play system in which audience development and social interactivity/connection boils down to ‘paid social media ads’;

 

  • and may be considered independent of mass media invested interests, but who are we kidding, probably not independent and likely never really were in the same way ‘independent film’ no longer also exists;

 

OR

 

  • whenever the term web series catches on with an audience at large despite all the above;

 

OR

 

  • subject to the qualifying criteria for awarding, granting, and instructing institutes and bodies despite discrepancies in qualifying criteria across all such said institutes;

You can download and share a poster version of this definition (please link back).

So now that I have cleared the air for all involved and have most definitively defined web series in its most arbitrary and nebulous terms, the question remains, that I hope to answer much more competently in upcoming articles, is it still possible to reach sustainability for narrative-driven web series independent of the whims of mass media gatekeepers (which now includes the platforms themselves along with the traditional-media-now-ALL-media conglomerates) and what does that model look like?

Footnotes:

*I’d be remiss not to mention queer niche streaming platforms Revry and Tello Films also have substantial queer libraries.

** Full disclosure: I co-produced TO Webfest’s inaugural year back in 2014, which was founded by the IWCC.

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Carrie Cutforth

Carrie Cutforth creates fun shit across multiple platforms: content for screens, interactive storytelling, writings, live events, and more. Carrie is the President and Executive Producer at Borken Creative.

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