I have been writing about online video since 2006, and I can’t tell you how many times I must have typed the words “web series” in that time. It’s a phrase that the industry has been using since the very beginning to denote serialized content delivered on digital platforms, and it is also a term that many within said industry have grown frustrated with.
Which is why I spent a day talking with some people who have been involved in the business of online video since its earliest days about whether or not it’s time to retire the phrase and come up with something that better captures the medium. I expected to write an obituary for the “web series.” Instead, I came to the conclusion that it’s here to stay, at least for the time being.
A big reason for that, according to Blip.tv VP of Content Steve Woolf, is that it’s the one term that people recognize. When Blip.tv relaunched the site last May, they settled on the tagline “discover the best in original web series,” but Woolf, who produced the long running series Epic Fu prior to joining Blip, wasn’t for it at first. “I didn’t like term web series — I never have. Coming to it as a producer, it always felt like we were saying this was the minor leagues,” Woolf said in a phone interview.
But when Blip tested a number of terms with focus groups, “nothing resonated with the public like web series did. People didn’t warm to it, but they knew what it was — there was instant recognition. The public needs to have some sort of term to attach to this stuff so they understand what it is.”
That’s not necessarily a good thing, according to producer Wilson Cleveland, who shared this via email:
When the Leap Year trailer was first released on Hulu last summer, I asked my 64 years-young mother to email the link to 10 of her friends of similar age and introduce it simply as “a new series Wilson’s working on.” All 10 watched and responded with various comments. Then I asked her to send the exact same link to 10 other friends of similar age, but to call it a “web series.” This time, four people claimed “the link doesn’t work;” two said the “video won’t play;” one asked “what channel is this on?;” one asked “How do I find this so I know when to watch?” Only two out of the second 10 watched the trailer without any questions or issues. Not exactly a scientific study but it made me wonder if placing the word “web” in front of “series” or “show,” could be hurting the cause at raising the broader awareness we need to grow.
Black Box TV producer Tony Valenzuela doesn’t call his show a web series — instead, he calls it an “online series.” “Online series speaks to me more — ‘web series’ could be anything. Phil DeFranco is a web series to me,” he said via phone.
But Tim Shey, who co-founded Next New Networks and, following its YouTube acquisition, became director of YouTube Next Lab, still actively uses “web series,” because it differentiates web content from television. While all entertainment might be heading towards convergence, that’s still a bit far away, and in the meantime web content is still very different from broadcast.
The differences between web and television are numerous. Just as one small example: Currently, television is still being made with the assumption that it’ll be primarily watched on large screens; producers aren’t necessarily thinking about production on a cross-platform level. Web producers can’t get away with that. One thing Valenzuela pointed out is that he realized that the on-screen text of Black Box TV episodes couldn’t be too small, because people watching on phones wouldn’t be able to read it.
Really, when you think about it, it’s hardly a surprise that so much web original content, even scripted series like The Guild, is based around vlog-style presentation. One thing that resonates across all screen sizes is a close-up on a person’s face, and accordingly the medium has evolved around that.
One of the biggest arguments against the term “web series” is that it doesn’t account for the fact that the web is only one place people are consuming content. But if you’re watching a web series on your smartphone or your television, it’s still something that originated from the web, and carries with it that legacy. “I think the ‘web series’ concept has evolved from being a type of entertainment that was ‘platform specific’ to one that’s ‘platform agnostic,’” Cleveland said. “The evolution of digital technology has been the most significant change agent in the evolution of the ‘web series’ simply because the delivery platforms have changed.” Cleveland’s branded comedy Leap Year, for example, was distributed via Hulu Plus, and was thus watchable across all platforms, including television.
The big differences between web content and television are in the production values, though that gap is closing with each passing year; the subject matter, which leans more toward niche audiences; the emphasis on audience engagement; and the genres that have been successful.
Valenzuela believes that a subtle AMC drama like Mad Men or The Walking Dead just won’t play online, as too much of the action is too subtle to hold fractured attention spans. “Cerebral dramas online have a really hard time getting an audience,” he said. The best dramas are lean-back experiences, and shows that originate on the web will always struggle with that limitation.
Woolf observed that while so much viewing of broadcast content is occurring online, “When you’re going to Netflix to watch a show, you probably intend to go full screen and invest in that show. It’s still a different experience than going to Blip and searching through shows there — you might have chat going, you might have email going. But when distribution to television is easier for web series, scripted dramas will have an easier time.”
In the meantime, as Shey pointed out, “Serialized storytelling is not an underserved audience — there are so many places you can go for that. The web serves audiences that aren’t served by traditional media.”
What’s working against the term “web series,” in the long term, is audience perception, but that’s set to change as the term becomes less about what web content isn’t and more about celebrating what makes it great — the interactivity, the originality.
“It’s really too early a medium and art form to know what we should call it,” Shey said. “‘Web series’ is really just a point of origin. But the answer is not going to come from top down. Ultimately, it’s going to come from the audience.”