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How do you measure the success of an online show? According to Kathleen Grace and Thom Woodley of The ‘Burg, you can count the approximately 10,000 viewers and the heaps of press from fellow New Yorkers at the Observer, Times, Paper Mag, Gawker and Gothamist.
They can also count a number of rumors NewTeeVee has heard about them over the past few weeks. “We’ve had a lot emails, we’ve had a lot of phone calls, but nothing substantial has come of it,” Grace said of interest to further develop the web sitcom as a sponsored show or for traditional broadcast.
The final episode of the Burg’s first season is due by next week — but if you’re new to the show, start with episode one, “Cred.” The show is a serial sitcom about the life of the beautiful people in Brooklyn’s recently gentrified hotspot, so if you jump in mid-stream you might miss more than a few of the jokes (not to mention the character development).
It also helps if you have an opinion about the wave of gentrification that has swept Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the last decade — and other hipster citystates like Seattle’s Beltown, San Francisco’s Mission and LA’s Silverlake. Maybe because I was there when the first tapas bar opened near Bedford Avenue Station I find it funnier than those unfamiliar with the terrain might.
The show started as Grace’s idea in August of 2005. Woodley signed on as a writer that fall. I was especially interested in why they decided to take the plunge on a longer-format show, when success online seems tied to keeping content under three minutes. “We wanted to explore a little more than a dog on a skateboard. We wanted to tell stories, specifically in the sitcom format,” Grace explained. They did release a number of shorts on YouTube to build ‘buzz’ before the first episode, but have since noted that their shorts don’t do nearly as well as full episodes in terms of viewership.
Originally the show was funded with “friends and family money,” but now the budget comes mostly from credit cards and cashing in favors. Costs include web hosting, food, transportation, props and costumes — a typical show runs about $1,000. The actors and crew work for free, using the show to promote their careers. “The actors go into auditions, and people have seen it, casting directors watch it,” Grace explained, but both she and Woodley would much rather be paying everyone involved.
It’s gotten to the point that the two are taking a hiatus after the next and last episode of the season is to figure out how to fund another season. While there has been interest from networks, said Woodley and Grace, they move pretty slowly. New media developers, on the other hand, have unrealistic expectations of what it costs to pay everyone involved in the production.
“Most of them aren’t really committed to funding premium internet content,” Woodley said. Grace added, “they’re still working with the assumption that it’s one girl with a camera and one guy editing.”
When asked in a follow-up email about exploring potential revenue streams, such as advertising splits with sharing services like Revver, brand sponsorships and good ol’ merchandising, Grace was skeptical. Five-dollar CPMs, corporate banner ads, and designing merch were pointless, potentially distasteful to viewers, and too time intensive to fit into their hectic schedules, respectively, she said. But that doesn’t mean she’s not optimistic. “I think we’re both hopeful that we’ll find a way to make this financially possible. Even if it involves a charity walk-a-thon.”
When I asked about future projects, Grace said they had plenty of other ideas. “We have a couple of different other show concepts that we’re developing, and want to continue working online.” Woodley added, “”We have a couple of ideas for traditional internet, shorter-form stuff — novelty storytelling — but most of our energy is going toward longer-form content.”
Grace made a good point that creators aren’t limited to a specific format. These days, people “want to be both Steven Spielberg and Ask a Ninja.”
While other producers I’ve spoken to have some hope that the Apple TV and similar web-to-TV devices could break the lock that seems to keep longer-form content from taking off, they weren’t overly optimistic in the short term. “I can’t afford an Apple TV, and I feel I’m pretty equivalent to most of our audience,” Grace suggested, even though most of their viewers are watching via iTunes. Still, offline and online broadcasting will come together soon enough, she suggested, pointing out that it took a few years for the iPod to truly become ubiquitous.
What “The ‘Burg” proves, though, is that there’s no reason not to take a creative chance online. “The longer we continue to do it online, and do it on our own, the longer we won’t have to make creative compromises.”