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Dr. Horrible: The Best or Worst Thing to Happen to Web Video?

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drhorribleLet’s just get this out of the way. Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible was an important (and entertaining) moment in web video. It helped legitimize the medium and showed the world that you could make a successful show outside of the Hollywood system. But that was more than a year a year ago. What has the web video industry done since?

Cat videos, mostly.

OK. I’m exaggerating and being too cantankerous, but I feel like we in the web video world are just resting on Whedon’s laurels. Rather than being inspired by him, it’s like we’re collectively waiting for him to do it again.

Am I expecting too much? Perhaps Horrible was just a fluke that won’t be replicated. It was all-but pre-ordained that Dr. Horrible would be a hit. Whedon was already a Hollywood name who had created two pop culture franchises in Buffy and Firefly. He made Dr. Horrible for $200,000 of his own money (an amount I’d wager most of us don’t have to spend on a passion project), and leveraged the heck out of his entertainment connections (something else most of us don’t have) to get an all-star cast, a studio backlot (for $900!) and a crew.

To be sure, Dr. Horrible did great things to build awareness of web video. It generated a ton of mainstream press coverage. It made numerous critics’ top ten best TV shows lists. And it has grossed $2.5 million (web series making money = good). But who has been the real recipient of that success? The web video industry or Joss Whedon?

At the end of the day, did the success of Dr. Horrible just prove that new media is still reliant on old media to create hits?

40 Responses to “Dr. Horrible: The Best or Worst Thing to Happen to Web Video?”

  1. Online video is and will be a lot of things. Dr. Horrible wasn’t popular because Joss had a built in fan base. That’s only why people discovered it so quickly. It became popular because it was very well done and different.

    Personally I’ve been extremely disappointed in almost everything that I’ve seen coming out of the “Writer’s Strike boom.” The VC funded “professional” stuff has actually been the worst – uninteresting, meandering, unfunny dreck. The overall quality of internet programming needs to come up quite a bit before people will gravitate to it on a mass scale.

    Still there are bright spots other than Dr. Horrible. The Guild in my mind is probably the best example of a scripted series success, not just because the writing is good but because it services a definable niche. For now I think this is the way to go not just because there is a built in market but more importantly because it’s what the internet is good at. TV and other mass media just aren’t set up to serve the niche. The internet is. Leo Laporte and (IMHO) our own show at are also serving their niche successfully.

  2. Great start for a healthy debate, Chris. I feel like the points I would make are accounted for very nicely by the folks above–Brent especially–but there is one factor you left out: the economy. The boom economy for all things online video of 2007/08 raised expectations to absurd levels, and the bust of 2009 called in all bets too soon. I think a significant portion of any “lull” (if there is one) can be attributed to that whiplash.

    A lot of folks are operating under the radar now, and the next 6 months or year will see a new wave of quality content. And somewhere in there will be the next Guild or Dr. Horrible.

    • I agree Ned. The bust economy is the white elephant in the room here. When Electric Farm released our first webseries, AFTERWORLD, the revenue prospects for digital media were considerably more diverse. Several years later we have have survived only because we were flexible and able to find new ways to monetize, along with scaling our costs accordingly. Like my partner says when asked about our business model: “Which one — yesterday’s or today’s?”

    • Chris Albrecht

      It’s from a recent Forbes article. I linked to it in the story, but here it is:

      From that article:

      “The series has since grossed $2.5 million. After a three-day free run on its own Web site (which was powered by Hulu), Dr. Horrible showed up exclusively on iTunes for $4.99 ($7.99 for high definition). Two weeks later, it went up on Hulu for free (with ads). A few months later, a DVD (complete with a musical commentary) sold on Amazon for $14.99.”

    • I’ll see your question, Mark, and raise you one: if Dr. Horrible was THAT successful, why the hell is Joss even bothering with television? For none of the grief and what must be at least comparable compensation, the man could start his own online channel and rule the internet. Until JJ Abrams gets his channel…

  3. My perspective on this is that new media will always surpass old media. Kind of a bold statement but its in innovation that we thrive on. However, New does rely on old. So I’ll have to say it’s both good and bad for web video. Good for the media coverage, bad for the power needed to get media coverage…

  4. I think the interesting thing about web series, and new media, like what someone else said – the show you’ve been dreaming of might already be out there. The problem is that these guys don’t have the marketing campaign, or funds, to promote it like a major network could. So, really, in a sense it IS up to the fans themselves to make sure a series succeeds, which is why it’s EXTREMELY important, in my opinion, for any web series’ creators to be extremely available and open to their fan base.

    I was at Comic-Con this year and saw that show Riese ( there as well, and got to talk to one of the creators for a while about it. I’d never heard of it till then, but they’ve actually got some fairly big stars, shooting on an amazing camera (the RED) and have a budget of apparently 300k for the first five episodes. And it was the first time I even heard of it, and I’m at my computer practically 24/7.

    And it made me wonder if that’s how web media has to succeed. A lot of web series I’ve seen are just people with their home cameras telling stories. Maybe the real key isn’t to just have a great story, but also have all the bells and whistles to make it something remarkable. Making something for the web sounds like it would be cheap in theory, but if you want to make it like you’re actually watching TV on the internet, you’re gonna need money.

    As for Dr. Horrible, sadly, I think it is a misrepresentation of a web series – it was basically a short feature film cut into three parts, and come on, Joss Whedon put it out. It was a guaranteed success even before it was shot.

    The real question will be to watch out for shows that are starting to get on the radar, like The Guild was, and Sanctuary, and this show Riese, and see what they do to succeed and take off, as they might be setting the path that web series need to start taking in order to really grab people’s attention.

  5. Of course “new media” is reliant on “old media” to make hits. If you want something consistently good, it takes talent — from on screen to behind the camera to the marketing team. Just because anyone can make a video and post it online now doesn’t negate the fact that most stories told with the moving image suck. That’s why those few that are good at it – GET PAID.

  6. The next big hit may already be out there. The problem is that people are not watching it. So, how do you find it? How do you know it is there? What mechanism do we have for discovering such things? They will be buried before they get off the ground on Digg. Twitter click thru rates are under 0.5 percent. Articles in the web press rarely go beyond the first episode. How many of the web journalist can say they have watched any given series from beginning to end? So yea, do not assume that the next big hit is not out there… jump in and start watching it. That is how it will become a hit

  7. You raise a good question, Chris. Is New Media dependent on Old Media? My answer is that the two mediums are co-dependent competitors. But before I elaborate on that, let me first respond to what you said about Dr. Horrible: that everyone in web video is resting on Joss’s laurels. Well, web video is a big, broad term. And under that banner there is a big, broad assortment of content online right now, much of it produced in the wake of Dr. Horrible. And much of it successful on its own terms…

    To be sure, Dr. Horrible’s success cannot be replicated for the reasons you mentioned: pre-existing fanbase base and access to Hollywood talent, plus the services of an elite agency (CAA) to formulate a brilliant marketing and distribution plan. And yes, I agree that Dr. Horrible was probably a good thing for the web video business. Because it brought awareness to a burgeoning medium.

    But let’s be clear, Dr. Horrible is not a true “web series,” the category — for me — that largely defines online video and, I think, this conversation. Dr. Horrible was a 45 min. movie released and sold in three parts. Comparing Dr. Horrible to other web series is like comparing apples and poodles: they’re both living organisms, but the similarities stop there. So I say Dr. Horrible should not be the measuring stick for success of future web series. If anything, that distinction should go to The Guild. Which is an actual series, with a multitude of episodes, seasons, etc.

    Speaking as a founding member of Electric Farm Entertainment I can tell you that, while we admire what Dr. Horrible achieved, we have found continued success in the web video/web series business not by emulating Joss, but by carving out our own niche. Producing multi-platform genre content, presented as an interactive experience, and distributed by Old Media partners. Using this model we have been able to produce four high-budget web series (we are shooting are 4th, Valemont, as I type this) with several more projects in the development pipeline. By any interpretation of the word, I would call this a “success.” But like Joss, our circumstance is unique. Which brings me back to my first point…

    Old Media and New Media are largely still the same thing. Both are segments of the larger Entertainment Business looking for ways to utilize the emerging digital platforms to reshape the way content is produced, distributed and monetized. While there are wildly divergent philosophies on each side of the fence, I contend that they still need each other. And just like Joss needed Hollywood to succeed, Electric Farm could not have achieved what we’ve done without Sony, NBC, MTV, etc. Success may not be wholly dependent on Hollywood/Old Media connections (as many well-produced, well-received lower budget web series can attest) but it’s an undeniable fact that it sure as hell helps.

    So let’s put Dr. Horrible on a pedestal in that New Media museum I’m sure someone will build (virtually?) and give the Doc his props. But let’s stop comparing all the other web series out there to Joss’s brainchild. Like all the arguments in sports about who is the next Michael Jordan? It’s an exercise in futility and an unfair knock against all the amazing content out there now (or soon to be released.) Let the next wave of web series succeed or fail on their own merits.

    • Chris Albrecht

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Brent.

      The idea for this post came I think from a lot of reasons you outline. I’d like to retire Dr. Horrible’s jersey and start talking about the next big hit.

      • ” I’d like to retire Dr. Horrible’s jersey and start talking about the next big hit.”

        Right there you kind of show how tone deaf you’re being to what many people here are saying. Why is it about “the next big hit”? Why isn’t it simply about quality? The moment web video starts behaving like “the next big hit” is what’s important, the moment it just becomes television and it won’t be worth caring about anymore.

  8. As a writer about web series, and haven’t recently written about Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, I find the timing of this article confusing. As many others have said, there are MANY high quality web series available right now, and I think the quality of these shows was inspired by seeing how it could be done, both from Dr. Horrible AND The Guild, both of which I think should be given most of the credit for showing the rest how to make a good webseries. If the web video world was resting on its laurels, I wouldn’t have 20+ and growing great series to write about and tell people to start watching.

  9. good article for real discussion here.

    let’s take a step further back and also ask whether lonelygirl15 was the best or worst thing to happen to web video. while lonelygirl15 had its charms, a huge amount of its success and audience size was due to its status as a “hoax” and the huge press that generated. i think that the viewcounts which lonelygirl15 enjoyed in the summer-fall of 2006 totally skewed people’s expectations for viewership of a “successful” series. (Yes, i know series can be “successful “on artistic grounds, but I think the article is referring mostly to sustainable profitable webseries.) so after lonelygirl15, many advertisers and creators were sold on expectations that couldn’t be delivered. but lonelygirl15 also seemed to trigger an explosion of webseries that may not have existed otherwise.

    all in all, i think dr. horrible was a good thing for web video for raising awareness, but the road to success is still mostly rocky and uncharted.

  10. I vote that it was a good thing! Dr Horrible legitimized the web video industry (if not started it) as a original source content. We’re no longer Public Access. We produce things!

    I’ve been involved in a new web series, The Variants, that doesn’t have Whedon’s purse for funding but we certainly have his belief that good content can be made without a major studio.

  11. mystery child

    I think maybe someone isn’t actually looking for good internet web shows… otherwise, he might find them.

    I was addicted to Harper’s Globe and pray that it makes it onto the Harper’s Island DVD (btw, many who watched HG didn’t even bother with HI, and it was a stand-alone show)

    I’m seriously looking forward to a little show called Riese that is slated to appear this month at and others already mentioned the Guild (which helped inspire Dr. Horrible, btw!), among others.

    Not only that, but have you heard of Level 26? If not, you should learn about it. It’s taking the internet to a whole new level by combining a novel with video clips to go along with the story. And they don’t even have Joss Whedon. How ever will they succeed?

  12. Another good web series is Maddison Atkins ( which is well worth watching because it uses the web format so well. There is also OzGirl ( which was innovative in its use of a documentary format.

    So good shows are not the problem. Creating hit shows is the problem and since around the time of Dr. Horrible main stream media began to dominate the online distribution networks. Perhaps the question you should be asking is how can the existing good shows get noticed.

    Certainly an article on Newteevee, Tubefilter or LG15 Today does not do the trick. It is extremely difficult to get mainstream press. We know that promotion by social networks is highly effective but for that to happen you either have to be extremely lucky of pay for placement. There are content distribution networks that claim to be able to deliver views on a pay per play basis but they have yet to demonstrate that their view numbers are legitimate. So, that leaves us in a position where we have valuable content but no real mechanism for placing it in front of the viewers in a way that it rises above the “noise”.

  13. By the way Albrecht, implying that there hasn’t really been that much happening in web video since Dr Horrible doesn’t really show a lot of support for the reports sites like NewTeeVee publish. Good for debate though, so if you wanted a rise out of people, I’d say you’re getting it ;)

    • Chris Albrecht

      Support comes in all different forms. I’m a huge web video champion. Part of that means I always want the industry to do better than what’s come before.

      Also, I wouldn’t say I’m trying to get a “rise” out of people. Just trying to spark a healthy debate.

  14. I think your argument rests too much on success versus content. Can we talk about what other web series are out there, how there is actually quite intelligent, entertaining and surprisingly well done web series with low or no budgets? Or is it just the cat videos we always go to? I can name at least five web series that I started watching this year that I have enjoyed as much as Dr Horrible.

    Sure, they aren’t generally as well produced (mainly due to a lack of financial backing and/or resources), but they are entertaining. Isn’t that what really matters? If something is well done for the budget and entertaining, then it is contributing to the overall shape of web video. Dr Horrible was a one off series, it’s over. I loved it, and in fact it is (to date) my favourite contemporary musical, but I’ve moved on. There are web shows out there producing more than one season, and that to me is a bigger thing. There are sites picking up series and paying the producers for streaming, and that’s a step forward too.

    And never mind the fact that you didn’t even mention The Guild, which I think has done far more for web series than Dr Horrible ever could.

  15. Actually, I think there are plenty of web shows that are successful, both creatively and visually. And for cheap! The Guild and The Crew are two examples. And I saw a trailer for one about a monster hunter. Emerson Wild: Monster Hunter I think was the name. Mercury Men is another. And those look amazing for being just web shows! I do love Dr. Horrible though.

  16. It’s so funny because I just was talking about this. It would seem to me the gatekeepers and the people who control the purse strings think a “name” has a better shot of becoming “Dr. Horrible” than an indie content creator has of producing the next “Guild.”