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Subscriptions: The Secret to a Sustainable Web Series?

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This is the story of a web series that has things pretty well figured out, and serves as an inspiration that alternative distribution models can find a foothold — as long as the fan base is there.

The independent web series Venice, which recently wrapped its second season, was created by Crystal Chappell, well-known to soap opera fans as Olivia Spencer on longtime daytime favorite Guiding Light, which went off the air in 2009. It was Guiding Light‘s cancellation that lead to the creation of Venice; Chappell’s character on the show, Olivia Spenser, was in the middle of a very popular romance with Natalia Rivera (Jessica Leccia), and both fans and Chappell wanted to see that storyline continue — especially since, according to the New York Times (s nyt), the two ladies of “Otalia” had never shared an on-screen kiss.

Thus, with new characters (Procter & Gamble (s gp) owns the original ones) but the same actors, Venice launched in 2009 for web audiences — and a hot and heavy make-out scene in Episode One, which is available for free on YouTube (s GOOG) as a taste of the full series.

Chappell said that the decision to go with a subscription model was made very early on: “We realized it was a lot more expensive to produce and stream the show — so we thought that we could just charge everyone ten dollars, that would give us the quality we wanted to give it,” she said.

The intriguing thing about Venice is the size of its audience, which Chappell put at about 11,000 for Season One, and slightly fewer in Season Two. For most web series, that wouldn’t be nearly enough to keep the show going, but with each subscriber paying $10 per season, the show is self-sustaining. “We say it’s sponsored by the fans,” Chappell said.

The total cast and crew for a season ranges in the 50-60 person range, but Venice isn’t paying anyone’s rent year-round. Everyone has day jobs, including Chappell, who has returned to Days of Their Lives as Carly Manning. But things are looking good for Season Three, which is currently in pre-production and may include, among other things, an all-musical episode with original music. “If we can cover expenses and have rollover for season four, that’s fantastic,” Chappell said.

Currently, subscription fees cover at least 80 percent of the show’s $60,000-plus budget per season, Chappell says, with merchandise sales and product placement making up the remaining amount. And for many of those subscribers, especially the daytime soap fans, this is their first time watching web content.

This has made tech support a must, with the five-person IT staff working overtime to help users who have lost passwords or are having problems using the site, but it has also brought in a new audience — the sons and daughters of these fans, who sit down to watch the episodes after helping their mothers log in (many of whom have never watched a soap opera before).

The show is available globally in 133 countries, and people stay on the site for 32-46 minutes at a time. “That’s really good news for people who want to produce online,” Chappell said.

Chappell says that the cause of the audience drop-off from season one to season two was in part due to the fact that many soap fans were just tuning in because they were fans of the Otalia romance, which is not an enduring part of the series. The first episode does feature the two women together, but they remain broken up over the course of the series, which instead has become an ensemble drama.

While this cost the show some of its original Guiding Light base, which was instrumental to launching the series, fans do keep tuning in, especially thanks to guest appearances by other known soap actors like One Life to Live‘s Hillary B. Smith and Days of Our Lives‘s Michael Sabatino (who is also Chappell’s husband).

“They’re very, very loyal, those fanbases, it’s great,” Chappell said. “They want to see story — it always comes back to story for them.”

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14 Responses to “Subscriptions: The Secret to a Sustainable Web Series?”

  1. I’m a little bit confused about the numbers presented here. If it cost $60,000 to produce one season, and they had 11,000 subscribers, each paying $10, doesn’t that mean that the subscriptions alone generated $110,000? Which would more than cover the cost of production? If they got extra income from product placement and their online store, seems like this show is well in the black.

  2. I’ve been reading through a bunch of archive stuff on NewTeeVee, and this is one of the more heartening articles I’ve read so far. To the extent that this example is a precedent for self sustaining video content on the web that doesn’t require massive audiences – surely that’s a good thing for broadening the base of production?

  3. The show’s pretty good. I got into season 2 despite being a 35-year-old guy who doesn’t even like soap operas. Charging for subscriptions is the only way to go. Nodoby’s willing to sit through an ad any more. I’m amazed that advertisers still pay for network TV time.

  4. Most of us are so busy that we don’t have the time or desire to watch ads, and the TV industry knows that, so subscriptions are becoming a more important part of the revenue model. I think that goes for any sort of produced video, and it will probably hold true for YouTube to some degree.

  5. So what is your conclusion, Liz? Is the The Secret to a Sustainable Web Series, subscriptions?

    I think subs have nothing to do with the success, but rather the built-in, huge audience from “Guiding Light.” Otherwise, every web series creator would just have a subscription model.

    The $10 was just a made up amount to charge. They weren’t actually looking at price points. How can you in this medium? They just put together a web series for fun and then hoped they could make some money back.

    These actors are successful and have money to burn on a side project like this. This success is a rare case and not normal for most web series creators.

    • I’m very clear in this piece about the advantages Chappell and the show had as a result of “Guiding Light.” The point I find interesting is that a small fanbase is all you need to support a modestly-budgeted original series, provided you can make the subscription model work.

  6. Interesting to read. I wonder how many $10 subscribers they would need to cover all costs. What their real break-even point is. I would also be interested to know what they are doing to try to bring in more subscribers. Have they explored a swap deal with product placement advertisers where part of the deal is they advertise the webseries on the products that appear on the show?

  7. Dani Austin

    Hmmm, Guiding Light gave us a lame 1950s style romance with two grown women content to stare and hold hands for the rest of their lives. Outside of Otalia they gave us even lamer storylines. Sorry I am definitely not one of those still moping around, looking at old clips and waxing poetic about all that Otalia/GL wasn’t. Fans are still sticking around but for Crystal and Jessica as Gina and Ani mostly. Season 2 has vastly improved over Season 1 and kudos go solely to Crystal for that. Here’s hoping Season 3 recognizes the true draw of the series in the Crystal and Jessica pairing and they are reunited.

  8. kelltwomyn

    Season 2 was amazing. The production values were excellent and the decision to change the format to episodic really changed the dynamic. The writing and acting were so much better than most of the drivel on television. I would rather watch Venice than TV. I think the show is a bargain at $9.99; I would pay more. Looking forward to season 3!

  9. Perhaps the loss of subscribers from Season 1 to Season 2 was a result of the sub-par writing in telling story and had nothing to do with the loyalty of Otalia fans. Guiding Light gave us good story both within and outside of the Otalia story. Hopefully, for Season 3 and beyond, the producers of Venice will manage to find a quality writer who can write good story for the ensemble cast. Don’t blame the fans. It was the product.