Experience is important, the specific lessons learned from trial and error and success can tell us a great deal about new artforms, mediums and creative processes. And the experience garnered by one person can serve as a set of weigh-posts for others to follow - an opportunity to build upon and extend what has gone before.
But just as Einstein declared that ‘Imagination is more important than Knowledge’, so to do we sometimes have to keep experience in perspective. A focus on what Has worked in the past, or what works Now, does not necessarily tell us what Will work on the future. Gaining a tangible perspective on a future trajectory requires taking onboard precedents, patterns and a myriad of contributing factors. And in many cases short term experience can often belie the real causality of direction that lies beneath.
With my prime interests of late being in online episodic WebTV i am concerned that there is much discussion about what does and does not work online, what a web series should or should not be about, and what parameters a webtv project should best conform to. Whilst i respect that such perspectives are often coming out of the trenches from those making successful webTV projects, i’m also cognisent that such perspectives may only be telling us about the past and, at best, the momentary present, rather than an accurate set of weigh-posts for the future (a future which is so it close it’s virtually the present for any production heading into development).
To sum that up in simpler terms, the hindsight trench of the project you just made is not necessarily the best vantage point from which to see the trajectory of future project.
So, to frame why i think we need to take a bigger picture perspective of the online space, and episodic online screen storytelling - and move away from assumptions based on what has been or worked in the past to see better what will be - i propose to do a little myth-busting.
If one was to scour the internet you would quickly uncover a collection of assertions about “what ‘works’ as an online webseries?”
If I can be permitted to summarize these oft cited assertions they would more or less amount to 4 perceived truisms. Successful webseries should be….
SHORT - COMIC - AMATEUR - SIMPLE
From both the corporate end through to the indie end, there is a wide perception that for a web series to ‘work’ online, the kinds of shows that work ‘best’, it must be predicated on these 4 precepts. It must be short, it must be funny, it must be simple and it is invariably amateur (not n the pejorative but simply that production value polish is not a pre requisite or even desirable’ that the audience doesn’t care)
Annoying Orange, Lonely Girl 15 and other such shows are ones that have indeed worked very well online in the past but the leap is to suggest that what these kinds of shows encompass practically and conceptually is the sum measure and total of what the webseries space is and can be… Now let us consider what the real underlying implications of SHORT, COMIC, AMATEUR and SIMPLE are…?
1) That people will only watch WebTV when they have nothing better to watch or are between doing ‘other’ things.
This is the inherent perception embodied in the myth that webisodes must be short; that the web is not a prime delivery medium but a momentary, subsidiary, secondary or ancillary one. This seems to me entirely short sighted, an arbitrary imposition of a maximum duration governed not by content or audience engagement, or story but by an assumption of the web as Not a primary delivery medium. And yet everything from iTunes to Hulu, Netflix, FetchTv and to media centre PC’s and media streaming game consoles, suggests this to be a fallacy. These means of content delivery and viewing, along with many others, ‘normalise’ the internet. The much discussed phenomenon of Cord-Cutters, and the cable sector response with the ‘TV Everywhere’ strategy dispensing with cable subscriptions in favour of delivery over IP, demonstrates the shift from Online as the ‘other’, to online as the normal default. Subsequently the perception that online viewing is a transitory activity done between other activities is debunked, and with it the notion that online video ‘must’ be short simply doesnt hold up.
Online content can and should be as long as its topic and story demands that it be. Any perspective of a duration threshold ceiling is without merit. Indeed BlpTV founder Dina Kaplan in an interview (http://videos.webpronews.com/2011/03/31/web-tv-trends-and-what-they-mean/) stated the average length of shows on BlipTV is now 17mins and getting longer; “It’s really interesting that people are watching longer content, and they’re watching it in their living room”
We also now have Netflix moving from being an online deliverer of content to an active commissioner of content with their recent announcement that they are now purchasing and producing new shows for internet-only delivery to their subscribers. These Netflix original shows are, by definition, Webisodies - but they will not conform to the dogmatic rule of Webseries brevity.
2) That there is a hard distinction between the ‘TV’ and the ‘Computer’.
The process of internet ‘normalisation’ is the major tangible shift that has taken ‘convergence’ from being an abstract buzzword to a real phenomenon. When my TV has an internet reciver with hardwired online-only streaming channels which are accessed from the same remote control as i sit on my couch we finally have true convergence. When I can, with the same remote control, jump from free-to-air network TV to online streaming channels without any shift in demeanor, we have broken any viable distinction and separation between the TV and the Computer, between online and broadcast.
On one hand Computers are no longer the only thing connected to the internet and, inversely, everything is now a Computer. TV’s are computers, game consoles are computers, mobile phones are computers. Anything with a screen is a computer thus a belief in a separation between the viewing habits connected to TV vs habits associated with Computer or Online is arbitrary and monetary at best.
3) That there is a technical quality difference between Broadcast and Online and that subsequently online is best suited to Amateurs.
The implication of dominant Amateurism online is really a distinction of technical quality as much as conceptual content. Case in point being that i still hear cinematographers speak about certain cameras being ‘fine for online’, (and indeed i have blogged about this previously in a post called ‘Great for the web. Are your eyes painted on?’) Such an expression clearly suggests that online quality means second rate quality and lower viewer expectations. Certainly the observations above that a hard separation exists between the computer and the TV is part of the debunking of this myth but there is also hard technical mathematics as well. The recommended HD settings for YouTube, Vimeo and BlipTV are h.264, 1280x720 at between 6-9 megabits per second. By comparison, in most places around the world HD broadcasts are more often than not in 1280x720 (some are 1920x1080 but this is rarer than yo might think), commonly h.264 (though some countries use older Mpeg2) and the bitrate of such broadcasts is approx 6-12 megabits per second. The bottom line of all that is there really is no reason a viewer watching online should see an image perceptively any different to that of a standard broadcast signal. They are remarkably similar and as such the notion of Online as tangibly visually inferior to broadcast media is simply a myth. That’s not to say that all online media looks good, it clearly doesn’t, but the point is that there is no Reason it shouldn’t look as good as HD broadcast, all other factors being equal.
As for online being being best for amateurs based on a cultural rather than a technical quotient, this is put to bed when we consider the host of old-media companies are actively producing original online content in parallel to their broadcast offerings. Online productions that utilse the same crews, directors, producers, creative and production resources. Witness web-series productions parallel to major top-shelf cable dramas in the US; Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica, Dexter just to name a few. Similarly the trend of cable channels buying up independent online series to add to both their broadcast and online stable is steadily growing. SyFy channel in the US has been particularly active in this manner over a number of years.
4) That WebTV is naturally biased toward one dominant genre or that audiences only go to online predominantly for one kind of experience.
The assertion that Comedy does best on the Internet is possibly the single most common tenet spouted by online aficionados. Citing the swathe of hip and virally propagated comedy shows online, the assumption states that comedy will work and other genres (drama, scifi, horror, thriller etc) will not. Certainly there would be observational evidence to support a prominence of comedy. But the real underlying implication of this assertion is to suggest that audiences go online predominantly for one kind of experience. Such an assumption is self evidently bogus, not least of all because it pretends to understand the viewing motives for the entire online population. At a less verbose level such an assumption of singularity in audience experience and desire has no precedent in the the long history of creative media. The Internet is not a revolution, it’s just evolution - the latest evolutionary step in a long history of progressive evolutionary steps. No media before has ever had a singular audience seeking a singular type of experience, so why would we think the internet is any different? This is not to suggest that the early years of online WebSeries were not dominated by comedies but it strongly suggests that whilst such trends may have been true in the past - for various reasons - there is no evidence to suggest or reason to think that they will remain so into the future.
5) That online audiences are seeking simple experiences and will avoid or reject complexity.
The internet is a big place for extremely diverse audiences, there is a fetish for everyone and any assumptions of singularity or uniformity have no validity. The internet is millions of audiences of thousands of people, not thousands of audiences of millions of people. As such the broad imposition of ‘rules’ that define web content as correct or incorrect, viable or not, has no real basis. Thus we can reject presumptions of ‘simplicity’ - that the web is best for simple ideas or simple content - because such presumptions reject pluralism in online audiences. If viewers are infinitely diverse in tastes and interests then online content can and should be equally diverse in complexity, concepts and construction.
Exploring this a little further, the common adage expressed in regard to online series to creators, writers and directors is that ‘not every idea will work online’ and that creators should be mindful of creating a story that ‘will work on the internet’. This too, i would suggest, is a decidedly false assumption; one still based on the ideas that the internet is ‘different’ and that online is Not the norm.
What is inevitable is that Online will ultimately be the ONLY medium for delivering screen-content. As an technical infrastructure it will undoubtably replace broadcast radio waves and traditional domestic cable TV and satellite dish systems. Even the theatrical feature film in the cinema will be delivered to the cinema via direct online streaming to the projector. Such infrastructure shifts are already starting to happen around the world. Thus when online is the Only infrastructure platform for viewing screen media (likely sooner rather than later) the very question of ‘What works online?’ becomes a defunct question. Simply put, Everything will work online Because everything will be Online. Any ‘rules’ about the strengths and weaknesses of online will be rendered pointless. When online is the sole infrastructure medium we will have a normalising effect where media is free to be whatever it wants or needs to be without artificial impositions.
Following this line of thought I find problem with the Revolutionary Absolutism of much New/Coss/Trans-media guru declarations. When Online is normalised as the default delivery platform it becomes exactly that - a platform. Subsequently what that platform will deliver will be as diverse as its audiences - some of it will be interactive, some will not, some will be long-form some of it short, some episodic, some feature length. Some content will be cross media (textual, visual, game), a great many others will not. This is the bigger picture of media distribution. Not media specificity but holistic online normalisation. Online as an holistic platform Not a specific media with specific properties.
Noel Carrol is a highly regarded American film scholar whose perspective on cinema evolved dramatically over the course of his career. And his change of perspective is highly pertinent to the discussion of online and new media.
He writes in the opening of his book Theorising the Moving Image:
“the notion of medium specificity was a powerful rhetorical lever for lifting film departments into existence. For if film was a unique medium with a unique practice - one different from literature, theater and fine art- the surely it required its own experts, housed in their own department. People in other disciplines, with approaches geared to other media, were obviously not equipped to understand film as film. Or, so we said. We needed our own discipline to study our own unique medium.” (1996, 1)
In a subsequent interview published in Senses of Cinema he expands on this change.
“I suppose the idea of medium specificity was more popular prior to semiotics and post-structuralism. Though I think if you look at Metz’ writing, even though his followers forget this, he actually tends to be committed to medium specificity. And most popular critics accept medium specificity as well. Also, as our culture becomes more obsessed with media like digital media and computers, you’re finding people are slipping back to talk about specificity of media. There was a recent book about interactive computer writing called Hamlet on the Holodeck, and the author evokes notions of media specificity for endorsing certain stylistic choices with respect to interactive narratives. I think especially when new technologies are introduced, the invocation of medium specificity is a sort of natural rhetorical move to make. Someone claims the new medium fills a need or a niche, and that certain ways of using it are the right ways to use it because of the nature of the medium.”
This is where I feel much new/cross/trans-media thinking is unfortunately currently at - defaulting to a fallback position of media specificity and believing that online = unique and specific precepts. As such we garner the often voiced assertions that Online media MUST BE this that or the other, rather than the base premise that Online media does Not HAVE TO BE anything - It certainly CAN be interactive, multimodal, cross-media, social-media connected and gamefied but just because it’s online does not mean it Has To Be any of these things. Online is a broad Church platform for content, NOT a list of rules.
Such a position proved deeply flawed in the case of cinema (and other media before it) and therefore I see no precedent to suggest media specificity will ultimately hold up for online media.
In this way I find the language often used around new-media, trans-media and cross-media unhelpful. Words like ‘old’ and ‘legacy’ to describe established media are not accurate nor helpful. There is no historic precedent for such replacing of one media with another - we still have radio we still have books. New media expands and repositions established media, but it doesn’t replace or reject it.
Any internet search for perspectives on how to make a successful online series will undoubtably reveal a plethora of articles that reinforce these ideas of Short, Comic, Amateur and Simple. But I would suggest that presumptive assertions about what can and cannot be done online, what will and wont work, have no real basis as we look forward to a bigger picture of what online is - both as a concept and a technological infrastructure.
We should not be so quick to impose artificial shackles on what the internet is capable of as it is invariably an artificial constraint on the desires of viewers. Viewers are far too diverse and eclectic to warrant such restrictions. Nor should we also impose artificial demands on what online media Must be; new media does not replace old, it simply adds possibilities and opportunities - opportunities which SOME projects will exploit and others will not. And all are equally valid.
The parameters of a web series in terms of genre, duration, complexity and production values should be dictated Only by the story being told not by assumptions about what the internet can do or what internet audiences want. As legendary ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky famously said - Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it is.