Are You Watching a TV Show or a Web Series?

/ Aug 8, 2013


Today’s question, for your consideration: What makes something a TV show and what makes something a web series?

This year’s Emmy nominations have raised this question in a new and interesting way, thanks to Netflix making history with 14 nominations for its original content — nine nominations for “House of Cards,” three for the fourth season of “Arrested Development,” and two for “Hemlock Grove.”

The nominations come at a time where platform has decreased in importance to those passionate about television — even if you’re not a cord-cutter, services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon have proved to be helpful safety nets for missed episodes or entire series. The devices that make it possible to watch these shows on physical televisions are important, but more important is the fact that content has become a multi-platform thing — television is no longer a thing you just watch on your television.

“Childrens’ Hospital” now runs on Adult Swim, but episodes clock in at 11 minutes and are available on “Video Game High School” is launching via RocketJump and YouTube, but its episodes clock in at half an hour each. The lines blur more and more each day, and thus, there’s a temptation to define web content vs. traditional series the same way the Supreme Court once defined pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

If I were to lay out a few rules, though, they might be these:

  • It actually has to be available to watch in full on the Internet. This seems obvious, sure, but it’s what keeps, say, clips of “Mythbusters” on from being considered on the same level as something like “House of Cards.”
  • The creators/stars have digital cred. I’m not saying that anyone from the mainstream film/TV world is disqualified from making web content. After all, Felicia Day and Chris Hardwick, two of web video’s most prominent creators, both got their start on television (Day as a supporting cast member in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Hardwick as the host of MTV’s “Singled Out”). But it’s what they did outside the system to build their careers that brought them to the place they are today.
  • It’s aiming for a niche audience. The genius of the web, the thing that makes it live for the global community, is the fact that if you care about a specific thing, you can find content relevant to that specific thing. There’s a reason why web creators have never produced a successful “West Wing” or “Two and a Half Men” — because those shows are for a very different audience than those who watch content online.
  • It has a social media presence. This isn’t a required element, but should be key to the DNA of any web-original content. Even if it’s limited to dummy sites for in-show elements, or Facebook accounts for characters, acknowledging social media as an extension of the narrative is important.

As I made that list, the thing that stood out to me was how the high-profile Netflix series released this year don’t really qualify. Sure, Kevin Spacey has 2.8 million Twitter followers, but the niche audience “House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black,” and “Arrested Development” are all courting is fans of high-quality, intellectual comedy and drama. The same “niche audience” that built subscriber bases for HBO and Showtime — in other words, not that much of a niche at all.

Digital content’s narrative has been compared, way more than once, to the rise of cable television in the 1980s — first, the bastard stepchild of network television, then increasingly prominent to the point where for the second year in a row, broadcast has been completely shut out of the Best Drama Emmys category.

One of the great early success stories for digital distribution was when the first three seasons of “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” then a struggling FX sitcom, hit a surge of popularity in 2008 thanks to Hulu, where the show topped its charts.

The same fans were equally vocal about being upset when FX abruptly pulled the show off Hulu, but there’s no denying that early digital distribution was a key to the show’s subsequent several seasons (a huge success for any series).

And digital distribution still has the same impact across all boundaries. One of the few statistics that Netflix has ever released about the way people consume its content — the day before Season 5 of “Breaking Bad” premiered, 50,000 subscribers binge-viewed Season 4.

In theory, these were people who were looking to catch up with the prior season of the buzz-heavy show before new episodes began running on AMC. Because for this sort of television fan, the relationship between Netflix and their cable subscriptions is now a symbiotic thing.

Perhaps what we’re looking at is, instead of an acceptance of YouTube on a flat playing field with Netflix, the creation of a new category of content: Premium digital series? High-quality web shows? Who knows.

Because the naming scheme doesn’t matter. What matters is honoring the origins of this content, and also celebrating the fact that the system is becoming a true democracy. The categories need to exist, of course, for now. The system is built on this. But every year, more blending occurs. Every year, the future gets closer.

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