The Web is very much on the mind of the TV business these days, with sites like YouTube, Hulu and Crackle luring tech-savvy viewers away from traditional cable and broadcast fare. But so far, the Emmy Awards has been one area of the business where original online content has not made much of a dent.
That’s not because it’s not eligible. While interactive applications have their own category, straight video programs longer than 20 minutes can go head-to-head with old-school TV content, as long as they meet the same category requirements.
But few Web series are well-funded enough to make episodes that run that long, relegating them to a category for the awkwardly named “special class short format live action entertainment program.” And last year’s race was dominated by entries spun off from such network shows as “Lost,” “30 Rock” and “Friday Night Lights,” with Sci Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica — Razor Flashbacks” taking home the trophy.
Such spinoffs represent a wide but still not very deep pool of original Web series that likely will compete one day with broadcast and cable not just for audience and dollars but for Emmys.
Nothing typified the space this past year more than “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” a supervillain musical from “Dollhouse” creator Joss Whedon, who financed the venture. The three-episode miniseries, which runs about 40 minutes total, stars Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion and Felicia Day. It was a runaway hit with Whedon’s loyal fanbase, who crashed servers when it went online last July.
But beyond having a name like Whedon’s to sell a project, the growing quality of Web series makes it hard to separate the good from the bad. For example, more than 100,000 submissions came in for the first Streamy Awards, creating a huge task for organizers to sort and select nominees and winners, notes Brady Brim-DeForest, co-founder of the awards and the Web TV news site Tubefilter.
Also coming into its own is “The Guild,” about a misfit group of people connected by an online role-playing game. The series is written by Day, who also produces and stars in the show. Other shows on the slicker end of the quality spectrum are “Angel of Death,” a hardboiled crime series created by comicbook writer Ed Brubaker, and two post-apocalyptic series “After Judgment” and “2009: A True Story.”
Just as Nielsen ratings don’t always reflect the most refined tastes, the same is true of the Internet, where the rantings of a fictional 6-year-old named Fred Figglehorn have claimed the title of having the No. 1 weekly series on the Web. The squeaky-voiced phenom is drawing some 270,000 views daily on YouTube.
Budget, which has a direct effect on running time, and awareness are the two main obstacles facing Web series from competing more directly with television.
Miles Beckett and Greg Goodfriend, who broke through the online clutter in 2006 with Web TV’s first original hit, “lonelygirl15,” and now run the Web production company Eqal, say it’s no easier to get noticed by audiences or awards voters than three years ago.
“It is difficult to market and promote shows online, and I think that it is, as a result, difficult for people to find content online,” Beckett says.
That’s less of a problem for series spun off from popular broadcast or cable shows. For example, Sci Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica: Face of the Enemy” won the Streamy Award for drama series and drew some 3 million streams, says Sci Fi Digital exec VP Craig Engler.
Having even a small fanbase to build off of has been key to the success of “The Guild.” The series has grown beyond its initial audience of gamers and fans of Day’s work with Whedon to land sponsorship and support from Sprint and Microsoft.
“The mainstream is trained to think they need to make content for everyone, and I think the opposite approach needs to be taken on the Web,” Day says. “There’s just no way to be able to pop through unless you have a very active and rabid fanbase … and from there we’ve been able to chip away and go a lot more mainstream.”