Given all the attention showered on “House of Cards” — Netflix’s high-profile voyage into prestige drama, with Kevin Spacey and director David Fincher onboard — one could easily assume Web-originated content has officially turned a corner.
Such an assumption would be partly right, and mostly wrong.
Original production for the Web has steadily been gaining steam, with experimentation becoming more ambitious. Producers are investing more, and asking viewers to watch longer — a big leap over the byte-sized bits that initially characterized such efforts.
That said, most of these productions are characterized by deficiencies on one front or another, reflecting some of the Web’s off-Broadway-style limitations.
Two recent efforts are illustrative in this regard.
Crackle’s “Chosen,” starring and produced by “Heroes” alum Milo Ventimiglia, features a tautly constructed little story resembling a “The Twilight Zone” episode: An ordinary guy is tapped by unseen forces to participate in a “game,” which requires the players to kill random strangers.
Yet while the six roughly 20-minute chapters have the feel of an indie thriller, they also exhibit some of the challenges producing for the Web can impose. Although the performances are strong and the ethical considerations intriguing, scenes drag on a little too long, presumably due in part to production demands that don’t allow for sprawling casts or multiple locations and sets.
By contrast, this weekend, Syfy will premiere “Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome,” a TV movie assembled from 10 webisodes produced for YouTube’s premium channel Machinima Prime. Extending one of the network’s signature franchises, the show actually looks great — using virtual sets and CGI to create action sequences almost comparable with the original (or rather, rebooted) series; it’s in the so-so acting and writing where the project feels a noticeable cut below its predecessor.
Both programs have been deemed successful by their distributors, even if the metrics remain a tad confusing to those accustomed to a Nielsen yardstick. In the case of “Chosen,” for example, Crackle was touting both the number of streams and the fact more than half the people who watched the first installment hung around for the rest.
In certain ways, the Web is creatively liberating. With something like “Chosen,” the format allows producers to “tell the story that we want to tell,” says Eric Berger, GM of Crackle and exec VP of digital networks for Sony Pictures Television, without needing to stretch the length — either of the run or individual episodes — to accommodate a network’s schedule.
“When you get out of the TV world, which has very rigid parameters, you can have more flexibility with the content,” Berger explains.
“Blood & Chrome” has the advantage of being tied to a pre-sold title, which might be the best way lure traditional TV viewers into this relatively new space. That logic also explains Prospect Park’s decision to try using the canceled ABC soaps “All My Children” and “One Life To Live” to anchor what they’ve dubbed the Online Network — a proposed migration that has hit multiple hurdles and snags along the way, reflecting some of the complications associated with this still-fledging model.
Clearly, content for the Web is becoming harder to differentiate from conventional TV, and much of the better stuff will invariably be shared in various distribution windows to help defray the costs. Yet while the lines continue to blur, for now, a few big gambles like “House of Cards” haven’t completely erased them, and it remains uncertain how many entities that test these waters will exhibit the fortitude to repeatedly risk seeing their houses come toppling down.
For its part, Netflix has stated it won’t release user data regarding “House of Cards” results, seemingly determined to trump even pay-cable networks like HBO in the “It’s a hit if we say so” department.
Ultimately, though, the plots of the latest iteration of “Battlestar Galactica” and “Chosen” contain unspoken messages for the industry about the current phase of made-for-the-Web evolution: In the first case, the sleek new technologies being created can come back to bite you; and second, even if you’re just trying to mind your own business, not everyone is going to get out alive.