All Those Online Videos, Still Chasing an Audience
By MIKE HALE
Published: June 17, 2011
DRUMBEAT would be too strong a word. But in recent months there’s been a steady patter of news indicating a fresh urgency in the world of original Web series: projects involving high-profile filmmakers, additional rounds of financing, redesigned and expanded video-sharing sites.
One thing that has characterized these developments is that they haven’t involved many actual, reviewable new series. (One exception was the Kiefer Sutherland vehicle “The Confession” on Hulu, which didn’t cause much of a stir but may be turned into a feature film anyway.)
The notion — driven by the success of Netflix and the rapid convergence of television and Internet technology — that there’s serious money on the horizon in streaming video has led to this latest excitement about Web series and a new interest in the crazy quilt of video sites that carry them. But for the most part there’s still a disconnect between the money and the creators, who range from D.I.Y. independents to successful but largely anonymous production companies.
That’s one of the main reasons that while entertainment and technology giants are talking up the potential of original online video, the average American couldn’t name a Web series if his cat’s life depended on it. When Mike Michaud of the Web-series production company Channel Awesome recently told a reporter for The New York Times, “I believe that sometime in the next one to two years someone will create that one series that gets everyone talking,” he was reiterating a point that could have been made anytime in the last decade. Perhaps that breakthrough will be David Fincher and Kevin Spacey’s “House of Cards,” announced for distribution on Netflix in 2012, though it seems likely that that series, if it comes to pass, could simply blur the distinction between television and original online content into meaninglessness.
In the meantime a prominent player among the sites that aggregate Web shows and sell advertising against them is taking a different approach, one that might be either shrewd or adorably naïve. Blip.tv, which claims to have hosted about 50,000 original series since it was founded in 2005, is not commissioning its own shows from recognizable filmmakers (though it continues an aggressive pursuit of partnerships with people who produce Web content).
Instead it has overhauled its site, based on the premise that there are plenty of series being made now that are good enough to attract large audiences if only viewers can be taken by the hand and led to them. The changes, both cosmetic and philosophical, are meant to set the site apart from competitors like DailyMotion, Vimeo and the 500-pound gorilla of video sharing, YouTube.
A redesign of the Blip.tv home page last month has resulted in a sleek, uncluttered template that highlights 12 shows in a grid under the headline “Discover the best in original Web series.” They are unlabeled, but floating your cursor over one of them brings up a larger box with the show’s title and a description.
Farther down the page are tabs leading to the most-viewed shows, though without YouTube-style viewership numbers, as well as trending and new shows. But the curatorial function represented by the grid of “best” shows is what Blip is counting on to set itself apart.
Clicking on the grid, then, is a guide to either the overall quality of high-achieving Web series or the commercial instincts of the Blip editorial staff, depending on how much faith you put in the site’s commitment to featuring the best in original Web series.
A look at the 12 shows on display on a recent morning indicated that Blip had some strong preferences, whether they reflected the tastes of the editors or the site’s analysis of its audience. Nine were nonfiction shows — news, education, fashion, music and tech. The best of these, or at least the one with the broadest interest, was a 25-minute newsmagazine called “Al Jazeera Listening Post” with English-language reports on the torture and murder of Pakistani journalists, the “Gay Girl in Damascus” blogger hoax and the objectification of women on Italian television.
The target audience was narrow and homogeneous for a good share of the other shows, though. “HNNCast” from the Hacker News Network spent 15 minutes (fairly fascinating ones) covering the most recent developments in computer hacking, including the LulzSec attacks on Sony. “This Week in Linux” got right down to business: “It’s Tuesday June 7th, 2011, and today we’re going to be taking a hopefully quick look at Mageia Linux Version1.” (Five minutes wasn’t quick enough for me, but I’m not part of the free-software world.)
And two shows provided coverage of the E3 video game conference. “Retroware TV” took a Siskel-and-Ebert approach, with its two hosts standing in the crowds outside the Los Angeles Convention Center and critiquing the presentations, while “Video Games Awesome!” gave Microsoft’s news conference the “Mystery Science Theater” treatment, except that the five geeky commentators took up half the screen, faced forward and often spoke over each other.
For the nongeek there were music (the live-performance show “Off the Avenue” featured Betty Lou Fox’s cover of “Hallelujah”) and comedy (“Found Footage Festival,” “The Stay-at-Home Dad”) but just one drama in the serialized-fiction mode that defines the Web series for some. It’s called “Casters,” and its first episode introduced the crew of a homemade musician-interview podcast and began to sketch in their neuroses and romantic dilemmas.
Taken as a whole the Blip editors’ selections defined a territory for original Web video series whose borders would include reality TV, sketch comedy, geek-culture channels like G4 and, to a disturbing degree, public-access cable.
At about the same time YouTube was offering its usual chaotic jumble: a Katy Perry music video, a Sounders soccer highlight (Did it know I was visiting Seattle?), an Anthony Weiner parody, a young woman’s eHarmony video biography. That possibly spurious bio had been chosen for the home page, not by an editorial team but by 5,541,778 YouTube users. Make that 5,541,779.