Originally published on Televisual
The Internet is awash with advice for filmmakers on how to craft a successful web series. For lack of space, I won’t bother linking to the dozens of posts on useful sites like Tubefilter and the Web Series Network, both of which publish great advice from filmmakers, executives, marketers and analysts. Instead, I’m going to try to learn a few lessons from Visible Measures and Mashable’s “top webisodes list,” who since late last year have been compiling a monthly list of the most-watched web series.
What are the attributes, in terms of visuals, narrative and marketing, of a popular video series? Knowing what succeeds online helps guide us toward a better understanding of what constitutes, if anything, a “web aesthetic” and whether this aesthetic is commercially and culturally viable.
Lessons from the Top
COMEDY – Since YouTube, and even before, anyone watching or making videos has known comedy works. People pass around funny things; comedy spreads. Visible Measures’ list is dominated by comedy and sketch producers, sometimes comprising the entire list. Monthly staples Smosh, Fred, Jake & Amir, and The Station are some of the web’s comedy masters. The dominance of funny on the web is why sites like CollegeHumor and Break are so successful.
THE NEVER-ENDING SERIES – A number of the most successful series are not bounded by seasons. Some, like The Guild and The Bannen Way, have a more traditional episode/season structure, but the majority simply post videos continually — either on an irregular or frequent basis — without ever signaling an end. Many of the shows, then, aren’t serialized, instead following either sitcom or sketch models, so viewers can jump in and out at will. This strikes me as the a very web-specific attribute: cheaper production (and super hard-working producers) allows for regular and continual distribution. The web is a content vacuum. Of course there’s a long history of this on television as well: soap operas, daytime talk shows, prime time sketch comedy, television news, etc.
LACK OF NARRATIVE – As said before, these series tend to be, generally, non-narrative. Clearly some skits, motifs, jokes and characters recur: Fred has a running gag/story about his terrible parents. Machinima series Red vs. Blue has a fairly involved storyline. Yet, by and large, it is still rather difficult to get online viewers to invest in rich and complicated, serialized stories. On television, such programming is typically expensive, requiring top-notch actors and expensive sets (think Mad Men, 24, Lost, Damages, and on and on). To be sure, plenty of online series have accomplished the latter, but they are as yet the exception, not the norm.
SHORT STILL WORKS – There’s a consensus among those who write and think about scripted web series that the 3-6 minute episode is a temporary phenomenon, an accident of history. Viewers consistently ask for more content (Internet content vacuum!) and want longer episodes. But the top series prove otherwise. As long as you regularly update your show and make the videos funny and entertaining, short is fine. Time will tell if this will always be the case, but I’m fairly confident the “digital short,” the form which put YouTube on the cultural radar, will be with us a for a while. We all have those moments when we want to watch something short and sweet.
KID AESTHETICS – The folks at Visible Measures were smart enough to notice how a fair amount of the top webisodes employ “juvenile” aesthetics. From the cartoons Happy Tree Friends, Potter Puppet Pals, and Charlie The Unicorn to the tweeny Fred, if it looks like it’s for kids, it might just sell. Of course, a lot of the adolescent-looking series, unlike Trix, are not for kids. But actually, some of the most popular videos are family-friendly. It seems the same reason kittens and babies go viral has influenced video series: people feel more comfortable passing it on if it’s designed to offend no one, or few (or if it is so obviously offensive no one could take it seriously).
TARGETING MEN – Visible Measures was also kind enough to point out the majority of viewers watching these shows are men. There’s a pretty long history of early adopters on the web being men (Slashdot anyone?) — and the online video audience still looks like an early adopter one. In part this is because of a lot the geek/gamer/sci-fi-centered fare has a long, complicated pre-web history of being male-focused, and those communities are particularly avid in their support of content made for them. The male skew partly results from larger imbalances in the film, comedy and Silicon Valley worlds, along with biases in who holds the purse-strings to fund content in the first place. The male-oriented world of web production is a complicated issue, one I’m clearly not capable of grappling with for now.
YOUTUBE MATTERS – Despite the proliferation of a host of video networks, aggregators and players, YouTube still matters. Of course!, you might say, but there are some people in the space who believe the future of web series — which, in this model, privilege engagement and sustained investment from users — might have a future on more structured, targeted sties, and not the wide open space of the view-focused YouTube. A lot of the top series have multiple distribution partners — from Atom to Hulu — and different home bases, but most also maintain a YouTube presence. As before, this doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.
On the Market Value of Popularity
A quick note about value. I do not want to suggest the only web series “of value” are ones that make the top ten most viewed list. Visible Measures’ list is great, but it doesn’t measure everything important about web series. It calculates a specific thing: reach. Using this method, it gets a solid and diverse sample of the most popular web videos out there. It’s providing a much-needed service: a basis for comparison. This is the stuff getting views, and in an ad-network world, views matter a whole lot.
Still, there are a lot of marketers and distributors trying to find value in other metrics beyond views. Mostly relying on branded entertainment, these producers and distributors (from the major TV networks like NBC and MTV to independent websites like MyDamnChannel and Babelgum) are promising advertisers that, while their videos probably won’t get Susan Boyle and Lady Gaga numbers, the people who do watch them will connect with it more deeply, much more intimately than viral videos, which get views but don’t offer chances for sustained engagement, the argument goes. It’s a tough and sophisticated sell, pushing ROI rather than raw video views, and it’s not guaranteed to work, though it may just. Time will tell.