Tuesday 25th July 2017,
Televisual

Off the Line: Independent Television and the Pitch to Reinvent Hollywood

Hollywood isn’t the only industry with slashers. Some readers of this blog see me as a journalist chronicling web video/series, others as a TV film/critic and a few more as an academic. I’m really all those things, but research pays the bills.

In the next year I’ll be cranking out the product of my five-year graduate career, a journey I’ve occasionally chronicled on this blog. That product is my dissertation, expected spring 2012. This also means I’m officially on the job market! (Self-promotion alert: see my CV here).

I thought I’d preview the main ideas of the dissertation and solicit input from scholars, producers, writers and marketers. I’ve done this once before, but the project has become slightly more refined.

OFF THE LINE: INDEPENDENT TELEVISION AND THE PITCH TO REINVENT HOLLYWOOD (tentative)

The Abstract

The dissertation investigates the early years (2006-2011) of the market for independent television, or “web series,” arguing it represents a marginal but historically significant challenge to media industries (Hollywood) in a period of convergence. It asks why and how in this historical moment have web series creators opted to produce and distribute “television” independently through alternative markets.

More broadly, it asks what the market for independent television contributes to scholarly debates over the possibility of a new media system, whether it supports or contradicts claims media industries are changing in the face of digital culture. The web series market reflects what I call “off the line” production in this historical moment. Creators of independent web series attempt to reinvent and reinterpret traditional forms of production, storytelling, marketing and distribution from outside its structures. The activity in this cottage industry represents a “pitch” to Hollywood, a supposedly new and potentially profitable way of producing and distributing video.

As a market operating on the margins of Hollywood, the web series world is different from the industry, but in many ways the same. This project will tease out those differences, examining how creators and entrepreneurs distinguish their practices from the industry while borrowing what they believe works from mainstream production. Unlike popular notions of alternative production, such as noncommercial art cinema, participants in the web series market occupy an in-between space: deviating from industrial norms while ultimately seeking capital for their efforts.

When completed, the project should speak to scholars researching the production of television, new media and film; it may also be of interest to those interested in histories and theories of labor, representation and the political economy of distribution.

“Independent Television”

There’s a reason why very few scholars research “web series:” it’s hard to define what it is! From the very beginning, when I started this work in 2009, I’ve been aware that by the time my book comes out, there may not be a thing called a “web series.” The very term is constantly up for debate. Why shouldn’t it be? The “web” is inherently a hybrid form, and as convergence steams ahead, it will only get more confusing.

I’ve chosen “independent television” because it more precisely describes what I hear and see from producers. Most people who seriously make web series are either working in TV, have worked in TV, want to work with TV or cite TV as the main inspiration for their work. They see themselves as doing a new kind of TV. “Independent television,” which has been used many times before to describe the market, also suggests links with “independent film.” The market for web series resembles the indie film market at certain points in its history. Hopefully this dissertation participates in a bigger conversation about the challenges and possibilities of making content outside of traditional industrial structures.

“Off the Line”

Which brings me to the first part of the title. What is “off the line”? Everyone reading this blog knows of the “above/below the line” distinction in traditional TV/film production. Recent academic scholarship, from likes of John Caldwell and Vicki Mayer, has shed light on this institutional distinction, arguing for greater attention to below the line workers as key supporters, culturally as well as economically, of the industry.

For me, as digital production and distribution has lowered costs, a new segment of workers has emerged: off the line workers. These individuals, groups and small companies occasionally work in traditional media (above/below) but also create their own works outside the system, blurring classic distinctions. They take on more work and have to be more inventive and improvisational, but they get greater creative and economic control over their labor.

To many scholars, this is a classic example of “precarious labor,” the kind of increasingly common work required of workers in a postindustrial economy. With less regulation and state support, workers must be entrepreneurial and/or worker harder and longer for less pay. The idea isn’t unheard of among web series creators. I’ve written about it before.

So while web labor is certainly precarious, “off the line” work can also be incredibly rewarding and bring new cultural forms to the market — think of The Guild or Awkward Black Girl. Or basically half the posts on this blog. There’s a lot of value being created here.

“Reinventing Hollywood”

What “challenge”? Talk to anyone who makes web content and you’re likely to hear some hint of resignation. To this day, if it’s not on television, it matters less. (It used to be if it wasn’t on 2,000 screens, and instead on television, it mattered less. It still kind of does). Individual TV networks — and, for that matter, individual film studios — might be having hard times, but in general, Hollywood is making plenty of cash without the web. The overall market for web video is still much smaller. Moreover, most of the important and noteworthy projects made for the web are made either by traditional institutions — major networks and studios — or by people with strong connections to them. Much of this dissertation will focus on smaller projects.

By “challenge” I don’t mean the market for independent television will take over Hollywood — I don’t think that will ever happen, though at times some web creators have hoped as much. Instead I mean that “television,” and the processes by which the industry creates and markets content, is temporarily up for grabs. Indie web creators are proposing alternative ways of producing, new kinds of stories and slightly different distribution methods. These activities, while extremely small, are a bold proposition, a way of doing business that expands the field of production and enhances the industry’s creativity. It’s a gesture in a new direction.

The Chapters

How will I go out about proving this? The dissertation will follow three ways “off the line” entrepreneurs have attempted to reinvent television for the 21st century: production, representation and distribution. (Note: I have specific case studies mapped out but will leave it off here for brevity’s sake).

The production chapter will focus on three companies/individuals whose production practices demonstrate how having fewer resources lead to slightly new ways of making and exhibiting television, particularly along the above/below the line distinction (blurring roles, complex forms of investment).

The representation chapter probes three series, integrating numerous others, whose narratives showcase the promise and pitfalls of crafting stories about marginalized groups, particularly shows marketed to black, Latino, gay/lesbian and women audiences.

The distribution chapter examines independent web video networks, award shows and festivals as examples of ways marketers and entrepreneurs are trying to streamline independent television into a real market.

I will also have a chapter narrating the history of the web series market, linking it thematically to key moments in the histories of radio, television and film, almost in the way Tim Wu has tried to do.

The Production

A key component of the dissertation will be my own web series, a comedy I co-produced with Under the Spell Productions. The series, She’s Out Of Order,  is set for an early 2012 release. Having a role in the show from story, photography, post-production and marketing, I will be integrating that experience throughout the entire manuscript. I will be writing much more about it in the coming months.

Comments?

All dissertations are exercises in refining, narrowing, clarifying, etc. Even so, this has been a challenging project to nail down, perhaps because the market itself is so inchoate, though increasingly less so.

I’d appreciate any thoughts you have! You can respond in the comments or, if you feel more comfortable, email me directly here.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

7 Comments

  1. Jamie Cohen September 5, 2011 at 7:47 pm

    This is great Aymar! I’m very much looking forward to reading the book. I feel like this is going to be a required read in media classes in about 5 years.

  2. Aymar Jean Christian September 5, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    Jamie, you are far too kind!!!

  3. April September 6, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    This is awesome. Just fyi…web series came to be in 1994, with ‘The Spot’ and ‘Eon-4’.

  4. Aymar Jean Christian September 6, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    Yep, those are the ones I have as the first in my notebook. AMCY was such an interesting little experiment.

  5. Heather October 2, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    Your work is fascinating! This is a new world for me, but the more I look into it, the more I find.
    I was wondering if you have found much data on the average revenues of “successful” web series. I am having a hard time finding real numbers to use in my report to a colleague and thought you might be able to point me in the right direction.

    Good luck on your dissertation! I wish you much success.

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