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Web Series Succeed On Television

Aymar Jean Christian June 12, 2012 Video 5 Comments on Web Series Succeed On Television
Web Series Succeed On Television

Most people believe the Internet and television have different aesthetics. Web content is short, cheap and brash, while television takes its time, because of higher budgets and greater cultural legitimacy. What works on the web cannot work on television, the thinking goes. Asked about The Annoying Orange‘s debut on Cartoon Network last night, professor Jeffrey McCall told MediaPost:

Web subscribers won’t automatically follow Web series to television because some of the Web charm disappears once a traditional television channel grabs the content and, in a sense, mainstreams it.

This has been the conventional wisdom for awhile.

Unfortunately, the evidence doesn’t wholly back it up. On the contrary, we now have a number of examples of successful web-to-TV conversions. On the whole, it seems web programming can work on television, if it’s successfully adapted. Please let me know if I missed any, and I will update accordingly.

The Annoying Orange, Cartoon Network, 15 minutes, 1 season

Perhaps the web-iest of web series, The Annoying Orange (pictured above) has been a monster hit on YouTube, and a cash cow for creator Dane Boedigheimer. Simple, cheap and mildy offensive — like a lot of kid’s programming — the genius of The Annoying Orange is its core idea: talking pieces of fruit, easy to replicate and produce. That simplicity led to a number of licensing and sponsorship deals, and the eventually Cartoon Network TV deal. Head over to Fast Company for a good “how he did it” post.

The Annoying Orange works on TV, more or less. It’s a little slower than it’s online counterpart, but no less jarring. I’m sure the longer narrative structure will still appeal to its core demographic of younger viewers. UPDATE: Cartoon Network boasts the program’s ratings killed it among boys 6-11.

Childrens’ Hospital, Cartoon Network, 15 minutes, 4 seasons

By far my favorite web-to-TV hit, Childrens Hospital is the doctor show spoof you’ve always wanted, with plenty of great comedic talent on display.

Rob Corddry’s show has been going strong for four seasons. Even though it’s a relatively minor show for Cartoon Network, that’s still what I would call success.

Web Therapy, Showtime, 30 minutes, 2 seasons

Lisa Kudrow’s unlikely comeback (get it?) is running strong on Showtime, having been renewed for a second season and premiering episodes this summer. After The Annoying Orange, Web Therapy is pretty web-y, since all of it is filmed using “webcam” aesthetics. And while not a critical favorite, it’s a remarkably good idea and the show has so many cameos — from Meryl Streep to Julia Louis-Dreyfus — there’s something for everybody.

Fred: The Show, Nickelodeon, 30 minutes, multiple

It’s hard to keep track of Fred. Arguably YouTube’s first big web series hit, the show has already had two movies on Nickelodeon, with a third one planned, plus Fred: The Show, which is already a hit, along with numerous side-shows and one-offs from animated shows to games (above). Fred is arguably the most successful web-born franchise to date, and no one thought it would work on TV.

Lucas Cruikshank’s Fred Figglehorn spoke about two octaves too high for most adults, but kids loved it. The TV shows are more conservative — and boring, to my eyes, but I’m not the target demo.

Sanctuary, Syfy, 60 minutes, 4 seasons

There haven’t been too many web-to-TV dramas. Sanctuary, now concluding after four seasons, remains the break-out hit. To be frank, I don’t watch the show — read up here — but it is undeniably an achievement and proof that drama can translate with the right concept and budget. 

Workaholics, Comedy Central, 30 minutes, 3 seasons

The trio behind Workaholics weren’t technically distributing Workaholics online, but their webisodes formed the basis of their pitch to Comedy Central. While not a critical darling, the show is certainly a commercial hit, and in my opinion a fairly smart satire (and indulgence) of the kind of white dude humor that has been running rampant online. Three seasons in, Workaholics is still going strong. The lesson for networks is to endow creative web types with some leeway to mix-up TV a bit (remember: Lena Dunham did a web series!).

Rhett & Link: Commercial Kings, IFC, 30 minutes, 1 season

IFC programming is very web-friendly. The network’s big hit, Portlandia, never debuted on the web as a show, but creators Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein originally thought of it that way.

Rhett & Link were popular YouTubers when IFC picked up their zippy reality show, in which they create commercials for otherwise clueless local groups and businesses. It’s often fun and heartwarming, a welcome departure from your standard reality TV fare. Just what IFC wants.

Trends

Critical no-hits:

None of these shows have really captured the imaginations of critics. All of those reviewed have been given mostly mediocre scores, according to Metacritic: Sanctuary (56), Workaholics (52) and Web Therapy (56) are apparently not worth checking out (of course not true). Childrens Hospital hasn’t been reviewed enough, but enjoys some support. Annoying Orange and Fred are in the kid’s market, where critics rarely venture.

This might change, when smart niche shows like Broad City attract network attention. Hopefully as quality goes up online, some of the best projects (and not necessarily the most popular) will start to get some traction with the suits. I already have two shows Logo needs to pick up — stat.

Comedy:

It’s still all about being funny. Sanctuary notswithstanding, the best way to get picked up by a network is to be funny, really funny, in a strange and inventive way. Web comedies tend to straddle the line between the lowest and highest denominators: inventive jokes presented in a simple, fresh way. I don’t see that formula changing anytime soon since the biggest web-to-TV hits: Annoying Orange, Fred, and Children’s Hospital do just that.

Kids:

Kids watch YouTube. Kids like things that are cheap and funny. Kids still watch TV. Hence: juvenile YouTube hits The Annoying Orange and Fred make it to TV and do well.

TV Should Water Web Programs’ Seeds

I still suggest any creator, particularly low-budget independents, focus on growing audiences on the web and forgetting about television. With more distribution portals starting up online, television is no longer the only route to success.

But web programming is, contrary to popular belief, a decent breeding ground for television programming. This is largely because the programs are cheap, and the networks that buy them are on cable and have little to lose. With many of these programs cruising into second and third seasons, it’s hard to advise network execs against taking a look at the web as breeding ground for pilots.

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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.

5 Comments

  1. Ethan Tussey June 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    Aymar,

    Great post as usual. As you know I am also interested in the way the web is used as a talent cultivation platform or digital “minor leagues” for the television industry. I appreciate the list of success that you have compiled here as they are interesting to compare to some of the failures such as “Shit My Dad Says,” and “Quarterlife.” I have argued in my work that though the web offers up-and-coming talent a path to television, the standards for success that television companies are looking for (ad friendliness (i.e. censorship), marketable demographics, and a “digital aesthetic”) limit the kinds of talent and voices that can translate from one screen to the next. I see television and film companies using web producers like a B-movie system and I was wondering if you agree or if you see examples of the diversity of the Internet making its way to the boob tube?

  2. Aymar Jean Christian June 13, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    Thanks, Ethan. I 100% agree. Web video is definitely the farm leagues and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

    And the aesthetics really are different, but it seems like in limited cases they can coalesce into something ad-friendly and viewer-friendly. Part of this is because so many web series creators think about TV deals before they even start shooting — a lot of web series are made to be ad-friendly and reach the right demo (remember also that a lot of the producers of these shows work in mainstream TV and film, or were trained in traditional film schools and want to work in TV and film). A number of web series now shoot in formats adaptable to TV and have some analytics about their core markets. Fred and Annoying Orange worked their demos (6-17 yos) well and had plenty of experience working with sponsors to make their content more marketable, years before making it to TV.

    The reason there are successes now, in my opinion, is that TV doesn’t really pick up a lot of web series. So the ones that make it onto television are pre-screened for marketability and adaptability. Because it’s somewhat new and risky, these cable networks have been very smart about budgeting and haven’t overreached — hence why CH and AO are only 15-minutes. “Shit My Dad Says” and “Quarterlife” were relatively low-risk, longshot experiments from a desperate-to-be-hip CBS and a slowly ailing NBC (Herskovitz has said things would have been different if Quarterlife had premiered on a cable channel like IFC; that might be true). Now it looks like those failures have cautioned broadcasters, but cable channels looking to fill schedules with cheap original programming — with a built-in audience — are taking the risks now, but not very many.

  3. Ben Burroughs June 13, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Great work Aymar, thank you for sharing. Quick question about shows like Tosh.O and others that use web content but aren’t web series. How do these shows fit into digital aesthetics and perhaps the translation of that aesthetic into television programming?

  4. Aymar Jean Christian June 14, 2012 at 12:17 am

    I see Tosh.0 in a longer tradition of participatory culture, primarily America’s Funniest Home Videos. Certainly there were “viral video” web series like Tosh, and it’s really the perfect TV show for the YOuTube era, so there’s definitely a relationship. What do you think? I haven’t quite made complete sense of the phenomenon, probably because I don’t watch it!

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