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.
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.
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 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.