This fall I wrote a piece for a special issue of the Journal of Communication Inquiry on television studies. The issue, with essays from Michele Hilmes, Horace Newcomb, Eileen Meehan and others, is an outgrowth of the University of Oregon’s “What is Television?” conference held in Portland earlier this year. That conference ranked among the best I’ve been to in years, with lively conversations from people in the industry and academy. (A sequel conference, “What is Radio?,” is scheduled for April 2013).
My contribution, “The Web As Television Reimagined,” explores the history of web TV networks from the mid-1990s until YouTube.
What’s amazing about this history is how much and how little has changed. There have “next generation TV networks” since long before anyone really watched video online. There was American Cybercast, for example, or comparable ventures from tech companies like Microsoft and Sony or TV nets like NBC, Lifetime and Showtime.
In the 1990s, these networks published a lot of text- and photo-based serials and games. There was a surprising diversity among them. Independent producers made “cybersoaps” focused on the romantic lives of the young and beautiful (a la Melrose Place) or pulpy mysteries in genres like sci-fi (a la Star Trek). Television companies created online extensions of on-air brands — NBC’s Homicide: Second Shift, most notably.
With the rise of streaming video and Flash (and amidst the first dot-com crash) independent web TV networks concocted surprising program slates. AtomFilms started to bridge the divide between the short film market and the web. The Sync (above) had Jennifer Ringley a.k.a JenniCam and Terry Crummitt a.k.a Snackboy, webcammers who presaged YouTube stardom before lonelygirl15 and Michael Buckley ever stepped in front of a lens. Crummitt passed away a year before YouTube premiered and attracted mainstream attention. It is a real shame, because he was quite the personality!
The article focuses on those networks whose leaders explicitly sought to reform or expand “Hollywood,” focusing on niche audiences, edgy programming and interactive stories told in ways incompatible with traditional distribution. But throughout this entire history, major studios (like DreamWorks), talent agencies (like CAA) and producers (like Brian Grazer) all invested in networks to curate and monetize the growth of bitcoms, webtoons, cybersoaps or webisodes.
For Hollywood insiders, the web was a new frontier to expand and diversify their portfolios beyond television. For outsiders, it was a way break into television while doing something creatively fulfilling.
Sound familiar? Plus ça change, as they say.
What I tried to establish in the article is how embedded the idea of revolutionizing television has been to the history of web distribution, and how those tiny revolutions have already happened: sparked, expanded and then dissipated, again and again. YouTube is just the latest example.
Of course, now, if you add up all the money pouring into the space — and look at the companies participating — the market for “next generation television” is far more robust than it’s ever been.
And growing. Stay tuned.