The following essay builds on Liz Shannon Miller’s earlier pieces on success in the web series market: “How Do You Define Web Series Success?” and “2013: The year of the web series second season?” This is part of Televisual’s “Indie TV Innovation” series.
When I talk to web series creators, there is one constant: They love the opportunity to make original content on their terms. But for every lauded success story there are easily ten other shows that failed to connect with an audience or go beyond a first season. Given how this industry is still evolving, at this stage, how do we define a web series success?
Is It Money?
It’s hard to get creators to talk openly about money and web content — for one thing, many contracts (including the YouTube partner agreement) actively forbid discussing specifics when it comes to profits.
For another, comparing the cost of a series like H+: The Digital Series (which came together for less than $2 million) to something much more low-budget that may have an easier time making back its budget, like the series Hank Frisco: Galaxy Defender.
Examples of web series that have turned a profit exist: The Kiefer Sutherland-starring The Confession more than broke even for production company DBG after premiering on Hulu.
But it’s hard to equate web series success with money, because the industry has yet to produce a publicly-acknowledged blockbuster hit. The closest example is probably Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog, which according to Whedon has made over $3 million since its initial release. But Dr. Horrible is, to say the least, a very special case.
Is It Longevity?
It’s quite a thing to get a season of a web series online. But to keep the show going beyond that final episode — to make it multiple seasons, to improve and evolve over the course of several years — is a feat.
The Guild is an obvious case for the longevity argument — building as it has every season since its launch in 2007. But there are several other web series belonging to the Three Or More Seasons Club (they should get jackets made): The Temp Life (five seasons), lonelygirl15 (three seasons), Venice (three seasons). Anyone But Me (three seasons), Easy to Assemble (four seasons), Shelf Life (four seasons), and The LXD (three seasons).
But how do those shows stack up against, say, H+: The Digital Series, which has only had one season so far, but did release 48 episodes over the course of six months?
Staying sustainable over the course of several years is a huge achievement, but that success is attributable to one thing…
Is It Audience?
I’m not saying views when I say audience. I’m saying, essentially, fans. If a video is posted to YouTube, but no one watches it, then it’s just video. A series has a relationship with its audience, and the best series find ways to make that a two-way relationship.
So far, the one established way of doing this is creating a show for a specific group — be they World of Warcraft gamers or fans of specific YouTubers — and building from there.
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a unique example, in that it took a number of pre-existing fanbases — Jane Austen enthusiasts as well as followers of co-creator Hank “Vlogbrothers” Green — and forged them into one fervent community.
This means creating shows that don’t appeal to all demographics, but that’s happening across all media, thanks to the fracturing of audiences — the exact same issue that’s undermining the broadcast industry right now, as NBC and Fox and the like find their ratings crumbling, thanks to cable and other distractions. Only CBS is still succeeding with a large casual audience, and their demographic gets older every year. Meanwhile, the future lies with the web, with the creators willing to take a chance on occasionally fickle audiences. Because once those audiences are engaged, the payoff can be huge.
Can You Measure It?
It’s a tough question, but here’s one approach: Kickstarter campaigns, where fans get the chance to support shows directly.
Husbands‘s Kickstarter campaign for Season 2 had 956 backers, who pledged a total of $60,000.
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, meanwhile, still has a few weeks of its campaign left to go, but as of writing it has over 5,200 backers and $356,224 pledged.
And the campaign for Video Game High School Season 2 had 10,613 backers pledging $808,341.
What’s fascinating about this? The way those numbers average out. Husbands contributors pledged an average of $62.76. Lizzie Bennet contributors? $69.10 a person. Video Game High School? $76.16. Three shows with very different audiences (in terms of both size and demographics) but all engaged at about the same level financially.
A sampling of other successful Kickstarter projects shows some relative consistency to these numbers — the two big exceptions I found being the series Whole Day Down, which averaged $255.52 from its 161 backers, and The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which had 1,960 backers pledging an average of $28.70 each.
Even those outliers have one thing in common: They got to continue producing episodes. Which, for many creators, is the biggest success of all.
–Liz Shannon Miller
Liz Shannon Miller is a writer, watcher of web video and pop culture enthusiast. Based in Los Angeles, she wrote for G4′s Attack of the Show and currently contributes to the tech blog GigaOM, co-hosts the podcast Timey Wimey TV, co-edits the video curation site Here’s Some Awesome, and tells her friend Frank about stuff at Liz Tells Frank.