Thursday 17th April 2014,
Televisual

Where Are The Web TV Critics? (Or, Why I Can’t Review Your Web Series)

Aymar Jean Christian May 22, 2013 Indie TV Innovation Series, Video 13 Comments
Where Are The Web TV Critics? (Or, Why I Can’t Review Your Web Series)

 

I’ve been writing about web video since 2009.

I’m part of a tiny group of writers who have sustained interest in web television over the years, taking time to interview producers and write about their shows. (Liz Shannon Miller, one such critic, recently compiled a list of sites/publications that do it consistently).

Televisual has decent traffic, but it’s mostly a personal blog, and it’s small compared to any site updating multiple times a day. But because the list of web TV critics is so small, I regularly gets pitches to review web series. At this point, it’s at least one a day.

This is wrong.

First, I’m only one person, and now that I’m a professor, I have more demands on my time. I simply can’t write 2-3 posts a week on web series like I did as a PhD student. Second, I research the industry. I rarely have time to review web series, even though I can and have.

Where are the web TV critics?

I’ve heard this complaint from producers and network executives, big and small, every year, for years. Where is the New York Times? The AV ClubNew YorkSlateThe Los Angeles TimesVariety? In the past, I’d say, “it’s coming!”

But it hasn’t.

Every publication with serious television coverage should have a critic solely focused on reviewing and/or covering independent or corporate web television. Nearly every publication with arts coverage has at least one dedicated film critic. Most employ at least two so they can cover both studio and indie film. The market for television is now as robust as film. Web television is just the indier sector of a medium experiencing an exponential rise in production — through cable operators like DirectTV, cable channels from HBO to Hallmark and corporate and independent Internet distributors from Netflix to Blip.

Covering web television in 2013 — when the first video web series premiered in the late 1990s, and the first major hits came out post-YouTube around 2006 — is just common sense.

This isn’t to say they haven’t tried. Variety and the Hollywood Reporter will write up series that become huge hits on their own — miraculously, with no publicity from traditional media — or are financed by conglomerates. I’ve seen coverage of The Lizzie Bennet DiariesHalo 4 and Burning Love across media outlets. For a time, the New York Times had a “Watchlist” for web video, which has since slumped. The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum has dedicated some of her limited space to web series. But the coverage is sporadic, sometimes completely nonsensical. For example, last spring the Times produced a video about a bright Latino web series, East WillyB, one of the few in that niche market to actually receive mainstream coverage. And yet, when the second season premiered this year with longer episodes and higher production value, the Times was nowhere to be seen.

Critical coverage is a gaping void in an industry that now has a regular stream of high-profile deals, a cohort of networks dedicated to distributing original programs (Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, Yahoo, AOL, College Humor, plus dozens on YouTube), contract norms and disputes, millions of fans, veteran producers, and several award shows, including the Streamy and IAWTV Awards, along with the Webbys and festivals like NYTVF.

In a letter to those digital networks earlier this month, media buyers urged them to create more “hits,” citing, laughably, House of Cards, which of course has no advertising aside from placements.

It’s laughable because hits are all around online. Yes, Netflix’s stock is nearing highs again, and it’s no doubt attributable to stready stream of publicity House of Cards and Arrested Development have received. Hulu is releasing canceled television soap operas, reportedly watched by millions. Machinima Prime churns out hit after hit. Amazon is moving forward.

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But if they only focus on corporate web productions, media outlets will get a warped perspective on what web TV is and miss out on potential new readers, who’ve been discovering indie TV through social networks.

In my view, the indie side of web TV is even richer, despite less press. Leading YouTubers now generate millions in revenue a year, and yet few people know them, because there’s no coverage. At less than 1% of TV budgets, web series regularly out-class on-air competitors. I dare anyone to compare The Outs to The New Normal, Broad City to 2 Broke Girls, or Black & Sexy TV to the perennial disappointment that is BET. I’d watch The 3 Bits over Wilfred any day. And indie networks now pick up canceled TV series, as lesbian subscription network tello just did just a few weeks ago for a pilot UPN never aired. This is only the tip of a massive iceberg. Indie TV is already a pipeline to traditional television. It continues to be, as Broad City is headed to Comedy Central next year.

Much is made of the fact that New York Times reviews nearly every movie that screens in New York. Most of those films, God bless ‘em, will only attract audiences of several hundred, perhaps several thousand, people. When the 43-minute finale of The Outs screened in Williamsburg last month, the standing-room-only crowd, among them Alan Cumming and John Cameron Mitchell, filled up Public Assembly‘s 4,000 square feet of event space. The video released the next day on Vimeo has garnered 50,000 plays.

Lack of critical attention is one of the key factors suppressing the value of the expanded television market. There are others, including a messy terrain for analytics and lack of research from media buyers, who seem to prefer learning about programs “upfront” instead of finding the audiences and monetizing them where they are.

I understand the pressures facing journalism. I used to be a journalist. Having interned at The Washington Post and various city dailies and magazines in the early 2000s, I have friends who are now out-of-work, or, more often, just out of journalism.

The only explanation for the shut-out is news companies, facing pressure on profit margins, can’t expand staffs and allow current critics to deal exclusively with the likes of Disney and Viacom, with whom they have established relationships through publicists. Editors don’t know what they’re missing, and TV critics either don’t know or are too overworked covering the tidal wave of TV series to branch out. That’s to be expected. I’m no naïf.

But it’s short-sighted.

Because networks have to sell brands on programs before they reach audiences, most of their shows fail. This is true for traditional and web television. Media buyers funnel the bulk of their campaign funds to broadcast and cable, where decades-old relationships with the networks and Nielsen make it easier to evaluate campaigns for clients. So TV commands the bulk of video advertising through spots, leaving branded entertainment and other experiments to the web. This means traditional TV has enough cash to produce a slate of programs of varying quality and ambition and try them out on audiences. Most of them bomb, every year, but having a broad slate of sitcoms and dramas or small batch of high-concept series assures some will hit and garner favorable press from online and print news outlets.

In short, web TV doesn’t have the cash on the top end, so editors assume there’s no value there, that all the shows are “bad” or “cheap,” which makes it harder for networks to argue for more cash and find new talent in the indie space, and so on.

What the media has never really understood is the web works differently from television, and that’s why it’s better. It flips the script, and the best hits are, for the most part, user-generated, not brand- or network-generated. Hence why YouTube’s original content initiative split a $100 million pot 100 ways.

The breadth and depth of production means it actually takes more work to cover web TV and requires a critic/journalist who focuses exclusively on it: following niche blogs from Tubefilter and New Media Rockstars to Queerty and Indiewire; keeping up with talent studios like MakerFullscreen and Big Frame; and maintaining relationships with key producers and writers in the know. I know this because it’s precisely what I needed to do to understand the market for my research. It isn’t hard, but a journalist can’t follow all this and all of television. It’s simply not possible.

If this sounds like a rant, it’s because it’s also an apology to all the creators and publicists sending me emails hoping for some coverage.

For the most part, I can’t do it. As a tenure-track professor I’m teaching classes at Northwestern and working on a pair of books on the web series market. I will always write about indie TV, for this blog and for other sites like Indiewire, but the pace will slow down.

I’ve done as much as I can. Here on Televisual, I’ve given space to producers to write their own stories. I’ve compiled a list of web series festivals and conferences, and tried to write guides for newcomers. I’m proud to have the most complete and (mostly) up-to-date directories of GLBT, black, Latino and Asian/Asian American/Pacific Islander web series, in addition to a (less up-to-date) list of New York web series. This is in addition to covering new shows as often as I can and exploring debates over distribution.

I’ve done all this work with hope that, at some point, editors would find them and realize how much activity and vitality there is in web production. The people making these shows are not the proverbial teenagers in their parent’s basement — although some of them are and they make awesome stuff — they are Hollywood’s current and would-be workers. My “Indie TV Innovation” series included two Emmy nominees (one winner), two WGA Award winners, producers with TV credits above and below the line, legions of fans and hundreds of thousands of dollars raised through crowdfunding, years before Rob Thomas and Zach Braff had even heard of Kickstarter.

In 2013, the media shut-out is galling, at best. At worst it’s an insult to the people who spend untold hours and dollars producing innovative entertainment for Americans at work and at home.

What can you do about this?

If you’ve read this far, you clearly care. So e-mail this article to the arts editor of your favorite online or print publication — subject: Cover Indie TV — and tell them to cover independent television as thoroughly as they do broadcast and cable.

If you’re at a loss, you might as well start — as all media criticism must, it seems — with The New York Times.

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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.

13 Comments

  1. Myles McNutt May 22, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    While I would certainly agree with the larger scale of this piece, I will at least note that The A.V. Club has covered web series, albeit within the context of a limited (and not recently updated) 15 Minutes or Less feature: http://www.avclub.com/features/15-minutes-or-less/.

  2. April May 22, 2013 at 7:10 pm

    Don’t forget us at Indie Intertube. We exclusively cover indie web originals.

  3. Aymar Jean Christian May 22, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    Yes, Indie Intertube is an institution! (Liz Miller lists to you in the article I linked to first).

    And I can’t believe I forgot about 15 minutes or Less! That said, I think the market calls for a writer posting at least twice a week. In the last month, on the content side Amazon has released some dozen (admittedly, mostly mediocre) pilots, Netflix released Hemlock Grove, Hulu premiered soaps and Welcome to Sanditon (from the LDB crew) premiered, plus indie shows of course! (East WillyB, Chloe and Zoe, and The 3 Bits are all releasing new episodes); on the industry side, Steven Spielberg announced a Halo TV series with Xbox, there have been a number of interesting Kickstarters (from My Damn Channel, My Gimply Life, The Ethical Slut), the Newfronts have happened, Ray William Johnson got a script committment at FX, YouTube hosted a live comedy show. And I’ve been teaching and staying mostly away from Twitter.

  4. Mathieas May 22, 2013 at 11:51 pm

    I used to write extensively about web series, but I stopped for several reasons, two of them being the lack of good shows to write about, which has changed a bit in the last years or so, and the difficulty in getting information and or cooperation from people making series.

  5. Milo Wendt May 23, 2013 at 12:14 am

    The web TV critics are not there because the demand to read them isn’t there yet. Even though a few web series are good, 95% of them suck. I’ve watched webseries since lonelygirl15 in 2006, so I know this to be a fact. Some good things can still be “underground” even today.

  6. Jeff Burns May 23, 2013 at 2:40 am

    Thank you SO much for writing this article Aymar! As a web series creator (super-villain knocked up by superhero comedy series Super Knocked Up), I can’t tell you how amazing it is to see someone champion the coverage of web series. Your article is also probably the most helpful resource I came across in terms of all the places you listed, which I’ll definitely be contacting including bigger publications encouraging them to cover web series. I’ve met the most amazing and talented people in the web series space and am so proud to be a part of it. So seriously, thank you for writing this. It’s awesome!

  7. Neil May 23, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    An excellent piece Aymar. As the co-creator of comedy webseries “Fools For Hire” I have seen first hand how good shows are facing an uphill battle in getting the appropriate coverage. Within the web community there are plenty of great people and organizations out there doing their best to promote good work (such as Tim Keaty of Surfing Aliens, the guys at Snobby Robot, etc.). However, most if not all of these places are in many respects preaching to the choir. What we need are outlets that aren’t just followed by the web folks, but those who may not even be aware of webseries. We have a number of well-known name Canadian actors in our show; We sent out a press kit when we launched and not one of the big media outlets in Vancouver picked it up or even got back to us for more information. I will be sharing your article. Hopefully we can get a discussion going that is a catalyst for future growth.

  8. David S. Samuels May 25, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    Bravo, Aymar! Even if/when the major media outlets finally get on board, they’ll likely only cover series produced by their favored big-name distribution platforms like Netflix and Amazon. It is incumbent upon our segment of the television industry to change this!

  9. Aymar Jean Christian May 25, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    I agree, David. That looks like where it’s going to go. It’s a shame, because for the financing reasons I outlined above, it’s going to be a little while before Hulu and Amazon can deliver shows at the level of quality that broadcast and cable can. Netflix will, of course, because they already have more subscribers than HBO. But that means the media will just put TV critics on it, and they won’t care because the shows aren’t as interesting (Did anyone watch Battleground? Or Crackle’s Chosen) Indie producers who know how to work within those constraints (typically, to be honest, by underpaying people!) create more interesting shows, in my opinion.

  10. Greg June 11, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    Thanks for this, A.J. I’m right now getting set for the August release of season 1 of “WRNG In Studio City,” a comedy webseries I co-created. I see webseries now as being in a similar position to indie film in the very early 1990s: we’ve had our “sex lies & videotape” (Dr. Horrible) and a breakout project to prove commercial viability (Felicia Day’s “The Guild”) but there’s no equivalent of the Sundance Film Festival out there to help low-budget creators elevate their signals over the noise. Critics were a huge part of the indie film movement’s success, so here’s hoping we can get more converts.

  11. Wee Wee Porcelli July 2, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    The Coco & Wee Wee Show is a New York to Nashville web series following Brooklyn-born sisters Coco & Wee Wee as they remake their lives in Music City, USA. Coco is a recently divorced mother trying to re-enter the dating game and Wee Wee is her perpetually single sister who’s going to show her the ropes. Watch as their street smarts and loud mouths meet the hicks and hipsters of Nashville, TN in this reality-based web series of “tell-it-like-it-is” culture clash.

  12. Joe Thomas September 3, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    Well, it looks like I may be late to the party, but I just read this post for the first time and I am quite surprised at how many producers are crying out for reviews and review based sites. I, for one, have found it difficult to get reviews. Not sure if my show, Johnny Dynamo, is just getting lost in the ‘review shuffle’ or if there is just a total lack of reviewers. Any thoughts?

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