Friday 18th April 2014,


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Indie Innovation and the Transformation of Creative Economy 

(book manuscript)

whatever this is web seriesCredit: Whatever this is (2013), Rascal Department

Television, outside traditional television, is as open as ever.

Open TV introduces readers to a trailblazing generation of storytellers who produce television series for the internet, creating an entertainment market more responsive to the needs of producers, fans and sponsors than legacy television. This book reveals how new media economies can support creative freedom for producers, diverse forms of storytelling for communities and more dynamic ways of releasing and showcasing shows for brands and sponsors. Based on interviews with 134 writers, producers, filmmakers and network executives, I argue the market for web series, or independent television, is a rich case study of innovation in a creative economy controlled by conglomerates and fragmented by technology.

YouTube alone hosts hundreds of thousands of showrunners, comedians, talk show hosts, video game commenters, makeup and shopping gurus, pop culture and political commentators, each with millions of followers. Beyond YouTube, producers from diverse groups and communities are making series for platforms like Vimeo and Funny or Die and user-generated networks like Maker Studios, Machinima, and Fullscreen. Netflix and Amazon reconfigure original series development by giving producers more autonomy and larger episode orders while incorporating viewer taste through big data. Social media platforms, primarily Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, give creative workers tools for speaking to and organizing fans. Kickstarter, Indiegogo and small crowdfunding sites provide platforms for efficient financing campaigns. New advertising technologies allow distributors of “spreadable” media to make money for pennies per view. Productions shoot all around the country, with hubs in New York and Los Angeles but outposts in Atlanta, Chicago, Washington D.C., New Orleans and college campuses across the nation.

In the networked economy, major studios and networks are failing to meet rising demands from consumers, ease pressures on workers and maintain cultural relevance. Paralyzed by industrial systems for developing, rating and rewarding art, they focus on maintaining their brands and profits, empowering top producers, executives and shareholders while releasing a few quality but many more cheap programs that fail to reflect a diversifying and struggling nation. Meanwhile media workers face underpaid, temporary work. Audiences have more options but fewer real choices. Left behind, independent producers, entrepreneurs and fans and are creating their own media system. This is their story.

The open TV market responds faster and with greater accountability to the desires – and sometimes the needs – of producers, audiences and sponsors than traditional television, where wealth is concentrated. The web and its agents inspire us with a vision of art after industry failure, where workers, fans and entrepreneurs work together to pilot stories reflecting their own interests and values. They are not the answer to the crisis in media ownership and distribution, but they suggest vitality outside a system that justifies its dominance through aggressive marketing and lobbying. Indeed, with this knowledge, the future of media is not dire or in crisis but rather waiting for the market, the state or workers themselves to restructure industry relations toward a fuller, fairer future.


1: Introduction

Indie creators are transforming a broken creative economy crippled by a small number of conglomerates. Freed from pressure to deliver earnings, entrepreneurs developed new technologies and platforms to support open networks. But technology is only part of the story. The indie market expanded as labor conditions worsened for creative workers and consumers grew dissatisfied with paying for expensive packages for cheaply programmed cable channels. Flipping through hundreds of networks, “nothing good” was ever on. The Internet became the next great network.

2: Developing Open TV

This chapter charts the history of web entertainment from the 1990s to the mid-2000s, when Google bought YouTube and Hollywood writers went on strike. Entrepreneurs starting networks and artists creating and experimenting with new stories and genres worked to make television more dynamic: creatively free and audience-driven.

3: Producing Open TV

This chapter focuses on how indie TV creators adapted production for this dynamic marketplace. In organization and art, Scott Zakarin, credited as the first web series creator, worked to bring more flexibility to TV production. Felicia Day, considered web TV’s first creator-star, a new media Lucille Ball, used independent production to effectively argue writers needed expanded ownership of their shows. Finally, Wilson Cleveland revived the network sponsorship model, which, when television itself was new, financed independent production with relative stability.

4: Representing Open TV

Innovations in television went beyond production. The stories created by independent producers were far more diverse than anything television was capable of developing. This chapter profiles leading series in various underserved markets. By trying to represent the experiences of young black women, Issa Rae mobilized tens of thousands of fans and producers, helping build networks, innovate marketing strategies and spotlight new talent, while scoring development deal with HBO in the process. Creators of lesbian and gay series Anyone But Me (Tina Cesa Ward and Susan Miller) and The Outs (Adam Goldman) gave life to queer experiences when television relied heavily on stereotype. Series like Awesome Asian Bad Guys (Patrick Epino, Stephen Dypiangco) and Video Game High School by and about Asian American and Ylse (Ruth Livier) and East WillyB (Julia Grob, Yamin Segal) by and about Latinos worked to politicize decades of marginalization and caricature on mainstream television. Finally web series across communities grounded their stories the realities of class and creative labor in America, where citizens work harder only to achieve less.

5: Distributing Open TV

Responding to the growth in production, independent channels debuted before and after YouTube to bring new shows to viewers. These channels developed, sold and marketed series differently from traditional television. Meanwhile new institutions for rewarding and curating the art of web TV worked to value the market without restricting its democratic potential.

6: Selling Open TV

As money from advertisers and users slowly shifted to digital platforms, networks grew larger and started to sell video with greater efficiency. Yet, in their quest to make millions and deliver fast returns to investors, networks abandoned sustainable development. Large web networks created a slate of mediocre programs to sell to advertisers at the Newfront, the web’s answer to TV antiquated Upfronts. Netflix married strategies from basic and premium cable with “user-generated” content to boost its value and create some marginally innovative programming. Meanwhile, multichannel networks on YouTube signed up thousands of video personalities, comedians, musicians and gurus to sell brands on cheap, efficient marketing. YouTube faced an identity crisis as it pursued traditional media legitimacy and financing from large brands.

Epilogue: Making TV Open

In the final chapter I delve into my experience co-producing She’s Out Of Order, an indie comedy set Philadelphia. I look at the politics of production — pre-production, filming and post-production — representation and distribution/marketing in a new media age. What emerges is a portrait of the new media market as complex, fraught yet rife with possibility for workers above and below the line.

Indie TV: Where Creators and Fans Pilot New Shows

For an introduction to the kinds of producers and series in the book, check out the video below from a panel I moderated at Transforming Hollywood 5, a one-day conference convened by Henry Jenkins and Denise Mann at UCLA on April 4, 2014.


The Web As Television Reimagined? Online Networks and the Pursuit of Legacy Media. 2012. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 36 (4).

This essay explores the history of online video networks from the 1990s to the mid-2000s, from American Cybercast to YouTube. Television’s weakness at the turn of the century opened a rhetorical and economic space for entrepreneurs eager to curate and distribute web programs. These companies introduced various forms of experimentation they associated with the advantages of digital technologies, but they also maintained continuity with television’s business practices. This dialectic between old and new, continuity and change, insiders and outsiders, reflected the instability of television as a concept and the promise of the web as an alternative. Using articles in the trade press, this essay explores the history of episodic web programming—variously called web series, webisodes, bitcoms, web television and, in its earliest form, cybersoaps—as new media network executives hoped to replicate but also differentiate themselves from legacy media.

Beyond Big Video: The Instability of independent networks in a new media market. 2012. Continuum, 26 (1).

This essay explores the possibility of an online video market operating independent of conglomerations. At stake is whether new media can operate “democratically,” providing more equal distribution of control to producers and distributors within an unequal market. This is the story of a handful of these websites, all of which promise this possibility: Strike TV, My Damn Channel, KoldCast, Babelgum and Quarterlife. Their stories offer telling case studies of new media in their formative years. In the end, without industrial structures in place, independents must grapple with rapidly changing conditions, improvise business strategies and, ultimately, work with the mainstream, traditional structures to which they were, however superficially, in opposition. Independent distribution in early media emerges as a practice as much indebted to the old media as it pushes new forms of engagement, marketing and production.

Special thanks to Graeme Turner for his help with developing the article.

For a brief summary of the article, click here.

Fandom as Industrial Response: Producing Identity in an Independent Web Series. 2011.Transformative Works & Culture, 8.

This essay examines the development, production and distribution of a web series, The Real Girl’s Guide to Everything Else, which it frames as a fan-driven response to an industrial product, Sex and the City. As intermittent participants within the Hollywood industry, the series producers, a diverse group of lesbian and straight women of various ethnicities, positioned their series as a market-oriented product intended to reform the industry from its margins and participate in a growing new media economy. The essay calls for expanded notions of fan production, industry and fresh frameworks for analyzing the effects of digital distribution, especially for communities of color, women and sexual minorities.

For a brief summary of the article, click here.

Producing Television 2.0: Reinventing the Industry in MTV’s Valemont. 2011. National Communication Association 2011 Conference. New Orleans, LA. 17-20, November.

MTV’s web series Valemont marked a significant shift in traditional network practices: a piece of “branded entertainment” – sponsored by Verizon – and a web series with an alternate reality game featuring mobile extensions and involving Twitter, a fake university website, and, to a lesser extent, Facebook and YouTube.This essay narrates how Valemont proposed an alternative to traditional network development, production and distribution practices. First, through interviews, it introduces its production team, an independent working both within and outside the industry to reform it. The rest of the essay focuses on the series itself: its distribution platforms, its engagement with fans and its alternate reality game. ‘Valemont’ emerges as a novelty in the television landscape, an ambitious if politically limited effort to make the industry more flexible and engaged, between fans and producers, producers and sponsors, and networks and new forms of releasing content.

Special thanks to Denise Mann for her help developing this article.

Not TV, Not the Web: Mobile Video Between Openness and Control. 2012. Mobile Media Reader. Noah Arceneaux, ed. Bruges, Belgium: College of Europe.

This chapter focuses on the efforts of three distributors of independent web video – Vimeo, My Damn Channel, and Q3030 Networks – alongside larger video sites – YouTube, Hulu and Crackle – to show how navigating the mobile market involves negotiating complex industrial and technological considerations. I outline what these companies wanted from mobile distribution and how they conceptualized their needs in the months leading up to and directly following the government’s first official statement on net neutrality and its exception for wireless services.From their perspective, the realities of the mobile video market illuminate how new media arise in fractured markets, not fully open or closed to new and established entrants. This chapter analyzes a sector of the mobile video market in a specific, narrow period of time. In the end, the mobile device itself holds no inherent meaning or politics outside its market and government players, all of whom are still working out how to deliver mobile content.

Joe Swanberg, Intimacy and the Digital Aesthetic. 2011. Cinema Journal, 50 (4).

Using the works of Joe Swanberg, primarily LOL, and weaving in films from other directors, this paper argues for mumblecore as a distinct form of realism based on a “digital aesthetic,” an aesthetic not merely in style and form, but also in the themes emanating from this form. This digital aesthetic, a result of theories from film and new media history, supports what I call “networked film,” both of which make mumblecore distinct from prior attempts at realism in film and distinguish it as an early 21st century phenomenon.

Thanks to Leo Charney for advising me on this project.

For a brief summary of the article, click here.

Real Vlogs: The Rules and Meanings of Online Video.” 2009. First Monday, 14 (11).

This paper explores what the “rules” of vlogging (video blogging) are: the various visual and social practices viewers and creators understand and debate as either authentic or inauthentic on YouTube. It analyzes a small, random set of vlogs on YouTube and highlight several controversies around key celebrities on the site. This essay concludes by challenging whether conversations around authenticity will persist in dialogues about online video.

Special thanks to Paul Messaris for his help developing this article.

For a brief summary of the article, click here.

Camp 2.0: A Queer Performance of the Personal.” 2010. Communication, Culture and Critique. 13 (3).

Camp has a rich and complicated history, its meanings and forms periodically shifting. Camp is variously known as a style of communication, a subcultural social glue, or a political position. In its newest incarnation online, camp has morphed in ways that contradict, or at least deviate from, its historical understandings.Spurred by the structure of YouTube and broader social trends, performers are infusing sincerity, emotion and deeper meanings of selfhood into camp, breaking with historical precedent, challenging the meanings of camp and, perhaps, the nature of performance. Performers of camp must negotiate their own gender and sexual identities, their audience, their artistic style, their desire for fame, and their “sense of self” when making videos and maintaining their web presence. These interests collide to result in a form of queer performance which partially unravels, though sometimes imitates, the forms in the past. The results of these negotiations show up in both the statements performers make but also in the videos themselves – both how they are made and what content they broadcast.

Special thanks to Katherine Sender for counsel and support. Click above for a poster demonstration.

For a brief summary of the article, click here.

Independent Cinema in Hong Kong: Negotiating Independence, Navigating Global Markets and Defining the Nation. 2010. Lecture. SummerCulture Colloquium. University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, PA.

Far from its heyday as the center of Asian film production, the market for Hong Kong cinema has changed drastically over the past ten years. Independent filmmaking — locally produced and shot — is experiencing a small revival, with the participation of the government and the local industry. Yet that market faces numerous challenges: a small and insufficient local box office, the global marketing power of China and, most significantly, a still nascent notion of Hong Kong identity, all of which prevent the forms from maturing achieving “independence.”