You can’t swing a cat these days without hitting a comedy series on Vimeo, Daily Motion, or YouTube. But if you’re looking for drama, you’ll mostly still find it on the boob tube.
In 2009, 50% of adults watched comedy online compared to 31% in 2007, according to a 2010 Pew Research report. Even mainstream stars are taking their act to the smaller screen, like former Friend Lisa Kudrow’s Web Therapy, the winner of this year’s Webby Award for Best Comedy: Long Form or Series. "For whatever reason, someone has put out to the web world that comedy is what works online," Tina Cesa Ward, executive producer, writer and director of the widely-acclaimed web drama Anyone But Me [above, below], tells Fast Company. The show launched its third season’s finale June 21. "But what they fail to realize is that what works is great storytelling no matter what the genre."
Unlike television, it’s hard to promise or predict the amount of eyeballs necessary to recoup production costs from shooting a drama. "It's been harder for scripted dramas to succeed because their costs are higher making the margins for profit slimmer," Kaplan says. "The successful series are riding the margins. We need a little more time for more money to flow into the market."
Many original series post on sites like Kaplan’s blip.tv, which acts much like a television network and shares revenue made from online ads with producers. But there’s also the rare show that takes its content straight to the big boys for a deal. Take the creators of the hit Crackle.com action-packed crime drama The Bannen Way. They produced a high-quality pilot to shop around before landing a deal with Sony, which eventually led to 13 million streams of the show on Sony's Crackle site. While it’s unclear whether or not there will be a second season, the first season is available on DVD and there are murmurs of developing it into a television series.
2. Niche Programming
"You can’t be everything to everyone" applies to life as well as web dramas. "Dramas that are aimed at the mainstream tend to struggle to find their audience," Kaplan says. Viewers can turn on the TV for that—what really draws people to the web are untold stories targeting specific communities hungry for content that can’t be found on cable and network television. In a media landscape that favors glitz and glamour over foreclosed homes and temp work, Downsized stands out. The touching dramedy following characters dealing with the effects of the recession speaks to viewers who don’t want to keep up with the Kardashians.
3. Audience Building
You’re way more likely to see a funny clip shared on your newsfeed than a scripted original series—52% of video uploads are posted on social media sites and 93% of 18-29-year-olds watch "comedy or humorous videos," according to Pew Internet research (drama didn’t even appear on the list). That’s because, "We’re still not at a place where people are counting on the Internet for all forms of video entertainment," says David-Michel Davies, executive director of the Webby Awards.
This makes it that much more important for producers to reach out to targeted communities and build up an audience. Robert Townsend’s Diary of a Single Mom does just that. The series, with its diverse cast and positive portrayals of minority women and single motherhood, has inspired screening parties and discussions in 27 cities via Meetup.com known as "Single Mom Mondays." An avid fan now moderates a weekly Facebook Fan page chat on issues found in the series after reaching out to the show. "If you’re building the right tools for an audience, you’re giving them the ability to interact with the content in a deeper way," says David Saunier, senior vice president, Media at One Economy Corporation, whose pic.tv site hosts the series.
4. Enough Time to Produce Multiple Seasons
Besides money, fledgling series need time to prove themselves and capture the audience necessary to be profitable. Anyone But Me is blip.tv’s highest viewed scripted web drama. Its true-to-life stories of a lesbian teen who moves from New York City to the burbs for her father’s (a 9/11 first responder) health have secured it a highly engaged audience who actually watch a large portion of each episode. But even though the show is now a content partner with Hulu (a rarity for web series creators) and YouTube, it wasn’t instantly popular. "The first day we launched Anyone But Me, we got 500 views," remembers Susan Miller, the show’s executive producer and writer. "Over the last several months since launching Season 3 our views have been between 700,000-800,000 views per month."
[Images courtesy Anyone But Me - The Web Series on Flickr]