The web-olution will be televised


No longer the sole domain of cute kittens and dancing babies, household names like Jerry Springer and Steve Coogan are rewriting the future of television with web-only programming, writes PATRICK FREYNE

THEY HAVE the internet on computers now, as Homer Simpson once observed.

If you really wanted to blow Homer’s mind you could tell him that they have the internet on television now, too. And they have television on the internet... which you can then watch on television if you choose.

Television is changing. A new generation of viewers are watching in new ways that don’t necessarily involve traditional broadcasters. Some think programme makers will soon be able to bypass television channels entirely. This week saw the launch of Jerry Seinfeld’s first programme in 14 years, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, on the Sony-owned, and next month H+, the sci-fi serial produced by Bryan Singer, is debuting on YouTube in three- to six-minute instalments (it features Irish actress Caitriona Balfe as well as Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Alexis Denisof attempting an interesting Irish accent. It’s very good).

There have been other lower-budget propositions in the past, from the joyously silly Chad Vader, Day Shift Manager (Darth Vader’s brother working in a shop) to the ponderous Lonelygirl15 (in which the programme makers attempted to fool viewers that what they were watching was real). In 2008 Joss Whedon created Dr Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, a brilliant three-part musical web series featuring Neil Patrick Harris as a lovelorn supervillain. In 2010, Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge featured in Mid-Morning Matters, a series of very funny segments sponsored by Fosters. More notably, this year it was announced that a new series of the formerly cancelled Arrested Development would be produced for Netflix. Television programmes don’t necessarily need television stations anymore.

“I think that what we define as television today is going to be very different in a few years,” says John Cabrera, cowriter of H+ (and also an actor you might recognise as Brian Fuller from Gilmore Girls). “More people will get smart televisions, and in a couple of years everyone will have remote controls with a YouTube button on them. At that point YouTube will come up on the television as quickly as ABC or HBO. If YouTube has plenty of premium content people will watch that in the same way they watch Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. Television and web are merging. We’ve been talking about that for a decade, but the main differences between now and five years ago is that we can finally watch YouTube from our couches.”

This clearly has implications for the industry. “The internet has massively changed how much content is available and domestic broadcasters are no longer the only broadcasters we have access to,” says Hilary Perkins, head of digital development at Channel 4. “But it’s a myth to say nobody is watching TV. They’re watching as much if not more, just not necessarily on a TV set. They might be watching it on 4oD on their phones or downloading programmes that aren’t necessarily housed on a television station, but they’re watching.”

Jane Gogan, head of drama at RTÉ, says viewers will always need traditional broadcasters to create and curate good drama but adds: “People are now looking for shows. They’re not necessarily looking for channels.” Love/Hate became something of a social media phenomenon for RTÉ, with unprecedented numbers of viewers finding it on the RTÉ Player by way of Facebook. In the past, people found shows like Love/Hate by watching RTÉ, she says, but now “some people find RTÉ by watching Love/Hate”.

She also anticipates RTÉ will produce more web-only content in the coming years (web series by new talent are already produced as part of the often excellent Storyland competition). “A phone doesn’t lend itself to watching for an hour, but if you’ve got 15 minutes to spare you can watch an episode standing at a bus stop,” she says. “And you want to respond to how people use the devices, how people engage with the medium.”

Gogan and Perkins both say the new technology lets programme-makers engage audiences differently. Programmes like Battlestar Galactica and Being Human have supplemented their television output with cheaply produced, short, web-only “webisodes”. And this year E4’s sci-fi drama Misfits (the tale of a group of young offenders with superpowers) was nominated for a Bafta for the fictional Twitter streams produced in the voices of its main characters by Cork writer Mike O’Leary (an interactive technique also pursued by another E4 programme, Skins).

“People nowadays watch TV with their laptops open in front of them,” says O’Leary. “So during the episodes the characters tweet about what the viewers are seeing on front of them. Then later in the week we used Twitter to explore the themes that you saw on TV. I respond in character to questions the fans would tweet in and out during the week, and what’s fascinating is the wilful suspension of disbelief. They must know that they were just tweeting some langer in his underpants in his bedroom, but they still go along with it.

“I don’t think you’re ever going to escape the behemoth that is the television in your sittingroom, but I think television sets will become increasingly more integrated into stuff that can happen online. Colour TV gave television a further dimension and I think it’s the same here. This changes it from a more linear storyline to something vast and multilayered.”

John Cabrera, eagerly anticipating the launch of his web series, is conscious of being in an exciting new non-linear environment. “We were writing three- to six-minute chunks,” he says. “It wasn’t a traditional three-act structure or 45- to 60-minute arcs . . . and as we got closer to completion we realised that audiences themselves could become part of the storytelling process.

“It became clear that what we were creating were less episodes than pieces of a larger story, and because they weren’t in chronological order viewers could take them and rearrange them in any way that worked for them . . . Audiences could become part of a sort of social distribution. They can create YouTube playlists out of the episodes they created and can curate them for their own mini audiences.”

Of course, nobody is quite sure where all of this is heading. It’s an experimental field, economically as well as creatively. Warner Bros, who co-produced H+, have thus far created only three other web series (the highest profile being a Mortal Kombat spin-off). “Right now the mandate is to experiment,” says Lance Sloane, its vice-president of digital development. “We don’t have a giant slate of projects. We have 10 or 12 we’re eyeballing, and we’ll go into production on three of those. The idea is really to see what the marketplace will bear.”

Whatever about the marketplace, television’s relationship with the web is evolving and viewer expectations are bound to evolve with it. “I think with the younger generation it’s a given that there is some sort of online engagement,” says Mike O’Leary. “The interesting thing is what will happen when that generation grows up. Are they going to expect the same kind of interactivity from their version of Wallander? Whatever happens, it’s going to be interesting.”

John Cabrera on H+

Tell me about the plot

“It takes place in the near future when 33 per cent of the world’s population have retired their laptops and phones in favour of implanted chips in their heads. The story begins when something goes horribly wrong and everyone with the implants drops dead. We follow the survivors of that world and the story jumps around from years before the event to years after.”

How did it become a web series?

“We conceived of the idea about six years ago – before the iPhone. We started working with Warner Brothers about four years ago but didn’t really know whether it was going to be a TV show or a film or what. We showed it to Bryan Singer and his team at Bad Hat Harry [Singer’s production company]. They loved it, and very soon after we realised that we wanted to tell these small vignettes out of order, in a nonlinear way. We wanted to jump all around the world and to use time as a character in the series, and the web was the best place to tell a story like that. We never thought of it as a TV show after that.”

The evil company at the heart of the story is an Irish start-up called H+ Nano Teoranta managed by a character played by Caitriona Balfe. Why Irish?

“The company’s not evil! It just made the technology. The impetus to have the technology being from Ireland came from Cosimo [de Tommaso, his cowriter]. We were looking for a place to set the company, because this was an international story and setting the main corporation in the US didn’t reflect what was happening in the world. Cosimo said: ‘Hey man, I’ve been working in Dublin and they’ve got a really radical tech sector and a biotech sector over there,’ so we started doing some research and thought it would be a perfect place to set this company.”

H+ launches on YouTube on August 8th

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