A Smart Look at the Future of Television // In Collaboration With Quinnipiac University's School of Communications
Reporting about webseries often emphasizes that these projects will change television as we know it. In reaction to the recent news of Tom Hanks’ partnership with Yahoo to develop a webseries, Will Richmond writes on VideoNuze, “What do these Hollywood A-Listers (or near A-Listers) and other stars all have in common? They’re all involved in original online video projects which are helping to upend the Hollywood ecosystem.”
But I wonder, especially considering recent developments regarding “TV Everywhere” or high-profile projects like David Lynch’s House of Cards for Netflix, if it’s maybe not the other way around. So, instead of asking how the internet has changed TV, I ask, how does television incorporate the internet into its established routines of making and distributing programming?
The web-based sitcom Husbands makes for a particularly good case study. Producer Jane Espenson (known as writer for Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, and, most recently, Once Upon a Time) describes Husbands as a “marriage equality comedy.” Produced and promoted during the summer of 2011, the series “aired” biweekly on http://husbandstheseries.com during the fall of 2011. Set in a near future when same-sex marriage has been legalized across the country, the plot of Husbands revolves around a gay couple waking up married after a night out in Las Vegas. Episode 5 gives a good insight into the humor and production qualities of Husbands.
Even though Husbands issues a challenge to some modes of TV production and cultural representation, I think that it ultimately slots comfortably into normative logic of television, and thus reaffirms the persistence of television in the digital age.
A concentrated effort of producing TV for the Web has happened over the past 5-6 years, when the increasing availability of broadband laid the technological foundation and incidents like the 2007 WGA strike made media industry insiders look for new production/distribution possibilities.
In response to the strike, several established television professionals turned to web-based production and distribution to carry out projects that (in their opinion) would not have found an outlet on established television networks or that exist as explicit provocation to established models of TV production and consumption. Peter Hyoguchi formed an independent distribution company called StrikeTV, which was supposed to provide high-quality television content online. While StrikeTV started out strong and determined to remain independent of media conglomerates, the company eventually began to rely on traditional advertising models to stay afloat (fellow Hacktivision blogger Aymar Jean Christian has written about this at length).
Others started to produce webseries. You may have heard of Felicia Day’s The Guild, a series about a group of gamers. With sponsorship deals, multiple seasons and distribution via Xbox Live, The Guild is probably the most successful and well-known webseries to date. While Felicia Day wasn’t well-known before making and starring in The Guild, Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy, Firefly, and Dollhouse, most certainly was. Joss Whedon produced Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a web-based musical, in response to the 2007 Writers’ Strike. Whedon declared that “[i]t is time for us to change the face of Show Business as we know it.”
Jane Espenson and co-producer Brad “Cheeks” Bell echo Whedon’s sentiment when they discuss their motivation for making Husbands. Espenson has emphasized that they chose to make romantic comedy about a gay couple “to make the point that there is an audience for this subject matter.” She also said that she likes the “[s]peed and maneuverability [of webseries] — being able to be very hands-on, without having to guess what the powers above me might want.” Even though Espenson positions Husbands outside of and in opposition to traditional television, the series replicates televisual norms in terms of production, promotion, content, and consumption.
In terms of production, Husbands‘ formal aspects adhere to filming and editing practices that we would expect of a single-cam comedy. Husbands doesn’t take advantage of its online environment and foregoes opportunities such as incorporating web-based technologies like HTML5 annotations (as an example of what that might look like, see Jonathan McIntosh’s remixes).
Jane Espenson and Brad Bell carried out the majority of Husbands‘ promotion via blog posts and tweets (instead of handing the task off to a marketing agency).
This direct appeal and interaction with the audience is becoming increasingly common—consider Syfy’s Twitter-based promotional campaign for Being Human‘s season two premiere or USA’s Character Chatter platform. Networks and channels also pin a lot of hopes on “social TV” to maintain live viewing, for example. Many programs now have dedicated Twitter hashtags; others create special events around Twitter (for example, The Good Wife‘s core ensemble live-tweeted an episode last fall). Social media is drawn into the service of a cornerstone of television as a medium: watching a program as it airs.
While the platforms used for the promotion of Husbands are (relatively) new, the content of the promotional tweeting and blogging campaign was very traditional, consisting mostly of previews and behind-the-scenes photos (and didn’t include newer strategies in TV marketing that draw on transmedia storytelling, for example).
Husbands is distributed via an established company, namely Blip.tv, home to many web-based series, and is syndicated via Brad Bell’s YouTube channel, where it reaches 10,000 subscribers.
The conventionality that suffuses Husbands‘ production, promotion, and distribution finds its echo on the level of cultural representation.
Husbands is beyond the reach of network notes and FCC regulation; yet its take on gay life and marriage does not break with the conventions of LGBT representation on mainstream TV. The main characters are white, out-and-proud professionals, and, as such, inhabit exactly the type of queer visibility that television has promoted as default mode of representation for LGBT Americans. We can find the same type of queer visibility on current TV shows like Modern Family and Glee and previous programs like Brothers & Sisters, Queer as Folk, and Will & Grace (interestingly, Husbands director Jeff Greenstein used to work on Will & Grace).
One of the reasons for Husbands‘ compliance with televisual norms are the Terms of Service agreements on blip.tv and YouTube, neither of which allow explicit content. The Terms of Service agreement on Blip states that “the following content is prohibited on Blip: Content involving nudity” and “[c]ontent that is or may be deemed to be grossly offensive to the online community.” YouTube’s “community guidelines” are more specific: “YouTube is not for pornography or sexually explicit content.”
More importantly, Espenson and Bell have expressed the hope of getting Husbands onto television. In a promotional interview with The Huffington Post, Jane Espenson explained that “when we’re done [with filming], we have a sellable pilot.” Indeed, Husbands‘ eleven episodes add up to about twenty-two minutes, or the standard length of a sitcom episode on network television. If they hope to sell Husbands to network television, it makes sense for them to produce something that is similar to the LGBT content that has been successful on network TV.
The conventional norms of production, distribution, and representation evident in Husbands work together to enable an easy consumption of the series. Specifically, the by-now familiar mode of watching TV via streaming video works in conjunction with established cultural tropes and narrative structures to make Husbands accessible to viewers. In other words, watching a traditional sitcom about a white gay couple via streaming video slots comfortably into the media consumption habits of many viewers.
Contrary to the notion that web-based TV breaks with the norms of television, viewers of Husbands do not have to reorient their engagement with television or their understanding of television as a medium. Indeed, Husbands conventionality counters the notion that the digital revolutionizes television; rather, web-based projects like Husbands demonstrate that television has begun to integrate the digital into its norms.
-Contributed by Melanie E.S. Kohnen, -