How Web TV Brought Cultural Innovation to Television
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by Aymar Jean Christian
Americans are obsessed with popularity, and it’s not our fault. We have developed this obsession from the mass media era, when television arose as the dominant media form in America, and the limited number of channels meant we all had to watch more or less the same thing. Corporations love popular work because they can sell to more people. But popular works aren’t always innovative, and innovations are not always immediately popular.
The networked environment shifts the dynamics of popularity considerably, and thus of innovation. Consider the case of Comedy Central’s Broad City, widely considered one of the most innovative television comedies to debut in the 2010s. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer started Broad City as a no-budget web series about two young Jewish women trying to survive New York City. They published the first season in 2010 and a second in 2011. To date the series’ most popular episode, “I Heart New York,” which features a cameo from Amy Poehler, has over 600,000 views. A modest success on YouTube, but perhaps identifiable as “popular.”
Broad City remains the least popular web series ever to get a development deal. Most of the time networks only give development deals to producers who have series with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of views (e.g. Drunk History or The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl), or considerable attention of critics (High Maintenance). Usually they need both.
The case of Broad City shows the tricky relationship between culture and its commodification, and the power of storytelling by those historically marginalized from television development. But television has changed. Deregulation has exponentially increased the number of channels, spreading mass audiences into niches. A popular broadcast program today – like Empire – would be an average performer just ten years ago. Meanwhile the Internet’s channel economy continues to increase as independents like Glazer and Jacobson distribute their own shows and newcomers like Color Creative, Black & Sexy TV, tello films, and New Form Digital create online studios for curating content produced by online creators.
In a niche media environment, innovation flourishes in the classic Schumpeterian sense: new products and modes of production are in constant development. Yet traditional notions of innovation miss the most remarkable shift in the new economy: work by historically marginalized producers can now build, demonstrate and sustain small but often sizable audiences, rendering visible the value of their new products and providing meaningful, if undercompensated, work to the growing numbers of U.S. creatives.
For those with intersectional identities – particularly those who identify as black, queer and feminine-spectrum – networked distribution offers a way to create spaces within the community to have dialogue and enjoy new narratives never before seen as “television” in the mass media era. Network executives interested in preserving the television business must take note like they did with Broad City.
Intersectional web series range in popularity and complexity. Coquie Hughes’ If I Was Your Girl would never make it through the corporate television development process, but Hughes’ series has been viewed millions of times on YouTube. The first three episodes, posted as one 90-minute film on the site, has registered over 3 million views since it was posted in April 2013. As a Chicago-based filmmaker with a background in community theater who identifies as a lesbian, Hughes wanted to tell a drama about violence in the black community focused on women who love women.
If I Was Your Girl has thousands of comments from a range of viewers, variously queer and straight women of color and straight men, who debate the story’s complex representation of community issues from domestic and state violence, unemployment, cheating and jealously, and gender performance. If I Was Your Girl is anchored by four leads, who represent different colors and gender performances within the black lesbian community. The series breaks from television representation in almost all ways except one: all the leads are traditionally attractive, because Hughes wanted to indulge visual pleasure.
On the other end of the popularity spectrum are comedies like Words With Girls and ackee & saltfish, a Los Angeles-based sitcom about a black lesbian and London-based comedy about two black female friends. Both shows have YouTube viewerships in the 20,000-100,000 range and demonstrate a sense of narrative experimentation and commitment to intra-community dialogue missing from bigger budget productions. Cecile Emeke’s ackee & saltfish follows Olivia and Rachel as they explore gentrified London as two black women. The series veers away from the dominant plot point in US commercial television – women seeking relationships with men – to focus on the everyday, connecting with one’s culture (pan-African black feminist producers and Caribbean food), and grappling with the UK’s economic, social and political realities.
Words With Girls focuses on the experiences of a particular black lesbian in Los Angeles, played by Brittani Nichols, the creator and writer. Episodes are focused on one word, typically relating to the experience of black or queer, such as “Token” or “Beard.” Nichols brought on popular YouTuber Hannah Hart to guest star, amplifying the series’ reach. Issa Rae, through Color Creative, adapted the series into a 30-minute comedy pilot Rae hopes to sell to networks.
New web series are constantly pushing the limits of television representation. In recent years there have been a host of series about the little represented community of transmen, from the improvisational mocku-reality series Outtakes, the drama Eden’s Garden, about black transmen, and Brothers, about white transmen. Even more commercially acceptable minority demographics find greater sincerity in online stories. Vimeo’s follow-up to its first original series High Maintenance, set to premiere on HBO soon, is the second season of Adam Goldman’s Brooklyn-set gay-led drama The Outs, which brought much-needed emotional realism to gay-focused series (outdoing HBO’s Looking, in my opinion) and Kit Williamson’s (Mad Men) LA-set Eastsiders, whose crowdfunded second season explores non-monogamy.
The clear narrative innovation and growing fan bases for independent content has led some networks to develop them for larger platforms. Issa Rae made history as the first black women to sell a series to HBO, Insecure, an extension of her web series that spent two years in development. Black & Sexy TV’s Numa Perrier and Dennis Dortch have a project in development at HBO, along with Lena Waithe, who previously used the web to promote her series, Twenties, which was briefly in development at BET. Connections between the web and television are multiplying. This year I found myself connected to this universe when the director of photography for Zackary Drucker’s (Transparent) Southern for Pussy, the second pilot in my current research project, Open TV, signed a development deal with HBO for a show co-created with Paula Pell (Saturday Night Live).
As networks vie for fan attention in a market where scripted series are proliferating on broadcast, cable and web television, indie creators have the advantage – and burden – of amassing their fans outside of corporate network control, allowing them to use digital networking to release sincere stories to their communities and refine their art partially insulated from the corporate marketplace.
Internet networks offer an open platform for distribution new talent can access to hone and showcase their voice, while serial storytelling encourages fans to follow creators and their characters across time. On the whole this is innovation in the television business, even if the business has been slow to catch on.
Aymar Jean Christian is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Northwestern University.