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    This is the personal blog of Simon Kendrick and covers my interests in media, technology and popular culture. All opinions expressed are my own and may not be representative of past or present employers
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Twelve web series to check out

Announcements for new made-for-broadband web series launches now seem to be a weekly occurrence (NB: So far this week we have Freshers’ Week and Gamerzine TV).

Among the stream (pun intended) of new shows, gems can get overlooked. I’ve therefore collected 12 web series that I think you should go and have a look at. I’ve stuck to scripted entertainment shows, and have excluded TV spin-offs (so no Battlestar Galactica: Resistance, despite its awesomeness)

In the finest tradition of blogging, I haven’t done my full research. I haven’t seen all of the shows listed below – sometime because I am unable to (if someone knows a work-around involving proxy settings or URL extensions that lets me pretend I am in the US, please let me know) and sometimes because the show does not interest me.

[Reading that back, that doesn’t sound like a particularly solid recommendation. However, we all have different likes and so – location and preferences permitting – I suggest you nevertheless go check them out.]

I’ll disclose when I am talking from a specific position of ignorance [Insert joke about general position of ignorance].

Click the title to be taken to the homepage for the series in question. Click the video (for 9 of the 12 series) to take a look at what I’m talking about.

Lonely Girl 15

The web phenomenon. In June 2006, an unsuspecting Youtube-viewing public were first exposed to the video diaries of Bree. Using the sign-in name of Lonelygirl15, her video blogs allowed her to vent her angst over the minutiae of her everyday life.

Except she had no everyday life. She was fictional.

After a couple of months of online speculation and investigation, proof that Lonely Girl 15 was in fact a young New Zealander called Jessia Rose Lee was found. Highlighting the cultural frenzy that was generated, the story was in part broken by both the LA Times and New York Times.

Once the game was up, the show became more overtly ficticious. A fantastical storyline involving an occult conspiract was introduced, and it also became the first web series to incorporate product integration.

After cast changes, three series, 378 episodes and over 110m views, the show has finally come to a close. Kate Modern followed within the LG15 universe, and it won’t be long before the next series is launched.

I’ve only seen the odd episode of Lonely Girl 15, and have no real desire to watch any more. Particularly those involving melodramatic conflicts against religious extremists. However, the cultural impact cannot be denied and it is worth checking out the early videos to assess their relative authenticity.

The Guild

Written by and starring Felicia Day (aka “Her from Buffy”), this is a lovingly crafted look at a guild of World of Warcraft players. Despite living in close proximity, the six people of the Guild have never met in person. Until one encounter sets off a chain that requires the whole Guild to get involved in order to save the day.

It is funny in a quirky, observational way rather than laugh-out loud, but I was charmed throughout the ten episodes. Codex, Vork et al are certainly rooted in real life, and never become full-on caricatures.

Funded in part by viewer donations, Series 1 has won multiple awards.

I still have no desire to actually play WoW though.

Afterworld

Afterworld was heavily hyped when it first came out – unsurprising when you realise Electric Farm Entertainment/Sony put up $3m for the first series of 130 episodes. That adds up to around six and a half hours worth of content…. After debuting on Bud.TV and Youtube, it has made the tradition to broadcast TV, with episodes aired on both the Sci-Fi channel and Channel 4.

The story follows Russell Shoemaker, who wakes up in New York to find nearly all technology dead (a shame, since that is what he sells) and 99% of the human race missing. The series follows Russell’s journey back to Seattle.

Moody and introspective, the dissolving graphics are striking and the slow pacing (if not the inconsistent voice acting) has drawn me in (I’m twenty episodes in, and trying to find the time to watch more).

You Suck at Photoshop

As well as being highly entertaining, this show is also extremely informative. I have learned a LOT about Photoshop by watching this. However, the main attraction is that it is hilarious.

The show is narrated by Donnie – a sad, bitter, misanthrope. His attempts to prevent the world sucking at Photoshop are frequently thwarted by either his wife or his WoW buddy Sn3tchbuckl3r.

You Suck at Photoshop was set up by a couple of creatives at Big Fat Institute to promote My Damn Channel. They succeeded. Big time. The show has been a phenomenon, and after a fan backlash it has returned for a second series.

Where Are The Joneses?

Where Are The Joneses? is an “interactive comedy”. Produced by Imagination, written (in part) by Baby Cow productions (owned by Steve Coogan and Henry Normal) and funded by Ford, the “interactive” element refers to the plot (partly) being crowdsourced. Viewers were able to submit plot ideas and the underlying script would be improvised to incorporate them. Interestingly, and refreshingly, the series was also released under a Creative Commons licence. This allows people to both remix and re-edit the show, even for commercial uses.

The story follows Dawn Jones. Dawn discovers that she is the child of a sperm donor, and so drives around Europe (in her Ford, obviously) tracking down her siblings.

While an interesting idea, I’m not sure how successful it was. I only saw the first couple of episodes, before slipping away. And it appears I’m not the only one. This blog reports that viewers of the episodes were only in three figures, while the proposed DVD hasn’t materialised.

However, things are rarely done correctly the first time of asking, and this form of brave experimentation in turn inspires further adventures. Indeed, according to this blog post from one of the producers, the Open Rights Group are looking to make a case study out of the production.

Street Fighter: The Later Years

College Humor produced this funny look at the Street Fighter 2 crew 10 years on. Dhalsim is driving a cab, Zangief is a Janitor, Vega is a jobbing actor – you get the idea. The series contains some brilliant verbal and visual jokes. Click through to find out what happens when the old gang get back together.

Beyond The Rave

Beyond The Rave is the Hammer studio’s first foray into Horror for other twenty years. Rather than going for the classic schlocky feel, this series aims straight for the Myspace generation. As well as being hosted on Myspace TV in HD format (not that my monitor can tell the difference), it is shot using the tight framing and jerky cameras so beloved of contemporary action scenes.

However, Beyond the Rave does follow in the fine B-movie horror tradition by not being very good. Actually, that’s harsh. It is a perfectly fine genre film, but I wouldn’t call it a great show nor go out of my way to watch it (again). I’m sure Horror fans would enjoy it though. And the inevitable sequels.

Stephen King’s “N”

This isn’t strictly a web series, but I’m including it as it is so fantastically realised.

“N” is the only previously unpublished work from Stephen King’s forthcoming anthology “Just After Sunset”. The story has been depicted as a “graphic video”, drawn by Alex Maleev, and coloured by José Villarrubia. I believe that Marvel will be releasing it as a comic book next year.

The aesthetics are the real highlight, but it is an intriguing story (thus far) and has reminded me why I devoured Stephen King books in my teenage years.

The Cell

The above link points to the Fox website, which currently only hosts the trailer. The Cell (or Cell, as it may have initially been called) was originally a made-for-mobile production, produced by Endemol for O2. It was all filmed using green-screen technology, with high production values as the business model was always to sell the programme across platforms and markets. This Fox deal represents both.

I’m afraid I’ve not seen any of this, as my mobile phone isn’t adept at handling video of any sort. Given the paucity of information available online, I wonder if anyone has seen it? Watching it via Fox therefore presents the opportunity to get ahead of the curve, albeit 9 months after launch

Gemini Division

Aside from the trailer, I’m yet to see this series yet either. The reasons being that the first episode only came out last week, and that NBC are limiting distribution to the US only.

Produced by Sony and Electric Farm Entertainment, as with Afterworld it comes heavily hyped. Having Rosario Dawson star and incorporating tech-based product placements (Microsoft, Intel and Cisco) have also contributed to the buzz.

The plot appears to be a hybrid of Alias and the X Files, which sounds right up by street. And with early reviews giving it a tentative thumbs up, it will be definitely be something I’ll be watching. Once I’m allowed to.

Coma

Another new series, with only the first episode being released so far. Early signs are encouraging. The languid pace, limited dialogue and good use of music all worked very well. It will be interesting to see whether the pace changes as the plot develops.

The remaining six episodes will explore how Lennox ( Michael Madsen), a crime boss, was shot after plotting with the Mayor to bring down the city’s crime boss.

As well as Michael Madsen as an above the line name, George Hamilton and Tony Todd also appear. It is sponsored by Sony Vaio and distributed via both mobile and the Internet – including Crackle, Sony’s online video portal. Interestingly, the full series will be given away on a Blu-ray DVD in magazines in October, along with music from Sony BMG and content from Sony Pictures.

Now that is what you call joined up thinking. Kudos to Sony for leveraging its different elements for an interesting experiment in content marketing.

Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog

As this is only three episodes long, one could debate whether it is a full series. However, it is my list and I’m including it.

I absolutely love Dr Horrible. Anyone who has seen “Once more, with feeling” – the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – will know what to expect. Engaging characters, witty dialogue and fantastic songs. Whether it is the above-linked “Laundry Day”, “A Man’s Gotta Do”, “Brand New Day” or “Everyone’s a Hero” – all are incredibly catchy and all have been stuck in my head ever since I first watched it.

Just under 45 minutes in total, the show sees Dr Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris of Doogie Howser fame) attempt to both join the Evil League of Evil and woo the girl from the Laundry (Felicia Day, “Her from Buffy”, again). However, his nemesis Captain Hammer (Nathan “Firefly” Fillion) stands in his way.

Initially broadcast for free over the web, it is now on Hulu and iTunes in the US only. Which is annoying. The DVD will be forthcoming though. In the meantime, there is always this Dark Horse comic to get you in the mood.

As you should see from the above list this is a medium ripe with invention and experimentation, and I am getting quite drawn into it all. Whether big-budget and professionally produced or DIY, there are plenty of quality shows out there. And these are just the ones that have caught my eye.

If you have any suggestions regarding other web series I should check out, or any comments on the above shows, I would love to hear from you.

sk

Notes from the Internet World exhibition

Although the Internet World exhibition is largely a trade fair for online service providers, I’d noticed that several of the keynote speeches on Thursday morning were related to online video/TV. And so I wandered along to Earls Court, and learned several things in the process.

Peter Cowley (Endemol) – The rise of original digital video content

Peter began by recounting some statistics on the US online video market – such as there being 10.1bn online video views in February 2008 – a 160% year on year increase.

He then went onto talk about Endemol’s content strategy. They have moved into five areas

  • Providing full-length programmes for catch-up (e.g. through the iPlayer)
  • Licencing content from their archives (e.g. for Joost)
  • Distributing clips of content (e.g. on Youtube)
  • Repackaging clips from the archive
  • Creating original video

Three case studies were shown to illustrate the fifth area

  • The Cell – a show using green screen technology built especially for O2. A website and social networks were used to help promote the show. They aim to pay back O2’s investment by selling it both internationally and across platform. To do the latter, they had to ensure the production values were high enough to make the transfer from mobile to website to DVD.
  • Beyond the Rave – funded by Hammer House of Horror (they of the classic films) and initially shown on Myspace TV through 20 x 4 minute shows. A DVD of the full show will be released, coming in at around 90 minutes once additional footage is incorporated. In order to make it financially viable, the production cost came it at under $1m.
  • Gap Year – a global reality show on Bebo where six “contestants” travel for six months around the world. It aims to tap into the social side of Bebo by incorporating blogs, commenting, community, feedback and clips. It is fully funded through product integration, and so no pre-rolls are necessary.

Michael Acton Smith (Mind Candy) – The future of social games

Michael is a bit of a serial entrepreneur, having already set up Firebox and Perplex City. Having learnt some valuable lessons from the latter – “ultimately too deep and complex for the mainstream” – he has returned with a new venture – Moshi Monsters.

He is aiming to capitalise on the successes of both social gaming (which Nintendo has shown works) and virtual pets – which has a strong lineage from the pet rock to NeoPets via Tamagotchi.

Moshi Monsters is designed to be as simple as possible. It is aimed at 7-11 year olds, and is rendered in flash for interactivity. A lot of work has been put into the social element – there are newsfeeds, pinboards, friendstreams and widgets for Facebook et al. There is also an educational element – so participants gain currency for completing puzzles.

He mentioned Amy Jo Kim’s keys for success – collecting, points, feedback and customisation – and has incorporated each of these. The business model is subscription based but he is also looking to sell physical products, presumably to capitalise on the merchandising potential.

My favourite quote of his was on the advantages of playing against friends – “computers can’t cry”. How true.

Kym Niblock (BBC Worldwide) – Commercialising content propositions

Kym opened with a video (partially soundtracked to Patrick Wolf) punctuated with stats on the BBC. Essentially, as we all know, they are very, very big in many, many markets. Specifically related to the website, they have 1.4bn page impressions a month from 46m unique users – 29m of which aren’t in the UK. Since these 29m were essentially getting the content for free, the BBC felt it was necessary to monetize it.

But by doing so, they had to be sure that they wouldn’t unfairly punish UK users, whose licence fee money remains their sole contribution (outside of purchasing BBC products). Kym mentioned that their IP address identification software has been extremely successful and scores above the 99.6% accuracy rating that the BBC insisted upon.

Even though advertising content would be allowed, it does not appear throughout the website as sensitive stories will still be ad-free. The BBC are also very careful not to juxtapose the content with inappropriate ads (take note Facebook), with all ads checked for suitability. As well as banners, skyscrapers, leaderboards and MPUs, the videos also include pre-rolls.

Regarding the advertising, the BBC follow four key principles and safeguards:

  • Ads should engage and not interrupt
  • Ads shouldn’t take control away from the user
  • Ads shouldn’t trivialise the output
  • Ads should not give the impression that a story is there only because of the ad opportunity.

There was an interesting discussion about why an advertising model was chosen. Initially, a subscription model was favoured – replicating the licence fee, essentially. But while people were theoretically in favour of this, research found that few would be willing to pay. And since pretty much all websites now carry advertising, there would be no outcry if BBC.com suddenly carried ads. According to BBC research, 2/3 of people prefer ads to a subscription model, and 7 in 10 accept ads in return for an enhanced service.

Ravi Damani (TVguide.co.uk) – Listen to Your Users, and The Future of TV

The final keynote I saw was a double header. The first part – Listen to Your Users – was a case study on how TVguide.co.uk has succeeded with help from its users. According to Ravi, there are four main ways to listen to your users

  • Feedback form on the site (along with a FAQ to improve overall quality of feedback)
  • Actively encourage feedback
  • Surveys
  • Personal profiles

Ravi said that TVguide.co.uk gets 5-6 high-quality feedback submissions per day. The feedback is benchmarked and weighted for both feasibility and to ensure that “expert user” feedback stands out. Requests are recorded and put into a development timeline before being implemented.

He also mentioned that they are looking at multiple revenue streams for the site. Interestingly, he said that front-page takeovers were accepted by users since the programme information provided them value. Another option is partnerships with providers such as 4OD, where TVguide.co.uk would gain revenue from referrals.

The second part of the presentation looked at the future of TV, and the facets of online video. Ravi split his talk into the following sections

  • Device – we are moving towards a unified device that can synchronise content across multiple platforms. Even at the moment, a laptop can become a second screen for information while you are watching TV
  • Content creation – shows can now be released rather than scheduled, with different formats and prices, depending on ad type and timing
  • Content delivery – iTunes has revolutionised the music market, and online can add to the number of viewers. When Gossip Girl was taken off the web, it only added 1% to the TV audience
  • Aggregators – TVMotion became one of the most successful (if illegal) sites purely by linking to other content
  • Social side – Microsoft have patented an IM for set-top boxes, and TV is of course a very social medium
  • Ratings and reviews – Netflix has had great success with this, and is even running a competition to see if people can improve their recommendations system. It can be a mix of editorial and user-generated, to bring in that community element
  • Revenues – somewhere between advertising and subscription. Hulu lets people choose the ad format. DRM can actually bring more cost than benefit – as in theory the DRM infrastructure needs to be provided for the lifetime of the product

Ravi then looked at the current players, and how they rated on each of these elements. Hulu and Bebo meet all of the criteria bar a unified device, while Sky doesn’t have the ratings or social element. He speculates that Kangaroo may be the first service to offer all of these.

I didn’t hang about after these keynotes, and so can’t really critique the exhibition as a whole. What I can say is that I was extremely impressed with the scale of it – even on the third day the venue was extremely crowded. As the organisers were awarded best business exhibition at the 2007 Event Awards, they must be doing something right.

sk