We love our screens. According to Charlton Strategic Research, Canadians clocked an average of 28.6 hours of video a person, per week last year – up 4 per cent from the year before.
Given the abundance of video available online and the desire for such content, it's compelling to follow the moves of more traditional broadcast media as they bend and sway in these ambitious times. The CBC is no exception. In the past year, the national broadcaster quietly launched CBC Punchline – "the new home for premium Canadian comedy" – that acts as one facet of their full digital strategy.
Featuring "Punchline originals," the online channel is an "opportunity to fill a void in the comedy community that was not being served," says Michelle Daly, senior director of CBC Comedy. "Comedy is the currency of the Internet."
Niche programming tends to do well online. In addition to its slapstick 1990s revival show Body Buds and gendered gags on Womanish, Punchline recently released Riftworld: Chronicles, a fantasy/sci-fi comedy based in Toronto. The eight webisodes range from four to seven minutes each and will be available online all at once for our binge-watching pleasure.
The creators of the show – writer Jonathan Williams and producers Laura Perlmutter and Andrew Nicholas McCann Smith – say the Web series was made quickly compared with traditional broadcast or feature film writing. The group spent the summer retooling a script for the Web and went to camera in early December, shooting the entire season in 12 days. If it weren't for the visual effects in postproduction, they could have had a show done in less than six months.
As a Web series, Riftworld: Chronicles was also far less expensive to create. An Independent Production Fund grant gave the trio $150,000 to play with, while a Kickstarter campaign added $60,000 to the pot (a typical broadcast TV show costs roughly $300,000 per half-hour episode to make.).
"There is this weird taboo around the term 'Web series' – that it is [low quality] or DIY when we're trying to do something bigger," says Perlmutter. "We're looking at this [show] as an original online series. … We're putting effort into the way it looks and feels, and everything online that surrounds it."
The social-media efforts are ingrained into a Web production from the outset. The writer-producer trio are the core behind the communication management of Riftworld and described months of "endless social media promoting" leading up to its launch. But they appreciate the direct connection to fans who are engaging with their product as they go, giving them a good idea about who the fan base is and how to grow it.
For Williams, "shareability" is one of the most empowering things about the Web series format. "Movies and TV can't be directly shared, legally, but [an online series] enables people who like the product to pass it along to their friends for immediate viewing," he explains. "This enables quality content to spread organically and be seen by the right people without all the potential barriers of theatrical or network distribution.
"Anyone with an Internet connection can see the show."
CBC-TV's online space has proved to be an interesting place for experimenting with new storytelling forms, to find new audiences and to mine new talents. "Every time we do anything in the digital space we learn from it," says Daly, adding that the broadcaster has developed a similar push for online arts programming, as well.
Exhibitionists is one of the online art shows coming up on this year's program, relying on "a digital-first strategy that crowd-sources content." CBC-TV's general manager of programing, Sally Catto, explains the Internet push has allowed them an opportunity to partner with emerging talent they might have otherwise missed.
"It's a goal to curate and aggregate arts from across the country and get as close to the artists as possible, and make it accessible to as many Canadians as possible," Catto says. "We want the shows to be current, so we [welcomed] a wide call-out to a flexible, growing and freelance group of contributors."
The Collective is another online arts show the network is rolling out this year, produced in collaboration with Toronto digital agency Secret Location. Twelve episodes range from two to five minutes in length, and are produced by a collective of artists across the country who tell their own stories.
But perhaps the biggest challenge in "the golden age of video." is that there are more videos than ever: How do broadcasters ensure eyeballs get to the content?
"I've always believed that strong content is going to rise," says Catto. "The factors that go into our decisions online are not that different creatively than [they] would be for linear TV … but [moving online] is essential for our survival."
With files from James Bradshaw