The producers have 10 or 15 seconds to grab your attention. Try this: An incompetent pitchman is hiring for a computer job in which candidates have to be comfortable viewing hard core porn. That's hard core porn. Segue to a scene in his mom's kitchen, in what turns out to be Moderation Town, a clever spoof about the collision of small town cunning and global communications. Interested? Or would you really rather watch somebody's cat do dog tricks?
This is the Darwinian world of the webisode, where original scripted content competes for viewers with hokey home videos posted by amateurs. As YouTube prepares to launch 100 niche channels of professional content and Yahoo offers a new online comedy channel, the race is on to make higher quality entertainment for the Web.
In the United States, stars as high profile as Kiefer Sutherland have signed on to Internet-only series – in this case the potted thriller The Confession. Meanwhile, comic Lisa Kudrow has parlayed her Web Therapy series into a TV show – the ultimate prize for Web producers. In Canada, Nicholas Campbell and Sonja Smits have lent their names to a Web comedy series called Bill and Sons Towing, while a flurry of activity has been created by the 2010 decision by the nonprofit Independent Production Fund to steer its entire $1.5-million annual budget away from TV and into webisodes.
Is this the future of TV drama?
That is probably the wrong question to ask: Web producers say they cannot possibly compete with the long-form, big-budget dramas that still draw millions of viewers on network television. Instead, liberated from the half-hour format and established genres, they are creating alternative forms. "The handcuffs are off; you can do whatever you want," said Davin Lengyel, a prominent Canadian producer. The real question is how that new form will compete with million-hit pet videos.
"There is a perception of Web content, based on the short form and the look and feel, that it is not up to the level of TV and film content," said Jonas Diamond, executive producer on The Canadian conspiracy-theory Web series Guidestones. "You say the word Web series and it just smells bad: For us it is about a professional story with high production values."
Diamond is among those who believe the way to win an audience – and a share of ad revenues from sites such as YouTube – is to move some of the values of TV drama onto the Web, using fully realized scripts and well-known actors to cut through the noise.
"Web series are good at focusing on one [audience]group," said Charles Ketchabaw, producer of Bill and Sons, a show with a wider appeal. "We are trying to make this a gateway for people who are used to watching TV." Although shot on a small budget inside a Hamilton garage, the show offers a high level of comic performance as Bill's four sons make a hash of his business. Ketchabaw hopes that will attract a mainstream audience and advertisers willing to come on as season sponsors, the same way soap companies first underwrote radio serials.
Is this broad model going to find an audience on the Web?
"It's completely unpredictable; you have to build an audience from scratch," Ketchabaw said. "We spend a lot of time on Facebook and Twitter."
Guidestones, on the other hand, is specifically aimed at the net's rich conspiracy-theory community. It's a 34-part series of three or four-minute episodes about two journalism students uncovering the mystery surrounding the actual Georgia Guidestones, controversial inscribed stones that appeared in an American farmer's field in 1979; it was shot in Canada, the United States and India on a budget of $300,000 and stars veteran Canadian actors David Fox, Rosemary Dunsmore, Hrank Alianak and Juan Chioran.
"We were really looking for a subject matter that would resonate with an online audience," Diamond said.
For some, the narrowcasting cannot go too narrow: Toronto producer Ana Serrano chose Prison Dancer as a property to develop into a new Web series and a stage show because the musical targets three very specific audiences: the gay community, Filipinos and musical-theatre geeks.
Inspired by an early YouTube hit of Filipino prisoners dancing to Thriller as a form of rehabilitation, Prison Dancer is a fictional series that includes a musical number and interviews with the convicts in each brief episode. Serrano's financing sources includes a dance marathon being held by an Ohio high school's gay-straight alliance, a group she found through the online funding platform Kickstart.
In a world that depends on social media word-of-mouth, speaking honestly and directly to your fan base is more important than fancy production values, say some producers.
"Unlike television, they do not watch passively," observes Lengyel. "They reach out to the actor; they love them or they suck. They will go to the next comics convention to see them. There is an accessibility to the characters and the actors." Recalling the success of LonelyGirl15, that staged video diary from 2006-2008, he feels the sweet spot for Web production is semi-autobiographical. "It is not that it's fiction; it's hyperbole; it's an exaggerated version of yourself."
At the very least, the projects must be driven by personal connection he says: His new project, Space Janitors, features the lowly janitorial staff on some inter-galactic battle station because he has always wondered who it was who cleaned up after the light sabre battles. He figures there is a great need for a Web series aimed at the mommy-bloggers, but no, he will not be making it.
The Web audience's desire for an intensely personal connection with niche material may not bode that well for high quality content. One of Canada's biggest Web hits is Spellfury, a comically low-budget fantasy series that gently mocks The Lord of the Rings genre with exploding monsters and bad wigs. Video producer Travis Gordon shoots it in Perth, Ont., and Ottawa on a budget of $1,000 for every two- to five-minute episode, a small fraction of what most Canadian Web series spend. Online since 2008 and now offering a second season, Spellfury has reached five million hits, is making product placement deals with beer companies, and has started paying its actors.
On the other hand, one of the smartest Canadian shows on the Web is Moderation Town, a 2011 comedy developed by Halifax's Stitch Media for the specialty channel Showcase. Created on an initial budget of just under $200,000 and preparing to launch a second season this summer, Moderation Town is set in a Maritime living room among a rag-tag band of unemployed plant workers trying to set up a business monitoring and purging Internet sites of obscenity and porn. The series cleverly critiques the water in which it is swimming and has even signed up a real Internet moderation company as a sponsor.
But do the geeks get it? To date, Moderation Town can only claim a modest 50,000 views for its first season.