I started writing for ReelSEO back in June, and the first thing that I wrote about extensively was web series. Not long after I started writing about them, a debate was raging on whether to call them a "web series" or a "multi-platform series" or an "original series on [Hulu or something similar]." There is a very distinct, very valid reason not to call them "web series," because of perception. Perception that a program that originates on the web is inferior. "If it's so good, why didn't a major network pick this up and turn it into a real series?"
The Continuing Debate On What To Call Online Shows...That Come In Series
Recently an article by Liz Shannon Miller over at GigaOM entitled, "Why We're Going To Keep Calling Them Web Series" was published and picked up by several other sites. The article cited an e-mail from producer Wilson Cleveland (Leap Year, Suite 7, The Temp Life, and The Webventures of Justin & Alden) that read:
When the Leap Year trailer was first released on Hulu last summer, I asked my 64 years-young mother to email the link to 10 of her friends of similar age and introduce it simply as "a new series Wilson's working on." All 10 watched and responded with various comments. Then I asked her to send the exact same link to 10 other friends of similar age, but to call it a "web series." This time, four people claimed "the link doesn't work;" two said the "video won't play;" one asked "what channel is this on?;" one asked "How do I find this so I know when to watch?" Only two out of the second 10 watched the trailer without any questions or issues. Not exactly a scientific study but it made me wonder if placing the word "web" in front of "series" or "show," could be hurting the cause at raising the broader awareness we need to grow.
That seems like damning evidence not to call it a web series, but unfortunately this experiment doesn't cover all the bases. In one instance, the use of "web series" is an offending phrase that causes a bunch of the older generation to be confused. Then in a misleading manner, it is called "an original series" and the similar demographic is enthused, but somehow the question of "what channel is this on?" doesn't also pop up in this control group. Aren't they eager to know where they might get to watch it later? Because Mr. Cleveland called it "an original series," the immediate thought was that "this is on TV," and there was much rejoicing. Do you think that maybe when they find out that the show is "online" or whatever the young kids are calling the Internet these days, they might have the same prejudices or reservations about the show, regardless of what it's called?
Here's that trailer for Leap Year, by the way. It's presented like a movie and has quality production value, so I get the feeling that the "web series" group is closed-minded and it's pretty much their fault if they can't accept where it's playing:
[Video removed from YouTube]
Another term that is being thrown around is "multi-platform series" which has no chance, not one chance...zero chance of being a common description among those who actively watch these shows. OK, so I'm on Facebook and I want everyone to know that I've been watching The Booth at the End. "Hey guys, have you seen this new multi-platform series called The Booth at the End? Man, I love multi-platform series. They're just so...not confined to the web, you know?" (142 Likes. 50 Comments.)
For the record, I think "multi-platform" is just fine when you're behind closed doors at a business meeting trying to get a show some international distribution or a DVD release or made into a movie, sort of the roller-coaster ride the Kiefer Sutherland-John Hurt series, The Confession, took this year. Months after its rollout as a web series, I continue to see stories about The Confession making it in some new medium and increasing its potential audience all around the world. Just don't think for one minute the people watching that show is going to pop some popcorn, bring out the Twizzlers, and ever refer to it once as "a multi-platform series."
OK, so what about "original series on x platform," as web personality Shira Lazar tweeted back in September? I like the idea of that. It certainly sounds better when you put that word "original" in it, much like the example above with Wilson Cleveland. In the end, though, you have to stop playing games and you have to tell people where they can see it. It's online. It's on the web. It's on Hulu or Netflix or Revision3 or Koldcast or YouTube or Vimeo. So right after I call it "original series on [x]," those people with immediate prejudices about serious entertainment on the web just lost interest.
You Ever Heard Of "Don't Judge A Book By Its Cover?"
So you know what? It isn't about what you call it. It's about creators making content that force people to lose their preconceived notions about where they watch it. With more and more people watching their entertainment on a computer, the distinction about whether or not it's on TV (legit) or originated online (still working to become mainstream legit) isn't going to matter much longer. Netflix' House of Cards and new episodes of Arrested Development will blur the line concerning where we get our entertainment in the next year or two.
Also, web series themselves have been getting a lot better, with writing and production value that rivals television. Machinima introduced the high-quality RCVR and Dragon Age: Redemption. Excellent comedies The Guild and Web Therapy have become go-to places for amazing guest stars. The Booth at the End on Hulu was fantastic. There are many more. The only problem with web series that I've seen is consistent episodes being delivered and keeping fans sated, and I think that becomes less of a problem once more money starts pouring in for online video on the whole, which we know is inevitable.
We're in the early stages of online video being conceived less as a bastard child, because it's still relatively new. Did TV have nothing but amazing series when it began in the 1920s? Of course it didn't. And, I'll remind, that TV wasn't really considered legitimate by many people until cable started growing up. It used to be a taboo for name actors to participate in a TV series, now you see it all the time, because better stories began to be told in the age of The Sopranos. Better actors, writers, producers, and directors gravitated towards it (there's also a ridiculous creative dearth in Hollywood concerning the multiplex that has caused that shift, but that's another story). It took a long time for TV to be considered truly legit. Why are we in such a rush to call a web series something other than it is in the hopes that putting a prettier package around it will make people forget that they are watching it online?
So for me, I'll be calling them "web series" because it's simple and works to describe the medium pretty well. There have been many articles written that discuss its problematic syntax, like it's so difficult or embarrassing to describe what it is and where it's on. That's where the people delivering the message need to start delivering it with confidence. If the show is good, call it what you want, but don't be apologetic about watching it online.