The New York Times’s Virginia Heffernan thinks that web video series today are lacking.
She starts by citing the four webisodes produced by John Edwards’s mistress (that’s the first web series that popped into your head too, right?), then lumps it in with Satacracy 88 and Cataclysmo as the “slow, conservative, overpriced cousins to the wildly Web-friendly ‘viral videos.’”
So much is wrong with this statement, and I don’t just mean the annoying capitalization of “web.” Heffernan passes judgment on entire swaths of online video based on just a few examples, and her classification system is misguided at best.
She bafflingly limits “web serials” to those with brand names and established producers. Citing the Battlestar Galactica and The Office webisodes along with her above examples, she claims that only completist fans enjoy series, which “smack of planning and budgets and all that vestigal Hollywood stuff.” She also criticizes the lonelygirl15, quarterlife, and Afterworld “name-brand ones” for measuring their worth by the “flimsy” unit of views, wondering, “Are there really any hit Web serials?”
Heffernan contrasts these shows with her beloved one-off viral videos. “Top virals — ‘I Got a Crush . . . on Obama,’ ‘Don’t Tase Me, Bro!,’ ‘Chocolate Rain‘ — never plod. They come off like brush fires, outbursts, accidents, flashes of sudden unmistakable truth.”
Of course they do – these are the top viral videos, the ones with the most views! The view-based meritocracy for viral videos works pretty well. Not always, but most of the time.
Heffernan likely found her ‘top virals’ via a view–based filter (or a blog that follows them). How can she then chastise the same method when discussing series? Without aggregating eyeballs to sift the gems from the hours and hours of terrible footage, some of it just as well-backed and “Hollywood” as any series, I bet she’d be much less enraptured with the “crazy junk” on YouTube.
Web video is far from a viral vs. series binary having to do with brands and budgets.
Where would we classify The Onion News Network or CollegeHumor’s Hardly Working, unified concepts with high production values that are undeniably popular (not to mention well-sponsored)? They’re series, right? Additionally, You Suck at Photoshop, Jake and Amir, Ask a Ninja, God Inc., We Need Girlfriends, The Professor Brothers, and many others have all become successful series by turning viral success into regular audiences.
And what about the fact that “I Got a Crush … on Obama” was essentially the first in a recurring Obama Girl series, or that “Don’t Tase Me, Bro” and “Chocolate Rain” enjoyed continued popularity due to a series of tributes, remixes, and further iterations ?
Sweeping generalizations just don’t work here…there’s a lot more nuance and potential in web series than Heffernan suggests.
Even stranger, she circles back around to cite Dr. Horrible as “a lush, sound-mixed studio series on par with anything on the networks.” She notes that it is “only” on iTunes, removed from view statistics though it is atop download charts. It received a ton of buzz with Hulu traffic first, of course – are paid downloads and sponsored streams that different here? She also suggests that it’s so good, so well-backed and star-studded, that it might as well be on TV. Because, you know, “planning and budgets and all that vestigal Hollywood stuff” are the ultimate for a web video series.
Heffernan does end her piece on a hopeful note, expressing confidence that a new series will come along, “exploit the eccentricity of virals,” and breathe new life into the “thrill of filmed ‘reality’” like lonelygirl15. Those series are already here, from the examples mentioned above to ones being launched and reworked every day in the way that only the internet allows.
But we can’t keep looking for another lonelygirl15. Pushing the boundaries of video storytelling requires viewers to evolve as well.