Exit Stage Left

“I don’t think anyone has ever done this and now we know why,” chuckled director Sinohui Hinojosa after the cameras stopped rolling on the live season finale of his web series sitcom, Exit Stage Left.

Hinojosa’s plan for the season finale was ambitious. It was to be shot in the same style as any other episode: four cameras capturing the behind-the-scenes drama of the fictional Lowry Theater Company, interspersed with documentary-style interviews. But he wanted to perform it in real time, streamed live to the web, and before a live on-location audience. Why? “Because we can.” Said Hinojosa, invoking the “because it’s there” rationale for climbing Everest.

The video above is not actually footage from the live performance. Rather, it’s a regularly taped and edited version of the episode. Though the show was a lot of fun for all involved and those watching in person and in internetland, it was choppy and featured a few missed cues that shattered the fourth wall to bits. Even a year after the first live-scripted drama appeared online in the form of Synchronis TV, the concept of low-budget live on the web is still, as I said before, ambitious.

Exit Stage LeftExit Stage Left and other web shows aren’t going live solely because they can, though. They know that we love live. Every generation has memories of watching something on a screen as it happens in real world. Apollo 11. OJ’s white Bronco on the 405. Ashton beating CNN in the race to one million followers. Watching a situation develop in real time makes the narrative more compelling and real. And, if you think about it in a the-tools-of-live-television-production-have-been-democratized and omg-this-is-happening-right-this-second kind of way, it can blow your mind.

But what live video on the web really has to offer is the opportunity for interactivity. Leo Laporte knows it, Tom Green maintains a degree of relevance thanks to it, and iJustine is iJustine because of it.

The Midwest Teen Sex Show (who, in other news, began taping their Comedy Central pilot over the weekend) has embraced live video every week for the past few months. Every Tuesday, the hosts or producers sit down for an informal webcam chat with their audience. Production value is zero but that’s not the point. It’s an opportunity to share their wealth of sexuality knowledge in a fun two-way format that they aren’t afforded in their regular episodes.

Live supplemental content can be used to directly generate revenue, too. Tilzy broke the news that Carl’s Jr. had signed on to sponsor the second season of Attention Span Media‘s Dorm Life. But the deal wasn’t for pre-roll ads or in-your-face product placement. Carl’s promotion in Dorm Life lived solely in the occasional live streams that the actors do in which they interact with fans in character and, yes, sometimes shill for burger joints.

I watched Dorm Life‘s last live stream in its entirety, all 76 minutes, and tried to keep up with the thousands of viewer comments that were gushing through the Ustream.tv chat window. I was simultaneously giddy that I was just a chat box away from talking with the guys from Dorm Life and, when reality prevailed, impressed with the ability of the actors to deliver quality in-character laughs while interacting with their fans.

In television, since daytime soap As the World Turns ceased daily live shows in 1967, special live episodes have been regarded as ratings boosters sometimes employed as a desperate measure during viewership slumps. This isn’t the case on the web, where viewer quantity is arguably not the most important metric. In fact, the live efforts of Exit Stage Left, The Midwest Teen Sex Show, and Dorm Life all saw live viewership numbers a fraction of what typical episodes get. Such is the nature of appointment viewing in a TiVo world, I suppose. But for web producers for whom audience engagement and activation of evangelism is important (and that’s most of them), live can deliver.

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