Is mid-range web TV too risky? The middle ground of web television, somewhere in between homebrew video blogs and high-end celeb-laden studio series, appears to be murky water. The shuttering of digital studios 60Frames and maniaTV stand as somber reminders that web television is still shuffling to find its business model. According to Greg Goodfried, who co-founded web studio EQAL in 2007 with partner Miles Beckett, it’s all boiling down to cost structure.
Miles and Greg made their mark with arguably the most successful dramatic web series to date, lonelygirl15, setting themselves up for a top seat in the serialized drama space. Follow-up series like LG15: The Resistance, Bebo-backed KateModern and Polish lonelygirl-spinoff n1ckola locked up the genre for their venture-backed studio.
So, it’s somewhat surprising to see reports that EQAL is moving away from creating original serialized drama series. Some coverage even went as far as to say that EQAL was getting out of original series altogether. We talked to Goodfried on the phone, and asked about the comments he made on June 9 that kicked off this flurry of speculation. He was adamant that the idea that they are giving up on original content is grossly exaggerated.
The shift in strategy, Goodfried said, is focused on working with established stories and fanbases rather than building them from the ground up as they did with their lonelygirl15 franchise.
“Instead of creating new IP from scratch, we’re partnering with existing IP,” said Goodfried. But he went on to point on that it doesn’t mean what they create isn’t original. “It’s original because it’s not re-purposed content we’re just putting up online, he added. “We are creating brand new original web content that is shot and formatted for consumption online, and it’s totally original.”
Harper’s Globe, the web community extension built around the CBS drama Harper’s Island, falls into this category. Showrunner Jon Turtletaub and his team of writers created a story and universe for the show’s primetime TV spot, while Goodfried and his team used that basic framework to build a web series narrative and community site around it. The Harper’s Globe narrative follows the exploits of the island newspaper’s young video blogger (played by lonelygirl15 alumn Melanie Merkosky) as she explores the mysteries of a series of grisly murders that take place each week on the primetime show. “We know how to make content and produce experiences on web sites that can engage and build large communities around an entertainment brand, and how to monetize it,” Goodfried said.
But what was wrong with lonelygirl15? After all, the series churned out nearly 600 episodes and racked up over 200 million views and counting on YouTube. The challenge, says Goodfried, is most likely the show’s own success, which started back in 2006 with then unknown star Jessica Rose posting video blogs to fans who for a time believed her fictional character, Bree, was real. A skeleton crew of no more than three people would write, shoot and edit the videos. By the time the secret was out and mainstream media had picked up on the lonelygirl15 sensation, the show had ballooned into a full-on production, complete with numerous characters and storylines and a rapidly inflating production budget.
Keeping Costs Low
This is where the economic realities of the still nascent web television industry came to a head. With costs rising, even sponsor deals like Neutrogena’s well-received integration within the lonelygirl15 storyline still weren’t enough to fully support the show’s costs. Union pay rates for talent and writers, additional crew support and marketing costs all added to the per-episode sticker price.
“What lonelygirl15 evolved into is super expensive, and the internet is still not at a place where you can sustain that kind of production,” said Goodfried bluntly.
The series had reached the apparently treacherous middle ground in terms of cost. The film industry has had its own run-ins with this bi-polar dilemma—grappling with the success of low-end ($10 million) or high-end ($100 million) films and the often perilous fate of middle-range ($40 million) productions. Goodfried sees a similar polarity in the web series world, with low-cost YouTube stars and indie web series creators able to wear many hats — on-screen talent, editor, writer, and director — while keeping costs low.
So we’re left with two strata of production — low-cost indie grown stars and high-cost traditional celebrity. “You’ll have this huge emergence of web celebrities who pop up on their own or you’ll have traditional TV content that gets extended on the internet,” said Goodfried. Successful web series like The Guild, What The Buck and Diggnation, he added, are able to keep their production costs very low.
EQAL’s Next Chapter
Does the strategy shift change public perception of EQAL away from a cutting-edge creative house? That’s not yet clear, but it sure isn’t stopping a who’s who of Hollywood from approaching the studio. Alicia Silverstone (The Kind Life), CSI-creator Anthony Zuiker (Level26.com), and even TV celeb chef Paula Deen have all teamed up with the company to develop online extensions of their existing projects.
“The bread and butter for EQAL is building robust online communities around entertainment properties.” Their latest project, Get Cookin’ with Paula Deen seems a little like unfamiliar territory for the conspiracy-loving creators. The match however does play to what they have proven they know how to do well — building a community hub around an entertainment property. Only in this case, it’s a celebrity chef.
“Traditional media talent and brands come to us and say ‘I’m already popular online and I don’t know what to do with it,'” added Goodfried. “Or, ‘I’m doing something, but I need some help doing it right.'” For the Deen series, the community centers around cooking—mostly sharing recipes and photos from kitchens through a ‘Challenge of the Week’ and similar calls for fan action.
What lies ahead for original web series remains to be seen. The next Miles and Greg are out there — dreaming up and crafting a low-cost series that will spark the imagination and interest of the masses. While the web television industry of 2006 was a much less crowded space than it is today, 2009 brings with it a more developed ecosystem for online video and a public increasingly hungry for original online entertainment.
Those next web stars will need to learn to wear many hats — talent, production, marketing — and manage to put to use their biggest advantage over traditional media: inexpensive labor. Goodfried agrees, “They are going to be pretty much homegrown. It’s hard for traditional media to do it because they don’t know how to do it.”