YouTube’s plunged into interesting and uncharted waters by announcing that it will shell out $100 million to a variety of creators ranging from Slate to Ashton Kutcher to develop 100 web television channels. Creators will get up to $5 million to program the channels as they wish, and if they earn back that start-up capital and make more, they’ll make money on the project.
There are, of course, a lot of silly contenders in there. I’m not sure we actually need an American Hipster channel (the fact of its existence probably renders it hopelessly passe, right?), or if Pharrell Williams or Shaq can support their own brands, though if the latter succeeds, maybe we can persuade Peyton Manning to give up football for buddy comedies. One would imagine the Onion doing just dandy — their Onion News Network videos are often, if not always, some of the funniest things on the Internet and it’s possible to see this becoming just another way to aggregate their content.
But what’s exciting about this is that it’s a low-cost way to experiment with niches that aren’t necessarily big enough to justify the investment and start-up costs on television. I’ve often lamented the fact that there isn’t a female equivalent of Louis C.K. getting money from a cable network to produce a tough, low-budget show, but Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls at the Party network might just be it. I absolutely cannot wait to see what the women involved along with Poehler (and if they haven’t though about it, they might bring on Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl as an addition to their roster) come up with. There are, of course, spaces where women get to experiment with art and comedy, but they’re fragmented, and there are women who get to do their own thing in a network context if they’re Tina Fey or Whitney Cummings, but the idea of a reasonably well-financed place where women can make weird, engaging comedy, where the operative word is Smart is so wonderful it makes my heart explode. Similarly, I’m excited to see what folks do on channels like The Nerdist, SB Nation, and TED, if only because it doesn’t really exist in my frame of reference that places like that could get as much support and bandwidth, and that is marvelous.
Not all of these networks will survive, but when they do and don’t, we’ll actually have some sense of what does and doesn’t work, what theoretically untapped audiences do and don’t exist. This is a chance to organize ourselves and show support for the kinds of networks we actually want, with a ratings system that will likely be vastly clearer and simpler than the Nielsen ratings system. And that’s exciting.
And this is also a chance to figure out what a web TV network looks like. Is there 24 hours of content a day? Do networks find existing web series like Husbands and syndicate them? Will the workforces be unionized (the Writers Guild East is working on a campaign for web writers and from what I understand, doing pretty well)? Will the networks become a breeding ground for network pilots, a kind of minor leagues? Or will they develop their own storytelling vernacular, their own sense of timing? I have absolutely no sense of the answers to these questions. But the fact that we’re going to have a well-financed lab to try to figure some of them out is pretty awesome.