When the Hollywood Reporter noted yesterday that My Damn Channel, an online television network, had unveiled a slate full of original content, it clarified a major problem with web television for me. While YouTube’s channels, like Felicia Day’s Geek & Sundry, will aggregate some similar tranches of web programming, so many of the best shows live off in their own isolated spaces, word of them traveling by word of mouth. I’d watch vastly more web television shows if there was a single place I could find a lot of them, sorted by topic, or theme, or programmed into something approaching harmony. And I wonder why, in their pushes into original programming, Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon haven’t focused more on true web television and less on an arms race with networks that have an enormous advantage over them in production and advertising budgets (Google is, to be fair, spending $200 million advertising its YouTube channels) and savvy.
Much of what these online content providers seem to be doing so far is feeding off scraps or trying to capture old magic. When Terra Nova was cancelled, there were rumors Netflix might pick it up even though it was immediately and obviously a terrible proposition. Its remake of House of Cards, helmed by David Fincher, lacks a creative rationale and is a hugely expensive attempt to purchase the kind of credibility that so many British shows arrive in the states armored in. The Arrested Development reboot is about satisfying an old core audience rather than building a new one. This is a defensive strategy rather than an offensive one. Hulu’s been trying to play offense, but its new shows have no built-in audience unless you count Morgan Spurlock diehards.
Acquiring or distributing existing web TV franchises would be a more modest first step, but it makes sense for a lot of reasons. First, it would be a lower-cost way to bring existing fans of a program to Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon’s streaming site, and in a way that has the potential to be sticky if people jump from a show they already like to one they aren’t familiar with. Second, and this is important, web series offer the potential to catch audience growth on the upswing, rather than the downswing. While this isn’t true for all web series, shows like Jane Espenson’s Husbands can work as individual episodes or, watched all together, as a test pilot. Web shows could be a way for Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon to grow an initial audience and figure out which shows are their best investment bets to level up to full series, and then allocate their production and advertising budgets to shows and showrunners with proven track records in this format.
This is a more modest, less fast way to compete with the networks. But ultimately, it’s hard to believe that the streaming services will truly be able to match network content. They’re viable precisely because people want to pay less for content, and so the streaming services’ best bet is not to try to stretch those dollars threadbare, but to use them to build something entirely different. Google seems to get this. Everyone else? Not so much yet.