TV or Not TV: Web Series As Potential TV Future

Curator's Note

At this week's Flow Conference, the final core conversation will address the future of the television industry. One of the guests on that panel is Jordan Levin, Executive Vice President of XBox Entertainment Studios. Although the future of XES may be uncertain, XBox has made a name for supporting web series in the past, specifically Felicia Day's The Guild, with which it partnered for distribution in 2008. This deal was one of the recurring moments during which established media and tech companies thought web series might be the future of entertainment. Each time a web series gains popularity enough to be noticed by the wider media, talk of web series as the future of television inevitably follows. After The Guild, after Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, and in the current post-The Lizzie Bennet Diaries moment, the potential of web series is raised. However, these three series and their attendant production companies's paths following the initial "airing" illustrate the limits of web series as a future of television.

As with XBox's distribution deal with The Guild, each web series benefitted greatly from distribution partnerships--for both first and later "runs" and purchase--with established media companies. In addition to their deal with XBox, The Guild made a deal with Netflix Instant for streaming older seasons. Dr. Horrible eventually aired on the CW, and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries partnered with Starz digital for a digital repackaging. Additionally, the company that formed from the production of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Pemberley Digital, has recently partnered with PBS digital for Frankenstein, M.D. Although the partnership isn't that different from PD's previous digital deals, as Myles McNutt argues, PBS carries with it a broadcast brand that lends itself to potential bridging of web and TV. In addition to distribution deals with older forms of media, the popular web series garner attention for their success in developing alternative means of revenue: Dr. Horrible marshaled Joss Whedon's considerable fan base to make its DVD and Soundtrack bestsellers, and Pemberley Digital successfully completed a kickstarter campaign for a DVD release of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. And in the ultimate what's old is new is old media turn, the Jane Austen novel turned web series released a book version of the Diaries. If web series are a future of television, it's one inextricably linked with the past.


While many web series have looked to television for models of everything from narrative to production to the "season" format, I wonder if they may also be groping towards something different in regards to those aspects (and others). In terms of style and narrative structure, some web series are already forging new ground that may not be completely different from TV, but does seem to indicate that web series content creators see the form as something different. The inclination to think about web series as a new kind of TV seems really natural and intuitive, but I wonder if doing so might not, in a way, ghettoize them in similar fashion to how TV itself was scorned and marginalized for so long by Film Studies.

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