Webisode: Think 60 seconds, not 60 minutes

[6 May 2007]

By Glenn Garvin

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

MIAMI—Bones is the cranky black lavatory attendant at a swanky hotel who solves his rich white guests’ problems by punching them out. Jessica is a lonely teenager worried about acne and the religious cult that’s kidnapped her parents. Jeannie Tate is a soccer mom who hosts a variety show from her minivan, sandwiching harrowing near-misses at traffic lights around sunny parenting tips like “I childproof the house, but they still get in.”

What they’ve all got in common: They’re characters in “webisodes,” moments-long mini-playlets streaming through the Internet that, for better or possibly much worse, may signal the future of comedy and drama in a brave new byte-size entertainment world.

“Webisodes are for kids who don’t watch `OneTree Hill’ because they don’t have time to watch a whole hour,” said Chris Hempel, whose hit webisode mystery series “Sam Has 7 Friends” was so popular it got him a contract with former Disney boss Michael Eisner’s new studio Vuguru. “They want it shorter; they want it now.”

The voracious appetite on the Internet for webisodes, which typically clock in between 90 seconds and five minutes, is sending shock waves through the entertainment industry, creating new stars, spawning such admiring television shows as VH-1’s new Acceptable TV, and being ridiculed by others: NBC sitcom “30 Rock” recently lampooned a fictional executive swept to the top of the industry after he invented the “10-second webisode.”

The ripples have even reached South Florida, where the University of Miami offers what may be the first webisode screenwriting course in the country. Rafael Lima, who’s written for such TV shows as “Miami Vice” and “China Beach,” admits he’s ambivalent about teaching a course that offers his students vast new opportunities but also repudiates almost everything he believes about good drama.

“You can’t develop characters,” Lima mused. “They almost have to be a cliche. There’s no time for anything profound, no time for layered characters. ... In essence, I’m teaching a class that might put me out of business.”

But doing it well—Lima’s students have formed a production company and made a webisode that’s drawing Internet attention and competing for airtime on Acceptable TV. And they don’t share his worries at all.

“This is niche entertainment, for time that’s expendable, throw-away time,” said Mark Mocahbee, one of the partners in Big Guy Media, the student-formed production company. “You watch it when you’re waiting for a bus or something like that.”

Mocahbee directed “Bones,” the first webisode of the students’ series “Minority Hotel,” in which a lavatory attendant cures a club-hopping fop’s obsession with “looking perfect” with a roundhouse punch that destroys his whole face. The rest of the series—about a hotel where the employees, all ethnic minorities, pander to racial stereotypes in order to outfox the arrogant white guests—is marked by the same edgy, hardball humor.

“It’s ridiculous,” Mocahbee said. “But it’s the sort of thing that will get eighth-graders in trouble for text messaging each other about it in science class. That’s our target demo, the troubled 14-year-old.” Added writer Jason Stein: “If you don’t offend someone ... you’re not going to be a success on the Internet.”

Bones and the other hotel workers—they include Jacob the janitor, who fixes things with chicken soup, and Big Chief Stephanie, who runs the hotel from her tepee—hope to join a host of webisode characters who’ve succeeded in large part by trashing their viewers’ sensibilities or confounding their expectations:

The low-cut, garter-belted girls at Frenchmaidtv.com, who teach stuff—say, how to download music—in between potato-sack races and other suspiciously jiggly activities.

The helpful ninjas at askaninja.com, who offer advice in response to viewer questions. For instance, filed under College Tips: Course selection is very important—try Exploratory Strangling 101.

Eonline.com’s Answer B!tch, who dispenses Hollywood gossip and career counseling. Her suggestion on how to get a job as a celebrity’s personal assistant: Work at a boutique on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. “Ms. Aguilera will eventually take notice at how well you deliver a latte without looking directly at her,” counseled the Answer B!tch.

Jeannie Tate, the soccer-mom TV host who helpfully warns guests to watch their wallets when her junkie stepdaughter is in the car, one of several webisode series to be found at headintheoven.net.

Webisodes began popping up on the Internet in the late 1990s, mostly as disguised commercials. But their real breakout came last year with Lonelygirl15, a serialized video blog by 16-year-old Bree, who blithely interspersed angst-ridden complaints about dating and skin-care with musings on her parents’ dabbling in witchcraft and eventual disappearance at the hands of a religious cult.

After the supposedly genuine blog entries became a hit at the video site YouTube, newspapers revealed that Lonelygirl15 was a hoax and Bree is an actress named Jessica Lee Rose. But the news that the blog was fictional only made it more popular and opened the way for webisode series that were neither comic monologues nor followed the video blog format.

Hempel’s “Sam Has 7 Friends” was one of the new breed, a fully plotted and staged murder mystery with a twist: Viewers knew that its main character, a young actress named Samantha, was going to be murdered by one of her friends—but not which one, how or why. Despite zero budget for advertising or promotion, its 80 episodes of 90 seconds apiece drew 1.4 million viewers on the iTunes Web site.

That got Hempel and the show’s other three producers a deal with Eisner. Their new webisode series, Prom Queen (“Some girls would kill for it,” goes the show’s ominous advertising tag line) kicked off last month at the social networking site MySpace.com.

“When we were casting for `Sam Has 7 Friends,’ the actors were all, like, `Is it porn?’” Hempel said. “Now everybody knows what webisodes are.” Including advertisers: “Prom Queen” includes both commercials and product-placement deals. The days of making webisodes for love and not money are history, and entertainment industry bosses say they aren’t coming back.

“When one of these things hits, it’s seen by millions and millions of people,” said Michael Hirschorn, executive vice president for original programming at VH-1, which televises popular webisodes on its Acceptable TV show. “They’re e-mailed all over the place, shared by friends and relatives and become a significant phenomenon, much like a hit TV show.”

But he cautions that you shouldn’t expect to see “Lonelygirl15: The TV Series” anytime soon.

“One thing I hear a lot is, `If it works, make it a series,’” Hirschorn said. “I think that’s doubtful. The shows work as what they are. Lonelygirl probably would not work as a half-hour show.”

But the format is clearly here to stay. Many regular TV shows are now adding Internet-only webisodes, either to expand story lines or bridge the summers between seasons. Among the most popular have been webisodes for the CBS nuclear-war drama “Jericho.” Producers have built the webisodes—“webumentaries,” they prefer to call them—around genuine interviews done by the network’s news divisions, explaining what would really happen in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

They’ve been a lot of work for little money, said Susan Zirinsky, the veteran “48 Hours” documentary producer who heads the team putting together the “Jericho” webisodes. Doesn’t matter. “I jumped at the chance to do this,” she said. “We’re inventing the future here.”

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ON THE WEB

“Sam Has 7 Friends,” Episode 8:

“Prom Queen”

“The Jeannie Tate Show”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/webisode-think-60-seconds-not-60-minutes/