I Want My Web TV!

How low-budget online programs are challenging the network fare

By David Silverberg

Two hardcore metal musicians are spinning hiphop records at Scratch Lab, a DJ school in North York, Ontario. Gymbo Jak and Keith Mauronik of Maximum RNR are two of the unlikeliest guys to visit a DJ school. They look like they should be at a Motorhead concert, not taking scratching lessons from an instructor who drops “natty dread” in conversation. Jak and Mauroruk admit they don’t think it’s hard to DJ — but they are soon cracking smiles as they cross-fade. It’s only a matter of time before Jak admits how much skill DJ’ing actually requires.

Jak’s reaction to Scratch Lab is being captured by the online series Talk Show Night at Juicebox Manor, and it’s quintessential Web fodder — spotlighting a unique angle to the routine musician interview, what MuchMusic (and MTV) should’ve and could’ve been if those programmers had any balls. By throwing punk rockers into a DJ school, Juicebox dropkicks stereotypes and open minds to new art forms.

Talk Show Night at Juicebox Manor is a three-year-old Toronto-based Web series featuring musicians outside their usual element. One episode will showcase a metal band DJing while another will film Buck 65 at a batting cage. In the case of Maximum RNR, the Juicebox Manor crew filmed 90-minutes of footage and edited it down to five entertaining minutes, later to be broadcast online and on the digital channel Aux TV.

The Juicebox Manor project is part of an increasingly vital grassroots scene of online independent television. It’s a movement that offers the first real alternative to breaking the corporate stranglehold on broadcasting series since the demise of the anything-goes cable access of the ’70s and ’80s. Still, it’s not entirely clear if this is a movement that will survive and thrive, or end up, like cable access, an anachronistic oddity — wild flowers growing up in the fissures made by seismic technological changes that will never be considered more than weeds by the cultural deciders.

So are these shows weeds or the seeds of a whole new entertainment revolution? I’ve been glued to my computer screen lately, watching such diverse fare as Toronto’s Nirvana The Band The Show, an oddball mockumentary-style comedy following two roommates trying to get gigs for their band. I’ve been following Vancouver steampunk series Riese and Toronto talk-show ArtStars*, a series that brings frivolity and rare openness to the otherwise rarified world of the Toronto visual arts scene. On the more mainstream side of things, I’ve been watching The Guild, a sort-of-funny serial about a group of gamers that’s drawn in 25 million plus people and is now in its 3rd season and sponsored by Sprint and Xbox.

The more I watch, the more I favour the potential for Web TV. After all, despite the advent of cable and digital, what actually gets piped into your living room, with the permission of various corporations and government bodies, is pretty limited. But on the Web, there’s the possibility of having thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of shows all playing when and where you want them. Theoretically that’s a good thing, but in practice it must seem daunting to the people aspiring to actually attract an audience to their show. How does a Web series break through the clutter?

“Building a community around a Web series is key,” says Drew Baldwin, founder of tubefilter.tv, a site following Web TV trends. He believes a series like The Guild shot to fame because the show wasn’t just well-produced and snappy; its premise automatically endears the series to already-obsessive Web geeks. Being behind the YouTube video/ditty “Do you want to date my avatar” (almost 8 million views) doesn’t hurt either.

What Baldwin says makes sense. The Toronto-based Pure Pwnage took a (web)page from The Guild’s book and also addressed/satirized the passionate nerdiness of itchy-fingered gamers, a niche audience neglected by most media. Six years after its inaugural broadcast, the Web series and its noob-filled catchphrases won over Canadian cable channel Showcase. In March 2010 it debuted as the country’s first Web series-turned-cable-TV-show.

 

Hail the power of a well-defined, underrepresented, highly wired community. Look at how serious music fans are also ignored by mainstream television. Enter Nirvana The Band. The show, which no longer films, spoke to rock geek wannabes and harnessed a YouTube channel and a hub on Stage6 to get views. Similarly, the Vancouver comedy troupe Bronx Cheer also appeals to music lovers — it includes local musicians with burgeoning fan-bases on its show Mental Beast, about a struggling Vancouver radio station. The troupe even released a CD compilation of BC rock which included the likes of Vancougar, No Gold and Nardwuar the Human Serviette.

“The whole Vancouver music scene took notice of a comedy series they might not have checked out before,” says Craig Anderson of Bronx Cheer.

Comedy is shaping up to be the ideal genre for Web success. Look at Halifax-based comedy troupe Picnic-face (known for the YouTube hit Powerthirst, an overthe-top satire of power drink enthusiasts) and College-Humor’s Jake & Amir tandem, or even Cheri Oteri’s return to funny with LizaLifeCoach.com. These shows work because they offer bite-sized sketches you can digest quickly, especially when something catchy like Powerthirst goes viral. Another example was the Toronto-based series My Pal Satan, which bagged a few awards (but not a TV deal) for its Odd Couple riff: Satan lives with a single woman who’s trying to ignore her devilish roommate. Creator Dennis Heaton attended the Canadian Film Centre TV Pilot Program with the project and they developed it further and produced the webseries. The six episodes were released weekly and fans followed the show through its Facebook group and website. The script earned kudos — Heaton was nominated for a Writers Guild of Canada (WGC) Screenwriting award. Satan had the right kind of comedic zest for the Web: raunchy punchlines, an easy to understand set-up and a mix of edgy writing and high-quality production.

“It doesn’t take a lot to get a good Web series out there,” says Satan director Vivieno Caldinelli. “You can do a lot with little money and try to build a gradual audience.”

Caldinelli’s comment suggests the bright side of Web TV — its ability to harness social network conduits to deliver content directly to niche audiences. No more giant marketing campaigns desperately appealing to the lowest common denominator. Goodbye Idol, hello ArtStars*.

ArtStars* is the interview-heavy visual arts show hosted by Nadja Sayej that successfully skewers the staid Toronto arts scene. (The non-interview with Tony Conrad is particularly priceless.) But at least part of its success is derived from its unique distribution channels, such as partnering with local blog Torontoist to release new episodes. Regularly updating its Facebook and Twitter page also helps endear itself to fans who want to feel part of the show’s community.

If there’s any genre that seems destined to be a staple on the Web, it’s the talk-show. From ArtStars* we go back to Talk Show Night at Juice-box Manor, filmed in a “dumpy house in Toronto’s Annex district,” as show co-creator Sam Sutherland tells me. Juice-box Manor airs online and on the innovative Aux TV channel. Like ArtStars*, the objective is to demystify the “artists” and loosen things up. Interviewers and inter-viewees sit around in their stocking-feet and at times the whole thing feels like a tribute to the SNL sketch Wayne’s World. As Sutherland explains, “You can watch Damian from Fucked Up do normal, insightful interviews on a million other shows, but how many feature him learning how to bodyslam the show’s hosts with a professional wrestler?”

 

Sutherland, like the series, tends to be playful when he talks about the show’s intention. “Our goal is to offer something original for the bands and the people who love those bands. And also to do cool stuff ourselves. Because we’re selfish.”

The three-person crew at Juicebox take musicians on field trips — such as introducing members of The Junction to Stomp choreography — and ask bands to play a tune or two in a basement space.

Aux finances the show and the producers all get paid just enough to keep the show “financially viable.”

What’s the appeal of doing the show? Sutherland admits the Juicebox crew “is allergic to nine-to-five jobs and this helps us pay the rent.”

Ah the money pit. Most of the video producers interviewed for this article admitted they fund their shows out of pocket, or they receive donations to use equipment or shooting sites. Only the few, like Juicebox Manor, are allotted a budget from a broadcaster. But unlike conventional television, budgets for Web productions aren’t governed by everything from union contracts to expensive security, insurance and rights requirements. For better or worse, it’s the Wild West online and when it comes to getting it done, anything goes.

Sutherland says Juicebox has “a shockingly low budget” despite the slick look of the final product. They don’t need much, just a few cameras and sound equipment for the live gigs, and some favours from friends (like Sutherland’s friend of a friend at Scratch Lab). It also helps when their field shoots can be coordinated all at one time. Similarly, Vancouver’s Bronx Cheer comedy troupe got their radio station set free courtesy the University of British Columbia, and they recouped production costs by hosting a live concert.

In Canada, online vidsters are gradually being given access to some of the millions of dollars in grants and subsidies mainstream film and video production companies can apply for. As of 2010, The Independent Production Fund (IPF), a non-government fund administered by offices in Toronto and Montreal, is allotting $1 million to fund content created for the Web. Andra Sheffer, executive director of IPF, says six or seven projects will share that booty, just as long as they are drama series produced by Canadians. The IPF is focusing on drama because that genre has long been known to be the most challenging economically, compared with formats such as talk-shows, reality and comedies.

When asked if inexperienced producers have a shot at the grant, Sheffer says anyone can apply and there is no requirement to have a big portfolio. But, she adds, “The feasibility of the project will be considered, and this includes experience or track record or alternately, the ability for the applicant to provide evaluators with enough confidence that they can successfully produce the project.”

In other words, it seems likely that most, if not all, of the successful applicants will have a background in mainstream television or film. Which means that, at least for the immediate future, entrants into the Web TV field in Canada are likely to be follow-ing the advice of entrepreneur Ashkan Karbasfrooshan. “Ultimately,” he recently wrote on the blogging site TechCrunch, “the Field of Dreams approach might be more realistic: create content that you are passionate about and people want to watch, build an audience and then monetize it.” Sam Sutherland echoes that sentiment, but puts it this way: “Take a leap of faith and don’t be afraid of fucking up.”

Fucking up does happen, and in the end that makes Web TV both refreshing and potentially stomach churning. One episode of Juicebox, for instance, featured an awkward interview with the rejuvenated old-school metal band Anvil. The harder the chilled-out hosts worked their informal off-beat approach — asking Robb Reiner and Steve “Lips” Kudlow what’s more metal, the CN Tower or Niagara Falls — the more the Anvil guys squirmed. When it got to Montreal versus Toronto, you could just see the band scrunching up their faces and wondering, “Is this online thing for real?”

That’s the million pageviews question. Sure, online video has become a viable alternative to people disenchanted with television, but how far can it rise? Will it wilt like cable access shows? Web production is still in its infancy, and as it matures it’ll go through growing pains. No matter what, though, watching this child find its place in the media landscape will be a seriously compelling coming-of-age story.

 

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