Now-a-days, every film and tv show have an official website, many of them with extra content, ranging from behind the scenes photos to brand new footage or animated web series set in the same universe. More and more people are accessing films and television for the first time from their computers through web-streaming services such as Hulu, Netflix, official Youtube channels, or streaming directly from network or TV show websites. Things that are not officially available are still peddled on the web, either on technically illegal streaming sites or illegal download. The fact is, the web and the computer are now integral parts of how film and television are consumed.
Then, there are the materials created explicitly for the web. The web series, or web television is technically in its late teens as a form, but changes in web speed, accessibility, and technology, such as Youtube's creation in 2005 fundamentally made the web a kind of playground for new, independent creators, especially those interested in episodic structure. Web series, as defined by Wikipedia, consist of everything from weekly news shows, to animated movie reviews, to slapstick comedies produced on low budget to newer dramas made with partnerships in Hollywood or with big name web companies.
Recently, television stations have been buying rights to shows originally made for the internet and airing them. At this point, there are far too many varied forms or web television to address at once. Low budget, episodic comedies are popular and well suited to the short run times that many web series have. Dramas are less common. Nearly all web episodes air short episodes. Very short. For dramas, which on television find it more useful to run for an hour as opposed to comedies at a half hour, the web demands an adaptation of narrative structure. On the longer end, a web show like Sanctuary (one of the highest budgeted, at 4.3 million, and with Hollywood insiders) ran eight 15-20 minute episodes before being picked up by (then) SciFi for television. On the shorter end, several mystery shows ran episodes of 90 seconds each.
H+, a new show this fall, produced by Warner Brother's Digital Distribution, their web specific developers, in partnership with Youtube, chose a median episode length of about 4 minutes per episode. From the creative team of John Cabrera (writer, known from his acting on Gilmore Girls) and Bryan Singer (producer, who worked on The Usual Suspects, along with several super hero movies), the show is on the scale of the post apocalyptic science fiction shows that the major networks keep trying out for prime time slots. With a budget of a little under 2 million, and filmed around Santiago, Chile, the plot spans decades and the entire globe. It calls on special effects for simulated many advanced technologies, as well as classically higher budget effects, like explosions, crashed cars and complex sets.
The bare bones of the plot is what happens when technologies like smart phones become even more advanced to the point of integration into the human body, and what, in an extreme case can be the fall out from that. Quoting inspiration from Lost, the story is told non-linearly, through multiple threads about the technology that slowly (by episode 24, halfway through the proposed 28 episode 255 minute run) seem to be connecting to each other through overlapping character. Every episode has a given location and time relative to “it happening,” the disaster the changes the world that is supposed to be the driving mystery.
Having followed the series through it's 2-3 episodes a week release schedule, the series comes off quite differently than it's made for TV counterparts (Revolution – J.J. Abrams similarly plotted adventure on NBC; Falling Skies – an apocalypse driven by alien invasions – produced by Steven Spielberg on TNT). The combination of short episodes and receiving those episodes as part of disjoint stories seem more like views into a world and do less to push the viewer towards wondering about the mystery. Because the series premiers on Youtube, the comments contain instant reactions. Rather than discussions of the mystery, or insightful connections or theorizing (typical, I am told, of a forum after an episode of Lost,) most of the top comments are complaints about the short format, asking for longer 15-30, even hour long episodes. The creators occasionally step in the discussion and recommend watching a bunch of the episodes at a time.
What seemed curious is that now, in 2012, the web series format is nothing new. Most of the people watching H+ watch other videos on Youtube, maybe even other series. What is it about this one? In gauging my own impressions of the format and the content, perhaps the scope and the scale of the project are just too big for such a small screen. It's only recently that we have come to expect high budget effects and global scale shooting from television. Only recently have the high tech and the post apocalyptic gotten comfortable on the small screen (though, it could be argued, that they are still trying to find their footing there.) Moving it so quickly to the web series, especially to such a short episode, the visuals and intensity feel like small clips from something out of what we have come to expect of high budget television or movies. They feel like additional information rather than the core plot. Certainly the decision to build up this universe that is already hard enough to contain on the web through non-linear slowly converging storylines adds to the frustrations.
Ultimately, H+ has still creating an engaging universe and interesting characters. Whether or not the medium or the form they used is ultimately beneficial is unclear. The web is still a new media, and certainly not one accepted at the same level as television. Budgets are lower, and it's considered an honor to be picked up by a network to be aired through “normal” means. It's future, though can only get brighter as technology improves and people rely less and less on the major networks for their programming. Already, Netflix and Hulu are creating their own content. Perhaps a program like H+ isn't so much in the wrong place, but before it's time.
Check out H+ for yourselves on their Youtube Channel.