Q&A with producer, writer Ross Brown: Tips for creators, viewers of web TV
Posted by Stephanie Clary
We turned to television producer and writer Ross Brown for tips on where to find the best series out there as well as advice for creating webisodes.
Brown teaches a course on making TV series for the Internet at Chapman University in California, and his book "Byte-Sized Television: Create Your Own TV Series for the Internet" became available in stores this week.
Brown has a background in episodic television. He was the producer of "Step-By-Step" and has written for "The Facts of Life" and "The Cosby Show," among other series.
In the Q&A below, we discuss what makes a successful web series, his favorite currently-streaming webisodes and where to find the best of what's out there.
Our full interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Do you have an example of a web TV success story?
A show called "The Guild." It was created by an actress named Felicia Day, and Felicia had a career going as an actress and had a recurring part on the TV series "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," but was tired of waiting for the phone to ring. ...
She couldn't sell ("The Guild") as a traditional TV series, so she and her partner decided to make it into a web series, and it's perfect for a web series because it's about online gamers. So it's about the online world. And she and her partner made three episodes and had gathered a following, but they ran out of money to make more episodes. So they decided to put up a PayPal button on the webisodes and see if the audience would be willing to contribute money to make more episodes. ... and they did.
It was enough to make 9 more episodes, and because they had done it, it became a story. Then they started getting interest from sponsors, and Microsoft's Xbox channel bought the show and became its sponsor.
Is that how you would define success: finding some sort of sponsorship, not necessarily being turned into a traditional television show?
I think there are different types of success. One is residual. When you can get an audience and a sponsor, and then you have funding to go on making your show. Some people get picked up by the traditional media. CBS has a show "$#*! My Dad Says" that started off as a series of Twitter postings. CBS and other networks are buying the rights to blogs and web series ... where they used to find them in comedy clubs in the 1980s with comics.
You can use (webisodes) as a calling card if you're trying to break into the entertainment industry, or if you're in the industry but not a creator in the way you want to be.
The Internet is crowded with video projects. How do you make your web TV series stand out?
You obviously make a great series, because you're going to need word of mouth. You don't have a multi-billion dollar advertising budget, you don't have Warner Brothers or CBS. But the things that stand out on the Internet and get passed around because they go viral in one way or another.
I think there are some basics: I think you have to have a catchy title. I think your product has to be really good and I think you have to work as hard as marketing the product as you do making it. Use the social networking tools you have and impose on your friends and ask them to pass it along. I also think that humor seems to work better than anything else in terms of going viral on the Internet.
So humor works better than trying to aim for drama?
I don't want to say you can't make a drama on the Internet, because obviously you can. I think the challenges are bigger in making a drama than making a comedy. But it is really important to market.
One of my analogies is, you wouldn't try to break into being a singer just by singing in your shower and cracking your window and hoping a record producer drove by and heard you. So just throwing your video up on YouTube is the virtual equivalent to that. You've got to market and put a couple hours a day into sending out emails and trying to get people interested in it. But job one, of course, is you've got to make something that people are going to want to pass along on your behalf.
Are there certain websites you should aim for in marketing your show? And as a viewer of web TV, where can I go to find the best stuff?
Two of the best resources for viewers that I know about is the site called Clicker.com, that bills itself as a TV guide for web series. They have them in categories ... you can find a lot of what's out there through that source. There's another site called Slebisodes that has a similar approach.
Another great resource to see what the industry thinks are the best of the things that are out there are the annual Streamy Awards. ... You can go to their site and find out which series were nominated in the drama category, comedy category, best actor, things like that, and see what the industry felt were the best products out there.
What do you think are the best currently-streaming web TV shows right now?
I get asked that question a lot, and in so many ways. I'll give you some of my personal favorites — things that I like.
I think "Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis" is really funny. It's consistently funny.
My students love "Drunken History."
And I'm a big fan of a show you probably haven't heard of that got brought to my attention by a friend of my wife's called Mr. Diety. ... It's quite blasphemous, but I think quite funny.
What made you want to move from traditional TV writing to focusing on, as you say, byte-sized televison? Is it because you see the industry going that way?
I still teach traditional television writing as well. But there are several reasons. One, the industry is clearly going this way. Second of all, it's a place where many of our students are getting their first professional opportunities to work — on a web series. And they get chances to work at a higher level rather than just being a production assistant or a gofer. They get jobs that are more creative and get to be the cinematographer or the director on these projects.
And it's a great way to do what film schools to well, which is make short films, but (also helps) teach episodic television. It would be very difficult to make multiple episodes of half-hour or full-hour dramas or comedies. But we can do it with the web series and use it as a tool to teach how you make a series grow from week to week — how to work with characters and multiple story lines.