Is the TV Pilot System Broken – Is Flipping Web Series to TV Shows the Answer?

Posted on: by Michael Tringe

I was walking in the subway in New York City when I saw a poster of “Drunk History” the web series coming to a TV station near me, aka Comedy Central. Coming from the Funny or Die web series – I thought to myself – is that really going to work?I’m a fan of “Drunk History” – it’s funny to me. I was a history major, so anything that has fun with the past and even acknowledges the existence of it is a bit of a win – even if that’s celebrities messing up our famous speeches because they’ve had a little too much. It will be interesting to follow along with the adaptation.

A homegrown original web series is its own thing, a show with its own audience, often self-distributed online. For entertainment executives, web series with a built-in audience make an interesting candidate for new TV shows compared to a regular old script.

Some who’ve worked in the entertainment industry for a long time would argue that the TV pilot system is broken, full of waste – a waste of money and a waste of time. They might also argue – why not take a proven web series on the internet, and move it to the TV screen.

There are a couple reasons why this simple math is a little bit problematic. First of all, just because a web series is popular online, doesn’t necessarily mean that the TV watching audience will like it too. Will online audiences migrate their watching habits over to TV? And will TV audiences find the online aesthetic and characters as interesting?

There are a couple of case studies – well, more than a couple, that we could look at. Most recently one web series gone TV show is the “Annoying Orange,” created by Dane Boedigheimer a few years ago – when he was fooling around by animating a talking orange. Not only did people like it, they loved the annoying orange that talks in the kitchen to other fruit, making bad puns, and a lot of them. It’s certainly entertaining for a couple of minutes, but after that – some might think it wouldn’t be able to be sustained for much longer, as for example a TV Show on its current second home, the Cartoon Network.

There’s also Fred – whose YouTube channel started when he was much younger, a young man who talks very fast (three times the speed of you and me, and in a much higher pitched voice) and really just finds himself in all sorts of odd situations. But instead of a TV show, Fred’s IP became a Nickelodeon film. In this scenario, released to DVD, it seemed to make sense since the super-fans could get more of what they love. Fred.

In both cases, there were some deal-makers involved. But in the end, it’s the audiences that decide how much more and in what form they want to watch their favorite shows. On the one hand, it’s inspiring to see a new breed of indie ideas breaking into the scene – and it could even solve the wasteful problem of wasting tons of money on producing single pilots that never see the light of day. On the other hand, you could argue that web series are such a different medium, that TV audiences won’t really latch onto the new concepts that worked so well online in the same way that they do their favorite TV shows.

I applaud the indie web series makers for making waves in the traditional entertainment industry, an industry that’s been mostly dominated by executives calling the shots over the creatives. And one thing is for sure, with the thousands of independent web series out there, we’re one step closer to seeing a wider variety of visions and voices than we were even five years ago, whether that’s online, on TV, in a movie theater, or on demand via your Apple TV or Netflix. And that’s something both creators and audiences can get excited about.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy learning from some of our free lessons on how to make a web series here:

The Digital Creator

Or learning more about web series monetization here:

How to Make Money with Web Series

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Written by Michael Tringe

Mike Tringe earned his MFA in Film Production from USC and has worked at Creative Artists Agency Film Sales (Paranormal Activity, Black Swan), Vuguru, Michael Eisner's multi-platform studio, (The Booth at the End (Hulu), Don't Ask, Don't Tell (Snag), Little Women Big Cars (AOL), and Blip Networks (300 million monthly views, Smosh, Annoying Orange, Nostalgia Critic).

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