The global web series ecology today is vastly different to what it was only three or four years ago, and it is rapidly changing. Aymar Jean Christian observes that by the early 2010s in the US “web platforms like YouTube hosted legions of indie comedy creators whose work legacy networks like Comedy Central, IFC, and MTV slowly began to develop and curate for both online and linear distribution” (2018, p.63). In other words, networks, studios, production companies and funding bodies have begun embracing the medium, both as a development platform and as a means to its own end. In early 2018 in the US, Jeffrey Katzenberg raised $800 million for NewTV, a new platform which will be focusing on short form content (Shaw 2017). Blackpills, a mobile streaming app dedicated to “edgy, impactful and youthful” programming, was launched in Europe and the US in 2017, with 12 original shows (Jarvey 2017, para 2). Co-founder Patrick Holzman told Variety “It’s like producing a single 120-minute movie every week” (Spangler 2017, para 4), but with episodes of approximately 10 minutes each, and production budgets ranging from $500,000 to $3 million. In Australia, the peak funding body has granted over $25 million for web series and online productions since 2012, which has collectively generated more than 3.5 billion channel views just on YouTube (Screen Australia 2017b). In 2016, the ABC alone made more than 100 hours of original digital-first programming for its iView platform (Bizzaca 2017b, Interests section).
Thus, the web series increasingly plays a significant role in the ‘post-network’ era of television, which sees it becoming an important locus of understanding for makers, scholars, teachers and students of episodic screen storytelling practices. ‘Shifts in the basic practices of making and distributing television’ writes Amanda Lotz, ‘have not been hastening its demise, but are redefining what we can do with television’ (2014). To situate the web series in this ‘moment’ that Lotz describes, is to understand that ‘Web series are television, because stories are told episodically, in seasons, or through channels. Yet’, as Christian continues, ‘they are different from what people understand as “television” in the way series develop’ (2018, p. 13).
It is this ‘way of developing’ that our chapter seeks to explore, especially the ways in which such processes of development might challenge traditional notions of key creative roles. This chapter will focus on two of these roles, the Writer and Producer, investigating how they function throughout the development of a web series. We will consider these sometimes separate and sometimes entwined roles within the context of the low-budget, independent web series (as defined below) including the question of what, if anything, changes about these roles once such series attract external funding. Ultimately, the purpose here is to investigate the development phase of a web series, and for this discussion to be centred on a practitioner-based enquiry of the key creative roles, in order to better understand the opportunities and limitations that working within this form presents. Further to this, an argument will be put forward about how individuals fulfilling these roles are evolving into what Cunningham and Silver refer to as ‘entrepreneurial and innovative creators’ (Ellingsen 2014, p. 107); those who can identify opportunities presented by a form for which few conventions appear yet to be established, and have the ability to not only create and distribute their content, but can also integrate promotional outcomes and commercial opportunities into their concepts from the outset.