BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alyssa Rosenberg, culture reporter for ThinkProgress, sees independently produced Web TV as a gathering storm for Hollywood, even though she herself for a long time didn’t see it coming.
ALYSSA ROSENBERG: As a critic, I was the person who came late to Web television. It was my readers who, if I was complaining about something on network TV, they said, You should try this, you should try that. And I think the thing that network television has to reckon with is that people will no longer passively accept bad entertainment. You have someplace like CBS, of course, which has shows like "Two Broke Girls" or "Two and a Half Men" that are huge hits but that aren’t sophisticated, that have much older audiences, and someplace like CBS in 10 or 15 years could find itself walking off a cliff. If they were smart, they would start looking at Web series, not as an alternative or a competitor, but as a developmental pool.
You know, I don’t think the problem is that the public doesn’t think Web television has credibility. These shows are finding their audiences - even if they’re not making a lot of money - but that the people who are sort of the gatekeepers need to give them the recognition that they already deserve for the product that they’re putting out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It seems though that the challenges confronting this form are pretty daunting. First of all, there’s the business model challenge and, second of all, there’s the word of mouth challenge.
ALYSSA ROSENBERG: A Web television series doesn’t get an Upfront presentation. It doesn’t get to be presented at the Television Critics Association. These people can’t afford to send out 400 screener copies to anyone who might conceivably be interested, and they find audiences anyway. That they can do that without any of the budget or the marketing or the distribution is, I think, a demonstration of potential more than challenge.
If you could build strong channels for Web television, it’s perfect. If you have an hour at lunch and want to watch- catch up with six of your favorite Web shows and someone strings them together for you in a series and then launches something new at the end of it, this is television that you can literally fit in anytime you want. I think there’s much more upside potential than we’re seeing right now. We’re at a time when we’ve established the floor but we’re not even close to establishing the ceiling.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alyssa, thank you very much.
ALYSSA ROSENBERG: Thank you. It’s been lovely to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture editor for ThinkProgress and a correspondent for The Atlantic.
Jane Espenson is no stranger to Hollywood, having written and produced for shows like “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,” “Game of Thrones,” “Battlestar Galactica” and currently, ABC’s “Once Upon a Time.” In other words, she’s a geek goddess. But her latest project, with co-creator Brad Bell, is a Web show, just a few minutes per episode, called “Husbands” about two gay celebrities who, after spending a drunken night celebrating a new marriage equality law, wake up married to each other and decide to stay together to further the cause of gay rights.
HALEY: And so, what do you two know about being married?
CHEEKS: I never thought past wanting the right to do it.
BRADY: So important, so abstract. Okay…what do married couples do first?
HALEY: You have a fight.
[SEVERAL AT ONCE]
CHEEKS: Yeah, it’s already done.
HALEY: So you’ve already done that?
HALEY: They smash cake on each other.
BRADY: Ew, no.
HALEY: Oh my God, I love it!
CHEEKS: Oh no, why?
HALEY: It’s so funny.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The show is incredibly popular, and in the midst of shooting its second season. Jane, welcome to On the Media.
JANE ESPENSON: Thank you very much, happy to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Brad, welcome to you too.
BRAD BELL: Thank you, thanks for having us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It isn’t just a different form of distribution. It really is, in some ways, a radically different format. Every episode of Season 1 is under five minutes. Was that considered an advantage, or did you just understand that’s how most people use Web video?
BRAD BELL: Well, I think that it was a product of its time. You know, a year ago, bite-size content was a marketing advantage to wrap people in, but smart TVs are more and more prominent on the market and eventually you’ll turn on that entertainment box and sit down on the couch, fully integrated to the Web, and we will see Internet content turning much more into what we know as television content, with length and characters and scope and the production.
JANE ESPENSON: We’re jumping on a horse that’s like changing directions a lot, and that’s part of the fun of doing content for the Web, is that we are trying to be really flexible. Will we keep that two-minute format? Probably not. We’ll probably release this in longer pieces because the model is changing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And how does writing and pitching a show on your own compare to writing and producing for a studio?
JANE ESPENSON: It feels very much like writing an episode of “Buffy” or “Once Upon a Time.” It’s like what do these characters want, how do we keep this to length, how do we make it producible? It’s all the same questions. The thing that’s different is the amount of involvement we have hands-on in the production. We sort of see this cradle to grave [LAUGHS], whereas in TV, at a certain point you hand your script over. Even if you’ve got a producer title, your involvement diminishes as the script goes through the machine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you and your crew funded the entire first season on your own, right?
JANE ESPENSON: I funded it on my own, yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] And then the second season, through Kickstarter, you asked potential viewers for fifty grand. You ended up instead making 60 grand. That still seems like a drop in the bucket.
JANE ESPENSON: It’s a little droppy-in-a-little-buckety but it’s not too bad. I’d say that that paid for a third of what Season 2 is costing. I would not have felt terribly sanguine about jumping into Season 2 without the help of what the fans brought to us. We raised that fifty in a week. It was startling and gratifying.
BRAD BELL: It’s certainly micro budget by Hollywood standards, but I think that we are in a time when everything is having to get scaled back, and we are focused on how you make an incredible product for less.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I get that but it doesn’t strike that funding the entire first season on your own and, and maybe somewhere around two-thirds of the second season [LAUGHS] on your own is much of a sustainable business model.
JANE ESPENSON: Yeah, ultimately it would be nice if it made the money that it takes to make it, but what we’ve done is we’ve gone ahead and done the initial investment and we can say, “Look at the show” and they maybe people - or some entity will want to help us continue making it. But right now, we just wanted the show to exist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you get the impression that the Web seems to have a larger percentage of female involvement than network TV? You’ve got shows like “The Guild” about a female gamer, “The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl,” Lisa Kudrow’s “Web Therapy.”
JANE ESPENSON: There was a study done in this last year or so that only 19 percent of TV writers are females, which was a number that had fallen. We’ve been trying to storm this castle of network TV. Maybe we don’t have to. Go build your own castle.
And that’s sort of what’s happening online right now. It makes sense to me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was there a particular Web program or a series or experience you had that made you think, “Yeah, this is really where we should go?”
BRAD BELL: There was a series called “Very Mary-Kate,” interestingly is also a, a female creator.
[VERY MARY-KATE CLIP]:
ELAINE CARROLL AS MARY-KATE: It’s time for me to be my own person. From now on, no more Mary-Kate and Ashley, it’s just Mary-Kate.
ASHLEY: You didn’t have to buy a new apartment.
MARY-KATE: I don’t believe there’s no more Ashley, I just want to be independent. You can still totally exist, if you want.
ASHLEY: You rock!
BRAD BELL: She’s so funny, and it’s very light. And I thought you could make a candy-coated quick little show and maybe give it some really grounded heart here and there, and that might work, actually.
JANE ESPENSON: Brad showed me “Very Mary-Kate.” I hadn’t been aware of it, and when I saw that it was like, okay, yes, I get it. He had an idea for what the show could be about, but it didn’t quite have yet like a driving reason that the story had to be told now. Shows about newlyweds have been sort of a staple of TV since “I Love Lucy,” and so when we added this notion of taking that in the modern world with same-sex newlyweds, it just seems like the perfect product for the Web. It’s short, it’s campy, it’s fun but it also can do something in the world that can be relevant. And what else is the Internet for?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brad Bell and Jane Espenson, co-creators of the Web series “Husbands.” Thank you both for talking to us.
BRAD BELL: Thank you.
JANE ESPENSEN: Thank you.
[CLIP FROM HUSBANDS]:
BRADY: I’m not gonna be the first gay divorce since the new law. We have to stay technically married for a while.
CHEEKS: Straight people do this all the time. In fact, if we weren’t gay, this would be a hackneyed premise.