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The Early Days of the Web Series Medium

on Mon, 01/02/2012 - 00:00

Something to Be Desired
Imagine a world without online video. No YouTube, no Hulu. A time when Apple’s iTunes and iPod were still relatively new and exclusively serviced the digital music industry. A time before social media became the hottest buzz word, a pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter environment that reduced Internet interaction to message boards. A time in which television shows were only available on an actual television and the World Wide Web was predominantly text and graphically oriented.

The year 2003 was just such a world when Pittsburgh native Justin Kownacki developed his first web series. “I actually had the idea for a serialized web show way back in 1999,” he explains. “Originally, I had an idea for a short film, but as I tinkered with it I realized I was even more interested in seeing what might happen to these characters even after their initial ‘film’ story ended. I’ve always been drawn to the concepts of continuation and growth, and watching characters evolve over time—probably because I spent so much time watching TV and reading comic books while I was growing up.”

Few people had high-speed Internet access in 1999 to make such a project feasible, however, but by 2003 broadband had begun to take hold across the United States. Spurred on by actor friends eager to participate in such an endeavor, Kownacki divided his film concept into five short “episodes” and launched Something to Be Desired in September of that year. The series—known as STBD for short—lasted six seasons and spawned a spinoff web series, The Baristas, in January 2011. Although web series are now a common part of the Internet experience, that was not the case when Justin Kownacki’s creation initially appeared online.

“When STBD launched, there were only a few other web series online that I could even find via Google, like Jamie’s Way or West of Denman,” he remembers. “There were also a few video blogs that had a serialized format, but their audiences were mostly self-contained to their friends and peers. The idea of a web show that attracted strangers was still very much an uphill sell. But our cast got involved because they liked the idea of creating something from nothing, especially in a new medium where there were no rules (and no censors). Plus, our collaborative nature let them have a voice in creating and shaping their characters over time, and since most of our original cast were theatrically trained, they appreciated having more authorship of their characters than they’d normally have in a structured play.”

Despite this lack of similar creations dotting the Internet landscape, Justin Kownacki still believed that the web series medium was the wave of the future. “I knew that user-generated content would take off as soon as broadband penetration hit critical mass, but I was apparently in the minority,” he explains. “In fact, whenever I’d tell someone we were producing an original series for the Internet, they’d ask me, ‘So, do you want to be on public access TV someday?’ I tried to explain that someday your TV, computer and phone would all be the same device, so it didn’t matter what your distribution platform was because all content was eventually going to be in direct competition across every ‘box,’ but it took a few years for that reality to sink in.”

The biggest obstacle that Justin Kownacki and Something to Be Desired faced in 2003 was the same one encountered by web series creators ever since—attracting viewers. In its early stages, STBD was forced to rely on Google searches and an audience that was both intrigued enough to remember the web series and patient enough to watch the episodes over slower Internet speeds. Portals like YouTube and blip.tv eventually helped to develop an “online video mindset” and provided an easier means of promotion, but the creator of Something to Be Desired believes it was Apple co-founder Steve Jobs who had the biggest impact on the still infant web series medium.

“When Steve Jobs used Tiki Bar TV as an example of how to watch video on the iPod in 2005, the entire web series community received an implied anointing from the high priest of modern technology,” Kownacki states. “Other shows have enjoyed more success, and The Guild may be the closest the industry has come to producing a mainstream hit, but none of it would have happened this fast if Jobs hadn’t invited consumers to bridge the mental gap between ‘professional’ and ‘DIY’ content, and see them as candies in the same bowl.”

Having been at the forefront of the web series medium’s birth with Something to Be Desired, Justin Kownacki is in the unique position of being able to compare the worlds of then and now.

“When we launched STBD in 2003, it was a matter of explaining to people ‘why’ we were making a show for the Internet,” he explains. “When we launched STBD’s spinoff, The Baristas, in 2011, it was a matter of standing out in an incredibly crowded web video market. In the seven years between series launches, web video had gone from ‘Why?’ to ‘Well, of course!’ So now instead of trying to get people to understand the concept of episodic web content, new aspiring producers have to explain how their content is different from—and better than—thousands of other, similar content that’s already in the market, and find ways to make content that looks good and travels well across a variety of screen sizes and audience environments, from homes and offices to HD TVs and mobile devices.”

Kownacki also draws a comparison between the state of the web series in 2012 and an earlier time period in the history of motion pictures. “This situation is very similar to Hollywood in the late ‘60s—as chronicled in Peter Biskind’s excellent book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls—when quick-thinking independent producers, iconoclastic stars and the inefficiency of the classic Hollywood studio system led to a renaissance in American film, which only ended after Jaws, The Godfather and Star Wars proved just how much money a blockbuster film could really make. So perhaps we’ll see a digital media revolution co-spearheaded by the ‘amateurs’ and the forward-thinking professionals, which will create a new paradigm that the mainstream will eventually absorb and exploit.”

From a time before YouTube existed to a contemporary world filled with a multitude of online video options, Justin Kownacki has witnessed the growth of the web series as an early pioneer in this new entertainment industry. His knowledge and insight into the early days of the medium offer an historical reflection of the trends and developments that have transpired between 2003 and 2011, while providing guidance for the future as well.

Anthony Letizia

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