Big-time TV writers Whedon and MacFarlane create Web-exclusive shows

Friday, July 11, 2008

Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") and Seth MacFarlane ("Family Guy"), two of television's most powerful showrunners, are taking their brands online. Whedon's "Dr. Horrible" will be an on-the-cheap supervillain musical. MacFarlane's "Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy" will be distributed by the advertising juggernaut Google, who just might be reinventing TV...

Guest: Takeaway Culture Critic Mary Beth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams' notes:

These are the timeless questions: Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? What is the meaning of existence? Can anybody make a profit on the Internet?

That last one is the conundrum that has dogged humanity since the days of Mosiac. Surely there must be something more out there for the enterprising and creative that doesn't involve cats, porn or the Nigerian royal family. Maybe... it's cartoons? Or musicals?

Next week, on July 15, Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon will debut his newest endeavor, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. A three-part Web event, the action-adventure will feature Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion and Felicia Day singing, dancing and occasionally laughing maniacally. The project was born out of last winter's writers' strike — and Whedon's desire to expand on the chops he first honed in Buffy's watershed musical episode. We, the lucky fans, can watch it free as it rolls out over next week. Then, Whedon hopes, we'll want to pay to download it or buy it on DVD.

There's a certain brilliant charm to that conceit, the "if you build it, they will come" optimism of it all. That someone at Whedon's level of success is willing to take a creative risk in a platform as open and unmonetizable as the Web is almost enough to make you forgive the Internet for every panicky urban legend your mom ever forwarded.

But despite what anyone may have said during the halcyon days of the dot-com boom, hope alone won't sustain the economy. If there's money to be made out there, the key to unlocking that lucre will be in the perfect union of medium, tactic and talent. And you could do worse than to bet on the eternally savvy Google or the highest paid writer in television history, Seth MacFarlane.

In September, the "Family Guy" creator's new "Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy" will launch. Not in traditional, episodic network format, but in a hybrid online medium. The material, tasty little nuggets clocking in at around the two-minute mark, will appear on Google's YouTube and, intriguingly, via Google AdSense on sites deemed hospitable to his fan base. MacFarlane's original ads will feature his unique brand of envelope-pushing humor and advertisers will draw that desirable 18–34 demographic. With each click, MacFarlane, Google and production company Media Rights Capital will receive a fee.

Online advertising and entertainment have already been changing at a breakneck pace, but the potential revenue in combining the two is in the ka-ching stratosphere. If this flies, it could forever change online advertising and how we consume media online.

On the upside, it's possible that TV-makers like MacFarlane will have unprecedented creative freedom. No pesky FCC to worry about. (We've already seen it work for the A-list actors and writers who've broke ground with Funny or Die and Clark and Michael.)

On the downside, the financial stakes have been raised too. The investment in the "Cavalcade" project has been reported to be in the multimillions. (MacFarlane's newest deal with Fox has been estimated to net him, over the next few years, something in the rather rarefied neighborhood of nine figures.) Unfortunately, obscene sums of money and the obscenely entertaining don't often go hand in hand.

Will advertisers continue to invest in work that is undoubtedly edgier and possibly more tuneful than anything that's gone before? It won't be up to the Whedons and MacFarlanes. Ultimately, the answer will rest in our own hands, our clicks. If we demonstrate that we're willing to expose ourselves to a pitch for cola for a few minutes of something original, then the Google/MacFarlane model will be the template for more of the same.

We're on the brink of an overload of amazingly creative content, delivered exactly how we want it, where we want it, when we want it. It's a dream come true. Until a week later, when we'll probably be bored with it, wondering what else is out there.

— Mary Elizabeth Williams, Takeaway culture critic

Contributors:

Jesse Baker and Mary Elizabeth Williams

Comments [1]

Sarah

For me, the most fascinating thing about web series is their potential to give people who don't usually get to see themselves on TV the chance to write themselves into the stories.

The website AfterEllen.com has been a big proponent of using web series to create content with lesbians and bisexual women as characters, most notably in "B.J. Fletcher, Private Eye." As the star notes in an interview on the site, "even without the lesbian content of the show, I don't think we've ever seen a show where, as a woman, I would be cast as an inept detective."

It'll be interesting to see if this freedom changes as more money comes to the medium.

It will be interesting

Jul. 11 2008 11:41 AM

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