Five years ago, making a web series to get on traditional television was a fool’s game. The few web series producers to secure development deals with networks — from “We Need Girlfriends,” “Quarterlife,” “Private High School” and “The College Humor Show” — either never made it to air or didn’t last long when they did.
But today many more web series have been optioned for TV and made it onto television. Some have even been successful, making it to a second season — like Comedy Central series “Broad City,” which was renewed last night. More series could be coming soon. In the past year hardworking producers like Issa Rae, Ray William Johnson, Benny and Rafi Fine, Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox, Jake Hurwitz and Amir Blumenefeld and have all signed development deals.
Now that web production is an established route on the long, hard path to a television series, it’s worth asking: how do web productions get developed?
There are many paths to network television, and they all involve some combination of knowing the right people, achieving popularity online or finding a match with a network in need of buzz.
The Celebrity Shepherd
Comedy Central’s freshman series “Broad City” has been enough of a hit to earn a second season — the sitcom is bright and refreshing, particularly in light of that network’s macho brand. Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson are a true indie story: the Upright Citizens Brigade members started producing the series on a shoestring budget as a way to demonstrate their comedy chops in the competitive New York market.
The pair made two seasons, starting in 2010, and the online series made its way to Amy Poehler’s browser, who likely saw the two smart girls as a younger Amy and Tina best-friendship. Poehler, who appeared as a guest star on the web incarnation, decided to executive produce a television version of the series and helped Glazer and Jacobson find a network home.
For creators making writerly series, from character-driven comedies to arthouse experiments in short-format storytelling, one route to TV is catching the eye of a celebrity executive producer. The benefit of this approach is that powerful executive producers can get creators multiple meetings with networks and help protect the voice of the show. As in the case of Don Roos and Lisa Kudrow’s “Web Therapy,” which is still airing new episodes on Showtime, it helps if your creator and star is already a television icon. Issa Rae has had two such partnerships, one with Shonda Rhimes and more recently with Larry Willmore for an HBO series that has critics excited. Black & Sexy TV’s “The Couple” secured its HBO development deal with director Spike Lee. Expect to see more of this in the future.
The Established Creator
Celebrity producers with big public profiles are rare, and the chances of any one series attracting their attention is slim. But there are plenty of establish writer-producers in Hollywood who are constantly searching for a new, strong pitches.
Most web-to-TV conversions have a creator or executive producer with similar credits on television shows in the past. The most successful of these are probably “Childrens Hospital,” developed by Rob Corddry (“The Daily Show”), Jonathan Stern (“Funny or Die Presents…,” “Wainy Days”) and David Wain (“Stella,” “The State,” “MADtv”), and “Quarterlife,” created by Marshall Herskovita and Ed Zwick (“thirtysomething,” “My So-Called Life”). David Stern, who had written for “The Simpsons,” among other shows, helped develop “Ugly Americans” from Devin Clark’s web series “5 On with Alan Whiter” — it ran for two years on Comedy Central.
The New Network
There are a lot of cable channels, and more premiere each year. New networks need original programming but have to start slow, since they have to create their niche audience from scratch. For some new networks, developing shows with a pilot already produced, whose episodes have spread widely on YouTube, or whose network has proven adept at entertaining masses minimizes risk at a critical time in a new channel’s development.
Such is the case with CNN’s HLN network, which is rebranding away from being a news network to one for the “social media generation.” HLN announced last week it had picked up a game show from My Damn Channel, one of the longest-running independent comedy networks known in the past for web series like “Wainy Days” and “Easy to Assemble,” vloggers like Grace Helbig and YouTube’s live daily show, “My Damn Channel Live.” My Damn Channel’s show, “Videocracy,” is a game show with “a host and panel counting down the day’s buzziest ripped-from-social-media stories.”
The new Esquire Network green lit Portal A’s “White Collar Brawlers” because it had millions of views online. Head of programming Matt Hanna told Variety:
“The fact that these two guys had gone out and done this made a huge difference. That really sold us on the concept… On paper, I’m not sure we would have taken a bite.”
This is partially why Pivot, Participant Media’s network for millennials, turned to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s collaborative project hitRECord, which has been running since 2010, for its newest original series. IFC, which has rapidly expanded its investment in original programming, has adapted web originals like “Comedy Bang! Bang!,” a podcast from Scott Aukerman (“Mr. Show”), and “Bunk,” an unscripted pilot that screened at the New York Television Festival. Finally, in 2008, when Syfy was in its early years developing original series, it adapted Stage 3’s supernatural show “Sanctuary,” which started as an web series and ran for four seasons on television, until 2012.
The Spreadable Phenomenon
Most people think web shows are best positioned for television if they “go viral,” or spread widely and rapidly on sites like YouTube. That’s not always the case, as many of the examples above prove. But popularity online certainly helps.
“Drunk History,” created by Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner, got help in development from Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, but the long-running web series was already positively reviewed and widely circulated before the team made the leap to Comedy Central last year. Comedy Central’s “Secret Girlfriend” was a solid web hit before its TV development. In the unscripted space, YouTube personalities able to amass millions of subscribers now regularly secure development deals. Rhett James McLaughlin and Charles Lincoln “Link” Neal were among the first to make the transition with their one-season show “Rhett and Link: Commercial Kings.”
The children’s market is one of the most successful spaces for development. Last week, Variety reported Nickelodeon has shot a pilot for and is considering taking to series a show from the Fine brothers based on their “React” series, which are among the most popular and long-running series on YouTube. The producing duo already shoot their own TV-length kid’s show, “MyMusic.”
Dane Boedigheimer’s “The Annoying Orange” regularly amassed millions of views per episode online and became a modest success on Cartoon Network. Boedigheimer also made quite a bit of money licensing the character to brands and selling the series overseas. And of course Lucas Cruikshank’s “Fred,” the first YouTube channel to reach one million subscribers, has been among the most franchised indie series ever — it’s the source for three movies and a multiple seasons on Nickelodeon and web networks, including an animated sitcom.