Aymar Jean Christian is part of the inaugural class of Peabody Fellows, distinguished media scholars who provide fresh perspectives and commentary on behalf of the Peabody Media Center, the outreach and media production arm of the prestigious awards program based at the University of Georgia. He is an assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University.
You know you’re a TV nerd when your most anticipated awards announcements are the Writers Guild Awards. TV is a writer’s medium. Every TV fan awaits the Emmys, and some even bother to care about the Golden Globes, but most don’t know the major Guilds give out statues to television producers.
Nerdier still, I’m most interested in the nominees almost nobody writes about: web original short form comedies and dramas.
So while you probably could not imagine my disappointment when the WGA released their nominees for original short-form new media this year, I think you should care. Leading guilds and academies have to do better in handing out awards to indie, short-form TV.
For example, the short-form nominees for the 2017 WGA Awards, scheduled for Sunday, are underwhelming. They fail to make a case for the power of new media, instead opting for shows that look and feel like legacy TV cable shows. While all well-executed and respectable projects, they lack the spark of innovation and experimental creativity that makes web distribution so exciting to TV fans.
“Now We’re Talking,” Verizon go90’s dude-bro sports comedy, could easily be on any legacy TV network. AwesomenessTV’s “The Commute” would cozily sit on a youth-oriented cable channel’s line-up. One nominee, “Thug Passion,” does not even appear to have any episodes online.
In general, the nominees were far from the most exciting or surprising of the year, and this makes it difficult for me to evangelize the WGA awards to my networks and get them excited about short form TV — a struggle even with extraordinary shows in contention. The WGA historically awards truly inspired, culturally and politically relevant, and genre-expanding indie series. What happened?
Short form is more important these days: Some of the best series on TV are emerging from this space, including HBO’s “High Maintenance” and “Insecure” (loosely related to Issa Rae’s “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl”), Comedy Central’s “Broad City” and “Drunk History,” and Vimeo’s “The Outs.” Broadcast, cable, and web TV networks are continuing to order series from web-based creators making short-form content.
And good writing from new voices with creative freedom is at the heart what makes quality indie TV. Writing in the indie TV space matters more than technical production (lighting, sound, camerawork), which can be secured with investment to pay skilled crew. Look at the first web episodes of “High Maintenance,” “Broad City,” and “Awkward Black Girl.” They are well-written but less slick than later episodes, and yet each showcases the clear talent of its creators.
Indie TV is a source of innovation (as I argue in my forthcoming book) because the web opened up the series development process, allowing producers to experiment with smaller-scale storytelling and connect to directly to fan communities. This supports creative and sincere programming undiluted by network executives in New York or LA who have little connection to the audiences they seek to represent.
A few years ago the WGA seemed poised to be an arbiter of quality indie TV, pointing network executives to promising new talent. Many WGA nominees were not connected to a network and didn’t always play the major festivals. From 2011 to 2015 the guild gave nominations to Tina Cesa Ward and Susan Miller’s expertly constructed lesbian-lead drama “Anyone But Me,” Michael Cyril Creighton’s queer comedy of errors “Jack in a Box,” and Morgan Evans’ blissfully experimental “Untitled Webseries.”
2015 saw nominations for Damon Cardasis and Shannon Walker’s sharp and sardonic “Vicky and Lysander”; Ingrid Jungermann’s brilliant indie “F to 7th,” which explores the critical difference between gender and sexuality with an amazing cast of intergenerational women; and the eventual winner in “High Maintenance’s” “Rachel,” clearly the best episode of indie TV that year and itself a provocative exploration of gender. Each of these series was very low budget but carefully produced, showing clear attention to the craft of character and story construction.
In 2016 the guild recognized just two phenomenal creators, Susan Miller for “Anyone But Me’s” surprise fourth season and Daryn Strauss’ “Weight,” which eventually won (Strauss had previously been nominated for “Downsized,” her drama about the recession). Those women both deserve their recognition, but that was it, just “two” nominees for original short form new media.
What’s happening in 2017 is surprising because it seemed like tons of great shows were continuing to come out. Amy York Rubin, creator of the fabulous “Little Horribles,” released “Boxed In” through IFC, focusing on feeling like an outsider in the queer community. Amanda Seales, an up-and-coming comedian, released the funny “Get Your Life” through Issa Rae’s YouTube channel. Brian Jordan Alvarez’s “The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo” is among the most experimental and delightful series I’ve seen since I first started writing about web series eight years ago.
My own platform, Open TV (beta) released the second season of “You’re So Talented” from rising star Sam Bailey, and “Full Out” from veteran producers Julie Keck and Jessica King. IndieWire’s 2016 “best of” list contains a number of genre-defying entrants to the market like Caveh Zahedi’s “The Show About the Show” for BRIC, Rhea Butcher and Cameron Esposito’s “Take My Wife” for Seeso, and even Branden Miller’s Instagram hit “Joanne the Scammer,” which explodes the sitcom genre’s episodic structure, not to mention its legacies of race and gender representation.
The omission of Jen Richards and Laura Zak’s pioneering “Her Story” from the WGA Awards seems particularly vexing. Even the Television Academy, which since 2011 has been giving short-form Creative Arts Emmys largely to corporate-distributed series, managed to give last year’s indie darling “Her Story” a nomination, if not a win, a regrettable fate for one of the first series written by and starring transwomen. It was nevertheless a small sign the Emmys might finally be open to new talent. To date their nominations have mostly gone to derivatives of legacy TV shows (“The Daily Show,” the Super Bowl, “Parks and Rec,” “30 Rock,” “Hack Into Broad City”) or original projects with established stars (“Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis,” “Burning Love,” “Web Therapy,” “The Crossroads of History,” “Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell”). Yet last year they did expand the category to include awards for actor and actress.
Since 2013 the Producers Guild has struggled to find quality, original indie series. I don’t really agree with the PGA’s consistent support for “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee,” “Epic Rap Battles of History,” ESPN’s “30 for 30 Shorts,” and derivative programming like web series from “30 Rock” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Yet the PGA occasionally honors historically and culturally significant indie series (or series that started indie) like “The Guild,” “Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” and “Video Game High School.”
The core of the problem appears to be the ways guilds find out about shows and their criteria for accepting them. If they only look at the major distributors like legacy networks, YouTube multichannel networks, and YouTube’s competitors like go90, they will miss the opportunity to recruit and promote new talent into guilds and academies who are creative but not embedded in the industry’s supply chain or working outside of it to have free expression.
Indie series may not always look and sound as polished as corporate fare, but by focusing on good writing and acting, which corporations struggle to achieve consistently, the guilds and academies can use short-form, digital and indie awards to showcase new writing talent. Further development, in the form of licensing fees that can pay for union and guild-represented crew at their rates, would improve on technical aspects and allow series to mature.
Other award shows outside the guilds have more democratic and flexible ideas of what constitutes quality web programming. For two years the Gotham Awards, run by IFP, has boldly nominated series that are truly innovative and socially important, even if they don’t feature big stars. The Tribeca Film Festival has for a number of years recognized quality indie work from a wide range of genres and producers (from short films and music videos to scripted series and sketch comedians).
Of course, the guilds and academies could also look to the indie TV market’s own institutions, including the major festivals (NYTVF, ITVF, HollyWeb, etc.) and award shows (Streamys, IAWTV Awards) which have more awards for web originals in general — including, in the case of the Streamys, one specifically for indie series. These awards’ more expansive view of television, probably influenced by the fact that they’re juried by critics, festival programmers, editors, and fellow producers, makes their nominations more exciting and relevant to sponsors and network executives, who desperately need a view of what is not on the industry’s radar.
Creative markets need institutional pathways to incorporate new and diverse talent. It’s time for the guilds and academies to use short-form and web original media as one part of solving the industry’s problems with both diversity and adapting to new technologies. The answer to their problem is simply supporting the best of indie TV, which emerges from the margins, as creative workers innovate to break in.
Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian is an assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University and a fellow at the Peabody Media Center at Peabody. Dr. Christian’s first book, Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood, forthcoming on New York University Press, argues the web brought innovation to television by empowering independent producers. His work has been published in numerous academic journals, including The International Journal of Communication, Cinema Journal, Continuum, and Transformative Works and Cultures. He leads Open TV (beta), a research project and platform for television by queer, trans and cis-women and artists of color. Open TV (beta) programming partners have included the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, Block Museum of Art, and City of Chicago, along with numerous galleries, community organizations, and universities. He has juried television and video for the Peabody Awards, Gotham Awards, Streamy Awards, and Tribeca Film Festival, among others. He received PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.