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TCA 2012: TV That’s Not On TV Edition

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One occasional theme of the Television Critics Association press tour is the slowly creeping awareness that it will eventually become the Whatever Comes After Television Critics Association. Usually, the discussions have to do with how traditional TV is expanding to or dealing with online: web streaming, online extras, cord-cutting, &c. But Wednesday afternoon the TCA press tour gave itself over to three different projects that are bypassing TV and making TV-scale videos directly for the web.

First up was Cybergeddon, a thriller about cyberterrorism and cyber crime and other cyberscary things, from CSI creator Anthony Zuiker in partnership with Yahoo and corporate sugar daddy Norton Security. (As with the other projects paneled today, critics saw only a trailer, which included a lot of fight scenes, glowing computer code and lines like, “You been charged with three counts of cyberterrorism!”) Zuiker and company repeatedly described the series, debuting this fall, as a “movie”—a feature length story cut into installments ending with cliffhanger. (But more of a TV movie, its budget close to $6 million.)

So what makes Cybergeddon a web series, other than its being put online? The makers touted its “immersive site,” including episodes, character information and photos, as well as an app that will include background information and games. But the whole project felt more like a regular feature-movie than was back-engineered into a new medium–an alternative to straight-to-DVD–than a project that really thought through why it needed to be online rather than somewhere else.

Following Cybergeddon were two YouTube series projects; the first, Runaways, which will run on the Awesomeness TV YouTube channel, is a teen thriller. (Again, we only saw a trailer, but it had the look of a juicy ABC Family or CW mystery/soap.)  Where the Cybergeddon crew were much more focused on the business plan than creative issues in their talk, Runaways’ makers seemed to have more specifically thought through the narrative requirements of online. The story, for instance, plays out through a “Rashomon-style” narrative in which we learn about characters through the conflicting ways they describe events–a way of dealing with the more-compressed time to establish characters in a short webisode.

Finally, director Rodrigo Garcia (In Treatment) and stars Jennifer Beals and Sarah Jones introduced the WIGS channel, a YouTube channel with a specific, targeted collection of series with female lead characters. (WIGS stands, apparently for Where It Gets IntereSting.) The WIGS series, unlike the earlier projects, are out there now, though Beals’ and Jones’ own series don’t premiere until August and fall respectively; each series of 3 to 15 episodes focuses on a different star (Blue, starring Julia Stiles, has over 900,000 views for its first episode, above), which allows name-brand talent to develop creative ideas without a massive time commitment. There’s not much money, but Garcia likened it to a passion project, like indie film or theater; “You don’t have to wait for somebody else’ permission to be creative” in this medium, Beals said.

Whether any of these is financially or creatively viable, we’ll have to see. (An extended scene from Beals’ series, involving a military-rape report, looked potentially compelling.) But so far, more successful web series have tended to be comedy more than drama, from Annoying Orange to The Guild. (Dr. Horrible, arguably, overlapped comedy and drama.) Those web fictions that have caught on most successfully have been ones that have treated the web as a separate media, that requires telling stories differently (e.g., the lonelygirl series of a few years ago). And any webisode series has a long way to go to compete with Tay Zonday or Double Rainbow.

The three web series we previewed Wednesday seem to be proposing three different ways to do online drama: like a Hollywood blockbuster, like a CW series, like a indie-film project. The first one to succeed big at it, I suspect, will be the one that doesn’t seem like anything else but itself.