If you’ve ever watched the HBO comedy “Insecure” or Comedy Central’s “Broad City,” then you’re probably familiar with the names Issa Rae, Abbi Jacobson, and Ilana Glazer. What you may not know is that all of these talents started on YouTube, self-producing their shows and posting them online.
It is a model that recently has become a more frequent Hollywood success story, and according to Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian, communication studies, it’s one that has traditional television networks and production companies worried and scrambling to adapt.
In Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television (NYU Press, 2018), Christian argues that the internet has become an alternative distribution system to the legacy television or “network-era” system where the primary distributors were corporate networks in Hollywood.
Access to distribution via an open, net-neutral web has allowed producers and fans to develop and co-create new shows while breaking the traditional rules of network television. That may mean generating shorter episodes with looser production values and structures or enlisting fans as funders.
“This has allowed us to see what TV would look like in a more open system, and the results are very exciting, innovative and diverse,” says Christian, whose research expertise includes the intersection of new media and television with a focus on the web-series market and who teaches a course on new media and queer culture.
However, low-budget production is not without its risks. The work is both taxing and precarious, and workers lack institutional support in the form of good wages or benefits. And despite being leery of supporting creators with limited industry experience, networks have begun to carve out their own space online and filling it with original content, such as “Star Trek Discovery” on the
CBS “All Access” digital platform.
Still, there’s a way for web-based creators and networks to coexist, Christian argues, as evidenced in his own work. Christian founded Televisual, a blog that examines the web-television market, and later, OTV | Open Television, a web-based network that centers its narratives on queer and non-white experiences. Last year, HBO acquired Open TV’s “Brown Girls” a Chicago-based series about the intense friendship between two women of color.
And with Netflix and Amazon investing so much capital on original, digital-only content, opportunities have opened up for creators not only to join production staffs, but to develop more experimental content.
“It’s a very exciting time to watch television,” says Christian, who wrote the book as a complement to his continuing research (Northwestern partly funds the platform). “Maybe a little overwhelming, but with that comes opportunities for independent producers. It just doesn’t seem to be happening enough, or fast enough, for me.”