Why TV Networks Are Interested in Adapting Online Series Again

TV's Internet Fishing Expedition - H 2014
Illustration by: Jason Schneider

TV's Internet Fishing Expedition - H 2014

After previous flops like "quarterlife," programmers are renewing their interest in online shows, even if they still haven't quite figured out how to use this new talent.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Six years ago, NBC took a chance and gave the web series quarterlife a second life on the TV screen. The dramedy about post-college bohemians was a colossal flop, premiering to only 3.1 million viewers before quickly being ushered onto sister network Bravo to finish out its six-episode run.

But despite the failure, quarterlife served as an early pioneer for TV programmers seeking to simultaneously appeal to and draw from a younger demographic raised on web video. Now there is new momentum behind the effort, even if Hollywood still hasn't quite figured out how to use this new talent.

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On Jan. 22, Comedy Central premiered Broad City, from creators/stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. The show, about the misadventures of two young women in New York, began in 2009 as short online episodes. Amy Poehler became a fan and is executive producing the half-hour TV version, which debuted to strong reviews, though only 914,000 viewers.

Broad City joins fellow web transplant Drunk History on Comedy Central, Annoying Orange on Cartoon Network and the sketch series AwesomenessTV on Nickelodeon. E! has also found success airing The Bachelor spoof Burning Love, which debuted on Yahoo's Screen platform. At the same time, more digital-first talents are landing TV development deals.

Built-in audiences and the potential for viral success are part of the allure, of course, but TV executives say the search for Internet talent is more nuanced than it was in 2010, when CBS greenlighted $#*! My Dad Says based on a popular Twitter feed (it lasted only one season).

"If you try to make your judgment based on how big is the online audience, you can get into fools territory," says Kent Alterman, programming chief at Comedy Central. "There are a lot of talented people with big audiences online who don't necessarily translate to extended shows on TV."

So what does work? For Broad City, Comedy Central chose to use Jacobson and Glazer's characters and premise but create a new show tailored to TV. Rather than use any of the existing video, they commissioned entirely new 30-minute scripts. "We thought they had a very original, authentic voice," says Alterman. "Even though they were doing episodes on a shoestring, that voice really came through. That's what suggests to us that they're talent worth investing in."

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Producer Jonathan Stern is employing a similar strategy on Garfunkel and Oates, a comedy series at IFC. The TV series will expand on the comedy folk-music videos of Kate Micucci (Garfunkel) and Riki Lindhome (Oates), adapting them into a serialized show with occasional musical components. "In some cases, web series need to be rethought," says Stern. On the other hand, only minimal tweaking was needed to bring the Stern-produced Childrens Hospital and Burning Love to TV. Childrens sewed together two episodes with some original content for Adult Swim's 15-minute comedy block, and Burning Love combined episodes for E! in order to fit the half-hour format.

Another crossover, Web Therapy, streams in short bites on LStudio.com and then is expanded into 30 minutes for Showtime by combining episodes and adding new content. "We don't want to string three webisodes together and call it a TV show," says executive producer Dan Bucatinsky. "We want to finesse the different stories so we can tell a complete half-hour narrative."

Few of these shows are ratings bonanzas. But with lower costs and sufficient time to develop characters and stories, they have found a niche on cable. And while the web offers more creative freedom, earning potential certainly is greater on TV, where producers can make the same amount on a single episode as they would on an entire digital series. For that reason, the original digital-only ethos of YouTube talent could be changing.

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Says Stern, "What you'll see more and more of are web shows that are truly intended to try and get a TV deal."


5 Web Video Stars Attempting the Tricky Transition to TV

Ray William Johnson
The creator of review show Equals Three has amassed more than 10 million YouTube subscribers and a script commitment from FX to co-create a comedy about his life.

Shane Dawson
The comic's YouTube channel has more than 5 million subscribers, which led to a November deal to co-write and star in a weight-loss comedy at NBC titled Losin' It.

Issa Rae
Her web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl got her a writing credit on a Shonda Rhimes pilot. She then teamed with Larry Wilmore to write an HBO comedy.

Graydon Sheppard and Kyle Humphrey
The duo behind Twitter account Shit Girls Say have a YouTube video with more than 20 million views. They signed a development deal with Style Media in the summer.

Heidi Niedermeyer and Elena Crevello
The comedy duo behind 2012 viral video "Shit People Say in L.A." (more than 2 million views on YouTube) are writing the NBC comedy project Fifth Wheel.