The Future of Episodic Television: A Working Producer’s Perspective

Originally published on Production Hub.

Everything changes and television is no exception.

Online is the new episodic television. The amount of time people spent consuming only video each day jumped 23.3% in 2015 and is set to increase by a further 19.8% in 2016. Advances in technology only boosted this trend with increases in mobile video performance and storage capacities.

Our viewing habits have affected the way production is done today, too. Everyone has a mobile video production facility in their pocket. 

This isn’t news. The shift from what we think of as traditional television – and traditional production – has been happening for well over a decade. I’ve been producing television through these evolutions and I’m still here to talk about it.

In 1996 I started a television show that ran through 2003. I was ahead of the DIY curve because I had to be! I jumped in with both feet and embraced any technology that could help me do my job quickly and affordably. I bought a Sony V5000 Hi8 camera and went non-linear for post-production with an AVID system. Over the years I went multi-cam with DV, DVCam, and HDV formats - affordable increases in production quality that my audience appreciated. At the time this was breaking all the rules of TV production, now no one gives it a second thought. 

The series was a weekly, 30-minute music-based program that featured exclusive live performances and interviews all captured on location. I made 257 original episodes over the course of 8 seasons.

When I started the show, I only worked with small bands. But by the time the series had come to an end, I had shot some of the biggest bands in the world, including Aerosmith, Metallica and Van Halen

In the meantime, some of those small bands I had worked with in the beginning grew up to become multi-platinum powerhouses like Kid Rock, Creed, 3 Doors Down, Matchbox 20 and Limp Bizkit. I wound up Directing and Producing videos and television shows for Godsmack, Sevendust, and Down

I loved my show, and more importantly so did the fans. They would watch the show, buy CDs and go out to concerts. But the span of those years saw those days disappear. The music industry completely changed. The mp3 had killed their business model and distribution. Kids no longer wanted to pay for their music. This made record companies change the way they promoted their music. Suddenly, putting bands on TV for exposure seemed like a financial loss for them. As a result, we moved on and found a different focus.

In 2009, we started production on an 88-episode run of an entertainment and lifestyles show. We raised our own capital for the two-year series and made deals directly with television station (CBS affiliate) and our own sponsors. MediaBoss TV was in the studio business, creating our own programming and putting it on the air. It wasn’t an ideal business. It was labor and financially intensive with a low profit reward.

Even then MediaBoss integrated social media very effectively into our program, but it was becoming very clear to us that the tail was beginning to wag the dog and the web was becoming the place to air creative content. It was clear the climate had changed yet again - this time for broadcast television itself. Financially, the country was in the midst of an economic crisis and the market was correcting itself. 

Here’s what we learned:

  • Television airtime was expensive and budgets were shrinking. 
  • Sponsors were becoming increasingly concerned about how to leverage social media.
  • Production partners were still over charging for web site creation and online video integration.
  • Finally, 2009 marked the beginning of Millennials’ effect on broadcast media.

They watched their ‘television’ on their laptops using Netflix and Hulu, while downloading torrents of their favorite shows and movies. 

Guess what happened? We learned how to make websites, started our own social media business and started generating our own content. We created a comedy pilot called ‘Broad Strokes’.  Although it got to Comedy Central and Lionsgate, we were frustrated by the lack of results. Then, we created another series of pilots for a reality show called ‘Women Interrupted’ intended for WE. Which got canned when they ‘changed direction.’ 

Both experiences were very expensive and frustrating. And they were a clear demonstration of how the committee process of TV production has become its own albatross.

We changed gears again and decided to share our own original content on the web. Enter ‘Partners (2012)’ our very first web series. We co-created it with a talented actor/writer Matty Blake. We financed it ourselves and built a custom website. 

We saw results almost immediately. It worked, and we could monitor its progress ourselves. Its success was based three simple observations: 

  • Content needs to be cut into short, mobile-friendly episodes. 
  • It needs to have an edge. 
  • Viewers need to be able to share it easily.

Partners was all of these things and we shot it quickly (2 days), affordably and were able to share it quickly. Best of all, the entire team - including talent - could sit at a single conference table. Partners was something we made for ourselves and lots of people liked it - including producers, agents and cable outlets. Although we don’t have a deal for the show yet, every member of the Partners cast has done network programming in the last year.

This reality is not lost on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. They’ve all signed talent directly from the web to create original programming for their paid internet/broadband subscription services. The cable networks jumped into the game quickly as well because the benefits became clear. They needed compelling content and they didn’t have the resources or time to develop it themselves. Web metrics and YouTube hits have become a clear statement of potential success vs the pilot/development model. Broad City is a great example of the power of the internet. It began as a simple YouTube series (2009-2011), written and created by two talented actresses, Ilanna Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. Over time it created its own audience and caught the eye of Amy Poehler who took it directly to Comedy Central

I’m going to be honest, there is no way Comedy Central would have had the foresight or initiative to put two unknown twenty-something females as co-leads in a network comedy show. In February, Broad City will begin Season 3.

The game has changed and the web is still cranking out hits daily. The major networks are struggling to keep up, TV viewership is aging and appointment viewership is a dying model. It’s all about 'Netflix and Chill’ and ‘binging’.

And here we are now, heading into 2016, and the game is well established. It’s DIY, you don’t need to know somebody at the network anymore. You need to take the time, make the investment and create the content yourself. If the fans like it, you’ll get hits, if you get the hits, the networks will come looking for you. 

I’m not over simplifying this: the Future of Episodic Television is on the web. Just get out there and make it. There has never been a better time to create content and there have never been more places to share it. My guess is, if you have read this far you already have an idea of what you want to make and you are ready to do it. I’ve been doing TV for a long time and this is what I’m doing now. MediaBoss’ new web series is in pre-production now and making its début on the web in the fall of 2016.

See you on the Internet.

Additional Resources:

Ian Barrett

Ian Barrett is an award-winning director with 25 years experience Directing and Producing original content for television and film and web.


Related posts

Search 3 Big Mistakes to Avoid in Explainer Videos
5 Video Production Trends for 2016 You Can't Ignore Search