On Wheat and Chaff: What’s “Good” Web Video?

In my post the other day, I used the phrase ‘wheat and chaff’ to discuss good web video (vs. not-so-good). A few people have taken me to task for this. One even compared me to Hitler. Far be it from me to say that using the Hitler analogy when we’re talking about something as petty as web video is a little much, but… dude, it’s a little much.

Anyway, the prevailing opinion was that I was wrong to doubt that “the cream always rises to the top”, in terms of good video naturally finding its audience. Well, I remember grade school, and I was taught that if a statement contains a definite like ‘always’ or ‘never’, than you can safely guess it’s false. But furthermore, direct experience has taught me: there are great webseries that have no audience, and there are terrible webseries with enormous audiences. A cursory glance at the landscape of the industry will tell you that, no, the cream doesn’t always rise, and the wheat frequently gets lost in the chaff.

Of course, one man’s wheat is another man’s chaff. Taste is subjective. And I won’t sit here criticizing the chaff-eaters for liking The Annoying Orange or anything like that. (And actually I have to admit that even that much-maligned show has been, at times, mildly humorous). So I thought I’d take the opportunity to explain what I consider to be the hallmarks of a good web production. This is what I look for when I’m evaluating shows. It’s what I aim for when I create my own (whether or not I succeed is a different story). It also happens to be the set of qualities that I think make good or great traditional television as well.

Great Content Should Be:

1. Chronic, not Viral. I talked about this last week, and it’s what the whole blog revolves around. But just to recap – it’s the idea that it’s video you keep coming back to, again and again, rather than seeing once. It’s myth vs. meme.

2. Episodic, not One-Off. Nothing against sketch comedy. Nothing against Funny or Die. I just want something longer form. I like long story arcs, developed characters. I like not only wanting to watch the next episode, but having to watch it to find out what happens to the characters or what they get up to next.

3. Quality, not Quantity. I would rather the show had 3 great episodes, like Timothy Cooper’s Concierge, than 12 mediocre ones. And I would rather the length fit the actual storytelling requirements, not an arbitrary 90-second or 3-minute cutoff like so many webseries I see. I don’t think you need to put out content every day, if it’s sub-par content (unless it’s your actual job). That said, I feel that 3 episodes is the bare minimum number to call it a series, and even then, that’s pushing it. I think 6 makes a first season. Otherwise it runs the risk of being just some sketches around a common theme.

4. Collectable, not Disposable. Similar to Chronic/Viral, but it revolves around the question of whether or not I would want to collect this show. If this were on TV, would I buy the DVD set? Would I pay for it on iTunes? Content collection is one of the big psychological factors of internet programming – that’s basically what our iPods and iPads are. Is this something that I’d want taking up space on those devices? Or would I erase it for something I like better?

5. Evergreen, not Hypercurrent. This requirement is what makes my work not so successful on YouTube. I don’t want content that is only relevant for one day or one week. To me, that’s news or talk show commentary. That’s not collectable, chronic content. I want to go back next year, two years from now, and still be able to laugh at it without trying to remember what now-obscure event it was referencing. I know I am in the minority on this one; Barely Political and The Gregory Brothers and even The Onion make their bread on the hypercurrent model, and pretty much every video portal that’s paying for original programming wants it. And any show wants to at least have some degree of timeliness. Still. I think a show should be evergreen at its core.

6. Specific, not Lowest Common. This is the big one. When I say ‘lowest common denominator’, I’m not being elitist. I’m not sitting here saying ‘so and so show is for plebians’. I’m not that guy who hates something because it’s popular (although I have been known to get jealous). My list of favorite movies would not be complete without entries from series as everyman as James Bond, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, the X-Men, and Lord of the Rings. I am not a film/video snob.

But I am a story snob. If the story isn’t good, if the characters aren’t on some level identifiable and believable, if the setting is generic, and if the pacing is off… I’m just not interested. For me, specificity is what makes good writing, and good film/television. I once had a network exec tell me that my show The Burg would never make it on television because it was ‘too specific’ in the location, the characters and the comedy. Uh-huh. Every great TV show out there is great because it’s specific, in character, in setting, in universe, in tone.

I’m using ‘lowest common’ to mean anything that is crafted specifically and calculatedly to appeal to the largest amount of people possible. We see this all the time in TV. A risky line that might offend a few hundred thousand is not taken. The edges are dulled down. The jokes are broadened. The storyline is simplified so that everyone can get it. The product is made to be so palatable that it has not even the whiff of flavor, and no one actually desires to consume it.

The internet has the potential to not need this type of desperate pan-pandering. A webseries can exist with an audience of 1,000 viewers or less; it can thrive with 50,000; it can launch its creators into Hollywood proper with 100,000. A show like All’s Faire will never bring anything close to television numbers, but its core audience is dedicated to it beyond belief. And this is why it’s so frustrating to see online shows that just recycle old TV tropes, or are one-gimmick riffs off existing memes.They don’t improve on TV, they just imitate it.

Ultimately, it’s a snack, and if I’m investing the time to watch, I want a meal.

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