In one episode of “K&A,” friends Karly and Alex are in the Public Garden, helpfully reuniting a man with a bag of cocaine that he dropped. Another finds them strolling the Commonwealth Mall, discussing the finer points of an accessory purchase inspired by “50 Shades of Grey.”
“K&A,” produced in Boston, features two protagonists who recall such comically codependent duos as Patsy and Edina of BBC’s “Absolutely Fabulous” and, more recently, Abbi and Elana of Comedy Central’s “Broad City.”
But just like “Broad City” before it graduated to cable television, “K&A” is a Web series — part of a rapidly expanding world of largely free online programming that is changing the way TV (or what we’ve known as TV) is created and watched. With broadcast-quality production values and episodes that typically run a fraction of the 30-minute primetime standard, this new wave of Web series is enabling fresh voices to reach the public. And as millions of dollars pour into such shows, millions of viewers are starting to tune in.
For Boston’s Katie Shannon, the creator of “K&A” and the writer, director, and co-creator, with Amy DePaola, of an earlier Boston-based Web series, “617,” the freedom to make the show that she wants is worth the trouble of financing its production independently, with a combination of private investments and crowd-funding through Kickstarter.
“When the first episode of your show is called ‘The Herps,’ I think you know what you’re getting into,” she says, laughing. “You don’t really have to censor yourself, and that’s what I like.”
That sense of artistic freedom also appeals to actor/writer/producer Michael Cyril Creighton, an Emerson College graduate whose Web series “Jack in a Box” ran from 2009 to 2012 and garnered awards from the Writers Guild and the New York Television Festival.
“The best part of making your own series is that you don’t have to answer to anyone,” he says. There’s no notes. You can be your own boss.”
Creighton, who has popped up on such broadcast series as “30 Rock” and “Louie,” has also penned and starred in an early episode of Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld’s acclaimed Web series “High Maintenance,” which follows an unnamed weed dealer from client to client in episodes averaging about 10 minutes.
Creighton says the shorter form common to Web series is a key feature. “I think you can tell a fully satisfying story in any amount of time — whether it’s an hour, or seven minutes, or three minutes. One of the strengths of the form is that you get to know the characters within just a few lines.”
High-profile Web series breakthroughs include Ben Stiller’s Emmy-nominated dating spoof for Yahoo Screen, “Burning Love,” and Zach Galifianakis’s cringe-inducing lo-fi talk show for Funny or Die, “Between Two Ferns,” which already earned an Emmy this year for its episode featuring President Obama. The long-running online-gaming saga “The Guild” has racked up 300 million views and enough Streamy Awards — honoring “excellence in original online video programming and those who create it” — to catch some mainstream attention.
There are strong trends driving the boom in Web series. As consumers rely more on smartphones and tablets for entertainment, and as access to high-speed connections increases, so too has the demand for free Web-based content that can rival or exceed the quality found on broadcast and cable TV.
A recent study found that Americans have reached an even split between time spent watching TV and using the Internet, with each claiming about 13 hours per week. And of that Internet time, an estimated 22 percent is spent watching online video. Some 186 million people in the United States watched some form of online video content in June. (And those aren’t all kitten videos: 77 percent of that viewing time went to videos longer than 10 minutes.)
But while online video remains supplementary to most TV diets, millennials are steadily tuning out the tube altogether. Nielsen found traditional TV viewing among 18- to 24-year-olds dropped 18 percent over the last three years (to about 4½ hours per week), and another study found that millennials spend 48 percent more time than the average user watching video online.
Those stats have been a call to action for Hollywood networks and studios struggling to connect to a generation weaned on webcams. The major networks have all ventured into Web series in one form or another, posting exclusive free webisodes to their sites and sprouting digital offshoots (last year, The CW launched its digital-only network CW Seed, and Fox signed a multi-year partnership with the female-focused YouTube channel WIGS).
Meanwhile, a wave of multichannel networks (MCNs) have sprung up on YouTube, some consisting of thousands of individual channels, all posting original Web series.
These MCNs are increasingly a destination for viewers, and investment dollars. Last year, Dreamworks paid $33 million to acquire the YouTube MCN AwesomenessTV; Warner Bros. led an $18 million round of financing for gamer network Machinima; and following the Chernin Group and Comcast pumping over $30 million into online media company Fullscreen (which counts over 380 million subscribers) there’s been acquisition interest reported from the likes of Time Warner and Yahoo. The LA-based powerhouse Maker Studios will be acquired by Disney for $500 million in a deal that will finalize later this year.
As streaming services like Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix further blur the lines of what television is and how we consume it, Web series have come into their own as a unique form. Rather than strive for immersive, full-screen, sit-back viewing, many Web series capitalize on the immediacy and intimacy of a hand-held experience.
Web series have also opened up unprecedented space for diversity, both in their production and in their perspectives.
“We have a female director, we have two female leads, and one of those happens to be gay. The three of those individually are rare, but to have all three of those together is something I’m really proud of,” Shannon says of “K&A.” “I think it makes us special.”
Shannon’s “617” co-producer DePaola is currently producing “Unsure/Positive,” a series featuring HIV-positive actor (and protagonist) Christian Kiley. Shannon also recommends the Boston-based subscription-soap “Beacon Hill,” a daytime-star-studded tale of political intrigue, amazing hair, and lesbian love.
Entering its second season, Stacey Muhammed and Marc Lamont Hill’s drama “For Colored Boys” traces the ramifications of mass incarceration through the lives of seven African-American men. Andrew Chung’s “Millions,” which follows six Asian-American millennials trying to make it big, finished its first season last month. And Lamont Pierre’s crime drama “Freefall,” which focuses on a group of gay black men in Atlanta, plans to release its second and third seasons this year.
Kerry Trainor, CEO of video-sharing platform Vimeo — which recently invested in the production of six more episodes of “High Maintenance” for its paid Vimeo on Demand service — sees the evolution of Web series as a natural extension of how we’ve moved through other changes in television.
“If the first 30 or 40 years of TV was broadcast, we started to see something happen in the ’70s and ’80s with the introduction of premium cable,” he says. “You got a better product, and customers came around to the idea of paying for it. We see what’s happening now as the Internet manifestation of premium cable, but it’s not a closed system. It’s open and global.”Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.