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Archive for January, 2011

Q & A with Ross Brown, author of Byte-Sized Television: Create Your Own TV Series for the Internet

Posted by >>>>> on January 10, 2011

Q. You have a background working with major networks on hit series like The Cosby Show and The Facts of Life. How did you get interested in Internet TV?

A. Episodic TV writing has been taught successfully for many years at film schools like the one I teach at, Chapman University.  But teaching production has always been difficult because of the expense and time needed to produce full half-hour or hour-long programs.  You Tube and the emergence of Internet TV solved this problem.  Now students or aspiring TV creators can create short-form, inexpensive series and distribute them over the Internet.  And nothing helps a writer grow more effectively than seeing his work produced and having an audience react to it.

Q. In your opinion, what are some of the best Internet TV shows out now and why?

A. “The best” is a relative term.  It depends what type of show you’re looking for.  My students tend to love broad comedies like Drunk History, Dorm Life, or Between Two Ferns with Zack Galifinakis.  I gravitate more toward character comedy like Donny and Greg (which won the IFC Web Series Award at the 2010 New York Television Festival earning its creators a $25,000 prize and the chance to turn it into a full-length cable TV series), or politically incorrect social satire like Mr. Deity, a web series that portrays The Almighty as a guy in a Hawaiian shirt who has to negotiate with his son Jesus about the whole death on the cross and resurrection thing.  Sci-fi or drama fans will have still other favorites.

Q. How does writing a series for the Web differ from writing for TV?

A. Beyond the obvious (shorter length, smaller screen and budget), there are several key differences that make writing for the Web exciting.  #1 – you don’t need to appeal to the broadest audience or least common denominator.  If you’re on CBS and only get a million viewers, they cancel you before the second episode.  A web series with a viewership of a million is a smash hit.  This affords you much greater creative freedom and flexibility.  Advantage #2 – No gatekeepers.  In network TV, you need permission from the suits to have your work produced and broadcast.  On the Internet, if you make it, you get to post it.  Advantage #3 – No creativity by committee.  Because the network and the studio have such a tremendous financial stake in broadcast or cable TV, they freely exercise their right to micromanage your creative choices.  On the Internet, you have total creative freedom.

Q. In your book, Byte-Sized Television, you include information specifically for teachers. Do you think students who are interested in breaking in to traditional broadcast TV would benefit from creating an Internet TV series?

A. Absolutely.  First of all, you will be developing a portfolio of work.  You can demonstrate – not only on paper, but with finished episodes, – your ability to create characters and tell a continuing series of stories about those characters.  Second, as I mentioned earlier, a writer’s growth is helped tremendously when he has the experience of seeing his work go from the page to the screen.

Q. It’s great that Internet TV frees people to execute their creative visions and that what you call the creative “gatekeepers” are pushed aside, but how can you make money creating a TV series that you’re not selling to a studio?

A. If you attract a large enough audience – say 40,000 or more loyal viewers – your show can be monetized.  Google or Yahoo or other video hosting sites will sell ads and split the revenue with you.  But there are other potential “values” to producing for the Web.  The traditional broadcast and cable networks now view the Internet as a gigantic development laboratory.  They are combing the net, searching blogs and web series to find fresh voices and fresh points of view, the same way they used to go to comedy clubs in the 80s and 90s to find Roseanne, or Jerry Seinfeld, or Tim Allen.  Making your own web series can be your audition or calling card on the way to being hired by a network or production company.

Q. What are a few things to keep in mind when choosing a visual style for your Internet TV series?

A. Make every moment count – main title, transitions between scenes, even the end credits are an opportunity to entertain your audience and to make your series visually distinctive.  Think about what a powerful branding tool the “dun-dun” audio cue on Law and Order is.  Or how hilarious the end credits to the movie Airplane! are.  Or how the scene transitions in The Big Bang Theory add to the atmosphere and enjoyment of the show.

Q. How can you increase the chances that your TV series will go viral?

A. Naturally, it all starts with having a great show.  So don’t race out and start frantically shooting stuff the moment you have a great idea for a web series.  Take time and care with each phase of development – the script, the characters, the visual style, the postproduction – it should all be first rate.  Then, once you post, use every social media tool at your disposal: Facebook, email, etc.  And don’t be shy about asking people to re-post your notice or link on their Facebook page or website so their friends, and their friend’s friends can check it out as well.

Q. How are the major TV studios adapting and developing content for the Internet?

A. Every which way they can.  All of them are using the Internet and webisodes to promote their current traditional series – two-minute mini-episodes of The Office, clips from the full-length shows, etc.  CBS already has one show on the air based on a series of Twitter postings that became a best-selling book ($#*! My Dad Says) and is now developing series based on a blog (Dear Girls Above Me) and another based on the Web series Homeland Insecurity.  The Web is also a way for networks and producers to audition risky concepts with the public at a very low cost.

Q. What are a few musts for creating a great series character?

A. Because there is so much video content out there, your characters have to be bold and memorable.  “He’s a college student” just isn’t going to cut it.  If you think about the great characters from traditional TV – Archie Bunker, say, or Dr. House – they are anything but ordinary.  That’s why $#*! My Dad Says was seen as great raw material for a series.  Its central character is bold, uncensored, and, therefore, compelling and memorable.

Q. Can you give us a sense of what it will cost to make an Internet TV series, assuming that we need to buy the basic equipment?

A. If you have a computer, you probably have all you need to write a script (MS Word works just fine, you don’t need script software) and to edit the video you shoot.  You will need some sort of camera, and in most cases one you already have or can borrow will work fine.  If you have to buy one, it may cost a few hundred dollars.  Other things, like external mikes, can be rented inexpensively.  Web series are not about production value, they’re about creativity and entertainment quality.  The guys who created It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia sold it to FX based on a pilot they wrote and shot on their own for $75 – the cost of the tape cassettes.  And if it hadn’t sold to FX, It’s Always Sunny would have made a great web series – and someone would have made it into a full length show after they saw it.


Ross Brown began his writing career on NBC’s award-winning comedy series The Cosby Show. He went on to write and produce such hit TV shows as The Facts of Life, Who’s the Boss? and Step by Step. He has created primetime series for ABC, CBS, and the WB. His play Hindsight received two staged readings at the Pasadena Playhouse in July 2007. His short play Field of Vision was performed in Chicago at the Appetite Theater’s Bruschetta 2008 festival.

He is an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University in Orange, CA, where he developed a series of cutting-edge courses on creating TV series for the Internet. For updates to his book and the latest news and information on the world of Web series, visit Ross’s Web site at: http://www.bytesized.tv.


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