alt.screenwriters

The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

September 2006

by Terry Borst

filed 1 September 06 Copyright ©2006 alt.screenwriters

Once upon a time, there were three television networks, all with the exact same prime-time broadcasting schedule, and episodic programming was rigidly divided into half-hour and one-hour time blocks.

As we all know, the three original broadcast networks have since been joined by Fox, the WB, UPN, and now CW. Basic cable networks and pay cable networks also entered the fray, creating various tiers for writing and talent compensation, types of programming, and even awards.

Nevertheless, despite all these changes, the rigid half-hour and full-hour program blocks didn’t budge. Until now.

With the rapid adoption of broadband Internet bandwidth, and the introduction of Video-On-Demand (VOD) and Internet Protocol Television (IPTV), TV networks have almost overnight created a new programming format: the webisode/mobisode. An increasing number of television shows are now creating mini-episodes that run from 1-12 minutes in length, and distributing them via the Web, cellphones, iPods, DVD inserts, and Enhanced TV offerings.

THE WEBISODE’S BACKSTORY

Webisodic (i.e., webisode series) entertainment first emerged on the Internet in the mid ’90s: regular “episodes” more akin to serialized print fiction or graphic novels, in that the media assets consisted purely of text and still images.

During the late ’90s, online webisodes evolved into low-bandwidth 2D Flash animations: original Internet properties created by small online shops and independent production companies. While some of these webisodes were written and produced by professional screenwriters, the projects were almost purely sideline and independent ventures (though a couple of webisodics were later adapted to feature film and TV show pilot scripts).

The Fox show 24 ushered in the era of the mobisode: one-minute full motion video episodes designed for distribution on cellphones. The mobisode story arc had little to do with the actual TV show, however: no one from the TV cast appeared in the mobisodes, and the show’s creative team were not involved in the mobisodic production.

THE WEBISODE NOW

Suddenly, in 2006, network webisodes are routinely being produced using full motion video. Shot just like a TV show, these webisodes are typically integrated into and further explicate the show’s story arcs and “mythology”. Members of the TV cast are often used, and the show’s writer-producers are now actively involved in development and production.

Increasingly, these webisodes are being distributed through the network’s brand-new broadband channel. Though this broadband channel may currently only be available on the network’s own website, networks are already looking to the day when the broadband channel will be a remote control click away on VOD, IPTV, and other platforms — much like selecting HBO Classic or HBO Latin on DISH or Comcast.

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: THE RESISTANCE

One newly emerged broadband channel is The Sci Fi Channel’s Sci Fi Pulse. Sci Fi Pulse offers everything from streaming replays of new show premieres, to exclusive videos from ComicCon, to previews of upcoming SciFi Channel movies and shows. However, arguably the crown jewel of Sci Fi Pulse’s offerings are the original webisodes now being produced for the broadband channel. These webisodes complement, enhance, or bridge the storytelling being done in the network’s weekly episodic fare.

No show has been more successful on The Sci Fi Channel than Battlestar Galactica. In the run-up to the second season, writer-producer Bradley Thompson remembers some initial speculation in the writers’ room about creating webisodes for the show — but with no clear-cut mandate or venue for the webisodes, showrunner Ron Moore and the other staff writers moved on to writing Season 2 episodes. “There were too many logistical and legal issues, issues of payment, and so on,” recalls Moore. “All this is such new territory.”

All that changed as The Sci Fi Channel began to develop Sci Fi Pulse and various issues were worked out between the network and the show. Network executives knew they wanted Battlestar Galactica webisodes to help carve out a niche for the broadband channel, and a perfect time frame for distribution of 10 webisodes seemed to present itself in the gap between the show’s second and third seasons. Recalls Thompson: “On a Wednesday afternoon, Ron told us the assignment was ours if we wanted it — please have a pitch for Sci Fi by Friday.”

Initially, Thompson and fellow writer-producer David Weddle knew only one thing for sure: the webisodes would run 2-3 minutes each. Here’s why:

Web video delivery is at its most robust when video clips run less than 5 minutes. Generally, these short clips begin playing just seconds after streaming begins, and because of their brevity they avoid some of the choppy buffering and “stutter-streaming” that plagues longer online videos.

In addition, anecdotal evidence and some early studies suggests that much of the viewing of Web video is done during break times on-the-job or between college courses, or as a diversion to other activities engaged in on a PC. (People don’t sit down to an evening of Web video watching.) Consequently, the 2-3 minute episode length has developed into a natural one for webisodes.

But given the ten-installment, 2-3 minute format, one of the first questions staff writers Thompson and Weddle had to ask was whether it was best to create 10 standalone episodes, or create several mini-stories, or author a bigger story that might span the complete webisodic run. In addition, how much should the webisodic intersect with either seasons 2 or 3?

Season 2 had concluded with Battlestar‘s principals being double-crossed by their antagonists, the Cylons — resulting in an occupation of the human colony recently established planetside. Season 3 would pick up several months after the Cylon occupation, opening the door for what the webisodic might be about.

“Fortunately, the first three episodes of the new season had been written and we knew what was going to happen along the main arc of the story,” Thompson says. “David and I sat down with all these potential little stories and realized it would be more fun and truer to Battlestar to go after a more sweeping tale [in the webisodic].”

“The four month backstory between seasons gave us a lot of material to refer to,” notes Moore. Adds Weddle: “We hit upon the idea of focusing on two minor characters who play pivotal roles in the third season. What caused them to act as they did? Did a single tragic event drive them in opposite directions? How did life under Cylon occupation look through their eyes?”

Armed with a clear-cut goal and basic storytelling questions that would drive both plot and character, Thompson and Weddle quickly hammered out a story arc.

BATTLESTAR ON A BUDGET

Production, casting and distribution limitations helped to further shape the webisodic arc and the individual webisodes. “We were told there was no money for special effects, to limit the cast to actors who didn’t have to fly to Canada [the series shoots in Vancouver], and keep the character count down,” Thompson says. “The scenes had to be simple enough to shoot with a tiny crew within three days.”

Video compression also works best with simple sets and limited movement in scenes. The more visual complexity, the more bits in the downstream — often creating a less satisfying online video experience. In addition, “you have to think about how this looks in a 2-inch window,” says Moore. “It means mostly close-ups, and shooting with tighter coverage.” He refers to it as “guerilla-style, down and dirty filmmaking.”

As Weddle observes: “We had to tell the story with incredible economy. We couldn’t rely on explosions, space battles, or flashy action sequences to create the drama. It had to come out of the emotional violence of the characters and the demons they struggled with. And yet each webisode consisted of only one or two scenes and each had to end with a hook or act-out that would hopefully lure viewers back to see more.”

Interestingly, Thompson says the constraints “forced us to make the emotional dynamics the engine of the show, and thus allowed us to tell a smaller, more intimate story about our people.”

Weddle adds that “It was a little like getting to write a Playhouse 90 — in part because, just as in the early days of TV and movies, we are working in a medium that no one really understands yet.”

Pleased with the results, both the staff writers would work in the format again.

“It’s fun to go down character byways that would normally be cut from a [one-hour] episode,” Thompson says. “The webisodes give greater scope to the epic tale that Battlestar Galactica is spinning over its run.” Showrunner Moore adds that “we wouldn’t have crafted a [one-hour] story around these characters, so it was an opportunity to go deeper into the world.”

Sci-Fi and fantasy audiences tend to be highly devoted to their shows (The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are just two examples). Battlestar has been at the forefront of redefining what a TV show looks like in the 21st century, using the show’s website to distribute outtakes and deleted scenes, writer and actor blogs, episode commentary podcasts, podcasts from the writers’ room, and now webisodes. While the webisodes and other ancillaries are not essential experiences for the casual Battlestar audience, they all serve to deepen and enrich the storytelling experience for the more devoted viewer.

“TV storytelling is growing more sophisticated, complex, and layered. There will probably always be hour-long shows, but they will only be part of an ever expanding canvas,” Weddle says. Both staff writers alluded to the storytelling sweep of Dickens and Tolstoy, and Weddle adds that “I’m not sure there’s ever been this kind of storytelling before. We’re at the dawn of a new era.”

WEBISODES: OTHER MODELS

Battlestar‘s webisodic bridges the narrative gap between seasons, in one sweeping story. Other models for the webisodic exist, of course. For example, the teen drama Beyond the Break, which airs on “The N” (Noggin’s nighttime programming for teen audiences), has produced multiple standalone webisodes. (Some of the webisodes are two-part in nature, creating a 4-5 minute mini-story.)

NBC sitcom The Office has produced a 10-episode webisodic centering on a single storyline and starring several of the ensemble characters, but none of the lead characters of the show. Although the webisodic is being distributed during the break between seasons, its storyline is not in a fixed place in the narrative chronology of the show (which has developed romances and work relationships in more serial fashion), and thus works equally well whether experienced after watching a couple of episodes or dozens of episodes.

Sci Fi Pulse debuted webisodes for Eureka almost simultaneously with the summer premiere of the drama, looking to quickly ramp up audience loyalty to the series.

FX’s drama Rescue Me took a different tack, offering a 12-minute comedic one-off on AOL to open up the third season of the show.

Numerous other webisodics have been produced or are now in development or production (HBO’s Entourage is just one upcoming show that will have its own webisodic), and within another year, the webisodic is likely to be a standard element of a majority of network shows.

BROADBAND CHANNELS — A NEW PROGRAMMING TIER?

Sci Fi Pulse is not alone as a network broadband channel. CBS has Innertube, NBC has DotComedy, TNT has DramaVision, Comedy Central has MotherLoad, E! has The Vine, CMT has Loaded, MTV has OverDrive, and the list goes on. New network broadband channels are coming online on a regular basis. Although not all these broadband channels will survive, it’s only a question of time before many of them become available on your living room TV set, as well as on your PC.

These broadband channels offer a mix of promotional materials, infotainment, streamed downloads of previously aired shows, and original content.

Not surprisingly, there is much debate about whether webisodics constitute original program content, or are merely network promotions. However, the viewer visiting a broadband channel (or the part of the network website hosting the webisodic) will find that webisodes are advertised and prized as original entertainment content.

With the development of these new broadband channels, a broader question is whether we are also witnessing the emergence of yet another programming tier — which opens up all kinds of questions for writers, directors and talent as they negotiate contracts and agreements in the years ahead. Battlestar showrunner Moore wishes that “the whole structure [of webisode production] be more formalized so that everyone knows what the boundaries are [and] who does what, and so what the Guild says it is versus what the studio says it is are all worked out.”

While all of these issues will take a long time to sort out, professional screenwriters should now be considering how TV storylines can function in flexible time segments, as well as the half-hour and hour blocks of yore.

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Written by tborst

September 1, 2006 at 4:03 am

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