Didn’t This Already Happen in 2001?

More nostalgia for the early part of this century: remember when web-only cartoons were going to be the big thing? When writers for The Simpsons and other shows were signing deals to create things like web-only episodes of The Critic? And then we actually saw the web-only episodes and got turned off by the fact that a) The animation sucked, b) Most of our favourite characters weren’t there, and c) The episodes only lasted two minutes? And then the companies went bust? Well, that’s happening again, except for the part about the companies going bust. I don’t think Google’s going to go bust, and Google is the company that seems to be most interested in the potential of web-only content. (As opposed to most webisodes, which are made to tie in with shows that are running on the networks; even if you don’t buy the networks’ insistence that these features are merely “promotional,” they’re not really self-contained works that are supposed to stand on their own.

Seth MacFarlane is moonlighting at Google, despite his huge Fox contract, to produce two-minute webisodes under the title of “Seth MacFarlane’s Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy,” a title whose combination of ego, retro references and fake irony kind of sums up Seth MacFarlane’s style in six words. But he is unquestionably the most popular producer of television aimed at young, internet-friendly people, and he is the most logical choice to test whether the original webisode can be made to work better than it did a few years ago.

There are other biggies who are migrating to the internet in the same way, taking time off from their more lucrative projects to do internet stuff with a bunch of their buddies. Joss Whedon, his writer brothers, and pals like Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion are unveiling their web-only miniseries “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” next week.

A lot of what we’re seeing now is a repeat of what we saw in and around the year 2000, when a number of TV writers and producers tried to move to the internet because they were frustrated with the limitations of network television. Companies like Icebox.com were started with a view to letting creators make shows for the internet without network interference, and writers foresaw a golden age when they could bypass networks entirely and just go directly to the people. After the recent strike, there’s a new currency to this idea, because more and more people are talking about the problems of doing good work in a showbiz world controlled by only a few corporations. The idea is that networks are dinosaurs, and the future of television is
in finding ways around the outdated network system. Being naturally cynical, I don’t see it happening; if Google does find a way to make webisodes profitable, they will inevitably wind up interfering as much as or more than any network. Interference from the top is kind of a natural consequence of success. But you can see why writers would want to get in on this internet content stuff while it’s still not successful, or at least not profitable; until the success occurs, there are no rules and they can do any silly thing they want without anybody telling them no.