Broadcast television and the Web have reached something of an uneasy truce in recent times. Once mortal enemies, US networks, the BBC and RTE have come around to the idea of free on-demand content with increasingly popular services that actually work. By treating the Internet as just another broadcast platform, Hulu, BBC Player, 4OD and Sky’s partnership with Xbox LIVE have proven that broadcast TV has little to fear from the online space.
Finding a way to use the Web as a medium for telling stories, as opposed to distributing them, has proven a somewhat more difficult prospect; not only in terms of how to construct new material but to monetise it as well. Web-only series like Red vs Blue, lonelygirl15 and The Guild built cult followings owing to a wealth of in-jokes and geek cred, perfect fodder for video sharing sites. Take them out of their comfort zones and you can be assured their punky production values would see them struggle to gain traction alongside the likes of The Office or In Treatment.
Coming from the opposite end of the tunnel, TV networks have dabbled in using the Web as an incubator for new series since 2007. One example of three years ago, Quarterlife, seemed to have it all, a feisty yet vulnerable heroine, network backing and the production team behind Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. After some positive feedback on MySpace the show made the leap to NBC as an hour-long drama with disastrous consequences.
Now Virgin’s UK-based multiplatform entertainment channel, Virgin1, is dabbling in a ‘best of both worlds’ solution, where strong production values and running times below the all-important five-minute mark play to the strengths of online and broadcast media. Their first acquisition, Dr. Hoo, a sci-fi thriller starring Ian Hart and Elaine Cassidy, debuted earlier this year. Written and directed by Stephen Lord (who also plays the shadowy Agent Smart), the show has thus far paid its way by driving traffic to Virgin 1’s website, ensuring the station’s commercial base.
The next steps for Lord and his team involve broadening the distribution base to include content streaming websites and direct to mobile handset downloads, all done with one eye on the creative process and the other on the brutal metrics of the online space – something he speaks about with obvious relish when Film Ireland caught up with him.
On time, under budget
Perhaps unexpectedly, Dr Hoo was not a commissioned drama from Virgin but a property that arrived whole from Lord and his production partner, Mark Collins. Shot in a week, the first series was pitched as a ready-to-go product in search of a platform. Having never carried an original Web series before, Dr Hoo represented a chance to experiment with original online content with minimal risk. As Lord explains, ‘Virgin had never done an original Web series before and were keen on aiding us to break new ground. They were also very impressed with the talent and concept. As it was bought in it was easy for them to take a punt on it as well. I think the amalgamation of the profile of the crew and the story was enough to convince Virgin to say yes.’
Having a recognised cast doubtless helped the cause, with Ian Hart and Elaine Cassidy (Lord’s partner) adding credibility to the series. ‘I’d spent some time in LA with Ian and we clicked professionally. As an actor both Ian and Elaine, like myself, are drawn to interesting characters and they thankfully loved the idea of us all working together.’
Premise aside, any project, especially online where novelty is king, needs a hook. In the case of Dr Hoo the draw is in the title, an impish way to pique the interest of genre fans expectant of an homage to the BBC’s shapeshifting timelord. What viewers actually get, the story of a Welshman with multiple personality disorder, might not have quite the same incendiary potential.
‘I like to think any project in life is a bit of a gamble,’ admits Lord of his naming strategy. ‘I was completely open to the fact of the title being a cheeky hook to draw in Dr Who fans, although our show is based on something much more rooted. Being from Wales, David Raymond Hugh pronounces his surname ‘who’ and totally believes that he is a real doctor.’
One of the essential components of writing for online series is the ability to boil a story down to episodes rarely passing the five-minute mark. Many screenwriters would have struggled to achieve the required economy; Lord was happy to embrace the challenge. ‘I actually found it really refreshing, as it became for me a simple exercise of writing self-contained short scenes and seeing where they ended. We allowed some room for improvisation on set as well.’
As an actor, having the ability to work on-the-fly is one thing but it can also present the kind of problems that would see entire episodes worth of material hit the cutting room floor. One example Lord cites is a scene in a police station, where as a tense interrogation ends in the title character being raped. Intriguing as the result was, the scene had to be dropped as no amount of editing suite sleight of hand could get the action to fit into the time allotted without compromising its dramatic integrity.
Lord’s experimentation extended to basic plotting as well, where fine detail was treated with the same attention as high-impact cliffhangers, another deviation from the norms of TV serials, and even vintage radio plays. ‘I didn’t want to feel pushed to write that way,’ he asserts. ‘Sometimes life can be interesting enough just when you sit down and have a cup of tea. There is an element of making it up as you go along as well, that element of catching the truth of things. We have a scene where Dr Hoo is building himself up to jump off a bridge and I thought “is this what the show is? Is it about building up to this moment?”’
Direct to market
In terms of marketing, having a target audience was something Lord was conscious of during the development and production process. Having captured (and hopefully retained) genre fans, the next step is to prove the benefits to Virgin by driving traffic to the stations website and building a viral campaign in the form of a music video. The results to date have been impressive: Virgin1 gaining 100,000 page views and a promotional music video on YouTube garnering 80,000. In an age of declining ad revenue and brutal pay-per-click metrics, delivering those kind of numbers is manna to any business relying on eyeballs to push up their rates on banner advertisements – something Lord was hip to from the outset. ‘Although new media and webisodes are still very much in infancy stages, especially in terms of making money, we found it was possible to earn revenue off streaming exclusively to established portals such as Virgin1 with advertising in place. This was done through banners and then also through the mobile phones and some downloading sites. Amazon in the US and Apple will follow in 2010.It’s now up to our US aggregator IODA to generate more downloads and more non-exclusive territory by territory streaming.’
Social networks have also played their part in promoting Dr Hoo, a fan page on Facebook has been set up, as has a Twitter account: @drhootv. One decision that has seen the show’s strategy draw criticism, however, was limiting the reach of the show to the UK, frustrating many potential overseas viewers – something Virgin drew flack on directly. While easily circumvented with a browser plug-in and a proxy server Lord’s strategy is to continue with a territory-by-territory rollout, likening the process to touring with a small set of film prints. It’s a slow burn he hopes will lead to more partnerships and a greater chance of successfully monetising the show.
One such partnership is with mobile content distributors Mofilm, recent sponsors of the London Film Festival. The plan is to have a staggered release schedule of ‘mobisodes’ [multimedia content tailored for distribution to mobile handsets] in 84 countries, something Lord is delighted about, despite the difficulty in gauging a financial return.
Whatever the possibilities Lord is not getting carried away, and while hardly dismissing the idea of developing Dr Hoo into a longer format there are no immediate plans to make the jump from browser to larger screens. ‘I think Dr Hoo really works well in its truest from as a Web series,’ he says. ‘However, there is always the case of “large streams from little fountains flow”. I would hope we could see some more webisodes and mobisodes. There is some discussion of having an American version, maybe with a big star as a hook, much like how The Office was translated.’ For the moment, anyway, it’s still a case of Hoo dares, wins.