Webisodes: Content vs. Promo

Last Friday, for the first time, I found out what a “webisode” was. The idea was pretty straight forward – an online mini “episode” for a TV show which both enriches the narrative world of the show and advertises for the network. However set with the challenge to actually find my own – I was nervous. How on earth do we find these so called “webisodes”? Naturally I did the most obvious thing and typed “SHOW I LIKE – WEBISODE” into YouTube – with winning results! The show I chose was Breaking Bad – only because I miss it, and I know there’s a lot of hype around the show. I was delighted to find that there was all this official online content for the show available that I had no idea existed previously.

In 2009 after the end of season one, AMC released five three to five minute webisodes to promote season two, including a look at Jessie’s band “Twauthammer” and Marie’s somewhat frightening therapy video log. After the second season in 2010, five more were released in the form of sleazy ads for new character Sol Goodman’s law practice. My favourite webisode was one in the first batch in 2009 entitled “Wedding Day.” It is a flashback to Hank and Marie’s wedding; Walt tries to calm Hank’s pre-wedding jitters.

The key thing I gathered from watching this webisode – something which I feel is common to all the Breaking Bad webisodes I watched – is that the webisode doesn’t actually add anything to the Breaking Bad story arch. Rather, they’re humorous, stand alone “episodes” that enhance our appreciation for the characters we already know and love. In this sense they seem more like a hook for a show – little tasters that make us miss, or rather, not forget about the show between seasons. The fact that the webisodes are much more light-hearted and funnier than the show itself (which first and foremost a drama, with humour being the secondary focus) fits in with the notion of online advertising. Companies are going to get much better results with a funny short than with a snippet of drama. The funny short, if successful, will bring in new viewers, whereas the dramatic short will only appeal to previous fans of the show. This naturally leads in to the topic of advertising – or in this context, promo vs. content.

In Max Dawson’s article Television’s Aesthetic of Efficiency: Convergence Television and the Digital Short he discusses the notion of efficiency of the webisode. He writes, “Television networks program their digital outposts with shorts because… they remain an effective means of bringing culture, content, and commerce into alignment.” We are simultaneously being entertained and advertised to in one foul swoop. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this as watching a television show is submitting to the exact same thing – being simultaneously entertained and increasing the network’s revenue.

However, Dawson continues, “By withholding full-length programming from the web in favour of brief clips, trailers, recaps, behind-the-scenes footage, and other repurposed materials, networks established web presences without incurring substantial start-up costs”. This is more of a problem – networks using the internet to provide cheaply produced entertainment instead of well produced or quality entertainment – something that bodes ill for the future of television. However the biggest problem with the webisode that Dawson identifies is for the writers, namely that “writers identified digital shorts as cynical gambits on the part of greedy media conglomerates to extract additional productivity from the labours of creative professionals.”

As a wannabe writer myself, I am only all too familiar with the concept of big producers and networks profiting of the hard work of the creative underling beneath them. As these networks have branded webisodes as advertising material instead of a genuine off-shoot production – networks have gotten away with paying their writers less (an issue prevalent in the 2007 writer’s strike.) Naturally this is a contentious issue as it is difficult to see where the content begins in the advertisement starts in these webisodes. Are they a show in their own right or merely an ad for the original?

Ultimately I am glad for webisodes. Like I said earlier, I was thrilled with access to more content for Breaking Bad between seasons. I feel that the act of searching for these webisodes, by which I mean making the actual effort to look up these episodes online takes away some of the power from the networks who claim that they merely serve as advertising. Advertising is generally something that is shoved in your face, uninvited, which subsequently manipulates you into buying in. However I am already on the Breaking Bad train and don’t need any pushing in the matter. For me, despite the shift in tone of the webisodes compared to the show itself, the webisodes primarily work as an expansion of the Breaking Bad universe – something I am glad for. And because they entertain me, and aren’t thrust upon me uninvited, and because they do enrich the viewing experience, and more so because these webisodes are well written, official and well produced – I expect the writers to be paid as such.

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