In little over a decade, online video has evolved from its humble roots as little more than a choppy, low quality gimmick with a horrendous frame rate, to the popular way that people consume film and television.
In Canada, networks like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation are suffering from massive cutbacks, and traditional television outlets are only concerned with what's going to please the masses and entice sponsors. Meanwhile, other Canadian funding ventures are taking risks with independently produced online content that are now paying off.
One of the biggest catalysts for this dramatic shift in the industry is the Independent Production Fund. Created in 1991, thanks to a $32 million endowment from Maclean-Hunter (later purchased by Rogers Communications), the IPF has been funding independent Canadian content for over two decades, and was one of the first funding bodies to take an active interest in web only content. In 2009, the IPF decided to funnel some of its resources into online projects and the results were so dramatic that they switched over to web entirely in 2010.
And all of the statistics point to a growing Canadian appetite for that online content. In 2012, Canadians watched an estimated 291 online videos a month–that's an average of 24.8 hours of video content. Canadian television networks like CTV have even been expanding their online video content at staggering rates. Not just with on demand viewing of their shows, but with original series' as well.
Whereas six or seven years ago, budding filmmakers would have to bear the full brunt of the production costs of creating a web series, there are now a wealth of funding options available to help up and coming actors and directors develop their ideas into a reality. Not to mention, more accessible and cheaper gear to make quality productions without network equipment.
"We were more than a little nervous," says Andra Sheffer, CEO of the IPF. "The first year we did it, we had around 160 applications, but we funded partially web and partially TV. After that year, we saw there was clearly a huge demand for web content, and because our total amount of funding is around $2 million a year, we realized we could have a much bigger cultural and artistic impact by supporting a multitude of web series rather than a handful of television projects."
There's so much more opportunity when you fund original online content.
The IPF's funding program has allowed several relatively unknown Canadian actors, writers and directors get their foot in the door of a notoriously tough industry. Going the traditional route is not even an option for most of them, at a time where the budget for new or experimental content on television networks is next to nothing (especially in Canada).
"There's so much more opportunity when you fund original online content," says Sheffer. "We're seeing so many new faces and great talents, and all of these actors, writers and directors are getting all of this great industry experience and building these great portfolios at about a tenth of a traditional TV budget. If broadcasters knew what was good for them, they'd be scouring YouTube all the time."
Even actors and writers who've been working in traditional television for a while are taking advantage of the opportunities that online content provides. Actor and director Morgan Waters, who's previously appeared in shows on networks like CBC and Muchmusic before foraying into web series, thinks that funding sources like the IPF are the best chance we have at getting our programming to an international audience.
"There's not that much opportunity for young creative voices on Canadian television, so being able to develop your voice by making web series and then showing it to Americans is the best we've got," says Waters. "Americans are hungry to find the next big thing while Canadians are more interested in maintaining status quo."
Waters' web series The Amazing Gayl Pile was awarded funding by the IPF in 2013 and the first season debuted in 2014. An irreverent comedy about a man obsessed with home shopping networks, the series is one that most television studios would be more than reluctant take a chance on, but Waters and co-creator Brooks Gray are already talking about season two.
There's not that much opportunity for young creative voices on Canadian television, so being able to develop your voice by making web series and then showing it to Americans is the best we've got
Another reason for the rise in web series is that it's a medium that allows writers and directors to create a series without having to compromise their vision by acquiescing to the network's suggestions and demands. For people like actor and writer Katie Boland, it allowed her to develop a series that stood very little chance of being made on a traditional network without drastic changes. Her web series Long Story Short follows a group of 20-somethings in Toronto and deals with alcoholism, promiscuity and the insanity of young adulthood in a refreshingly realistic way.
"At that point in my career, I would never have been allowed to show run a traditional television show, let alone write one," says Boland. She believes that programs like the IPF are integral if Canada wants to try and foster a new generation of independent film, and not just play it safe and tread water with a run of the mill series appearing on CBC.
"It's giving people money who have a proven track record or made a few good films decades ago. The Canadian system is bureaucratic in many ways and that doesn't lend to new voices being heard or genuine undiscovered talented being supported and rewarded. We could really up our broadcasting profile nationally and internationally if we put things on line that were a little edgier, different, challenging; not just a webisode of an existing series."
While it's certainly not the norm yet, networks like CTV are hopping on board the web series bandwagon and taking a risk on the artistic medium. The network is currently distributing the IPF funded web series Space Riders: Division Earth, a sort of Power Rangers spoof meets neurotic buddy comedy developed by Daniel Beirne and Mark Little.
"It's just as easy for someone on the CTV site to watch Criminal Minds as Space Riders," says Beirne. "They perhaps didn't invest as much in us, so there is slightly less risk for them, but there is a very reasonable argument for the idea that we did produce this according to a network's approval. And because there are some cool people working there, we didn't have to compromise at all, really."
Both Beirne and Little are no strangers to the web series game, either: Beirne having co-wrote and starred in his own web series The Bitter End and Little rising to notoriety through YouTube with the sketch comedy troupe Picnicface, whose Powerthirst video has been watched over 28 million times. The duo has also written and produced the self-funded comedy web series Dad Drives. Though the duo are obviously excited about the distribution through CTV, Beirne points out that there are still some flaws with the way web series are developed and distributed.
"It's a gamble to trust distributors because they have their way of doing things and you have to abide by that, but there's a way to look at the Space Riders process where it's possible that garnering the distribution agreement got us the funding. Self-releasing, while we would have had more control over it, may have sunk us."
While the tide of television is certainly shifting towards the digital shores and funding sources like the IPF are creating a massive amount of opportunity in an industry where there was very little before, the process of creating a successful web series is by no means an easy one.
Even if your series gets funded, if you're self-releasing it, it could be hard to attract a sizeable audience and justify another season. On the other side of the coin, getting involved with distributors means you're probably going to have to have some connections within the industry, and it's possible you might have to make some compromises as well.
For now, television networks are largely reactionary when it comes to web programming, trying to fulfill needs as they arise instead of anticipating them. Networks have to start embracing web content not as supplement to their programming, but as the future of it.
After all, cable television execs might be forced to accept the online future if an official Canadian government report is to be trusted. The 'Let's talk TV' report states that more Canadians are obtaining "their programming from a mix of platforms" that doesn't just include Canadian broadcasters, but "Netflix, YouTube, iTunes and sports leagues such as the NHL Network. They note that these other platforms are offered through devices other than the television set, such as tablets, mobile phones and computers."
In other words, if CBC keeps producing stuff like Murdoch Mysteries it might lose out to legions of new viewers looking for an edgier online web series.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Dan Beirne as the writer and director of The Bitter End, when he only co-wrote the production.