'I'm Here Because of the Internet': How Web Series Made New TV Stars

Just days before the 76th Golden Globes Awards, we talked to Quinta Brunson and Sam Bailey about how their digital shows translated to mainstream success on television.

by Terry Nguyen
Jan 2 2019, 9:18pm

Photo by Getty Images

The internet loves Quinta Brunson, and soon, television audiences will too. Her shockingly exaggerated expressions and hilarious catchphrase “He got money!” catapulted Brunson to online fame through her viral 2014 web series The Girl Who’s Never Been on a Nice Date.

About four years later, the Los Angeles-based writer and actress is developing a television comedy series she will star in for CBS, alongside Jermaine Fowler and Larry Wilmore. Brunson’s leap into television, after years of producing successful online work for Facebook Watch, Youtube Red, and Buzzfeed Motion Pictures, is not unusual.

“Sometimes when you're in the process of making it to traditional [television], not that many people get to see or read your work,” Brunson told Broadly. “Digital allows for the experience of it to be seen, for you to get feedback, know how to create and to make something that's watchable.”

According to the Annenberg Inclusive Initiative, only 4 percent of directors in Hollywood are women and of that group, 19 percent are women of color. The same disparities go for the top films of 2017, of which 31 percent had women speaking roles and 94 percent of the top films had no LGBT women at all. Demanding more on their own terms, up-and-coming writers, producers, and creators are slowy changing this exclusionary narrative of Hollywood by bypassing the traditional route into television—which usually consists of establishing industry connections through media jobs to eventually land writing or producing positions.

Brunson is a fresh face in Hollywood, part of a crop of digital-native creators—like Emmy award-winning Insecure creator Issa Rae, Brown Girls’ director Samantha Bailey, and Eighth Grade director Bo Burnham—who have all made the leap into television and film through the help of digital media. They are younger, diverse, and doing groundbreaking work that contains characters and perspectives that go beyond the industry’s familiar storylines and tropes.

“What I found is that a lot of [digital] creators have explicitly said they are frustrated with the lack of diversity of media forms,” said Dr. Whitney Monaghan, a Monash University lecturer on film and screen studies. “When they're creating web series [or short films], they're really looking to represent themselves in their own authentic experiences.”

Creators and media experts view the digital space as a medium where authentic, diverse stories shine. Online, the filmmaking process is simplified and audiences can readily access content for free or behind a limited paywall. Demographically, young adults are also watching more content from streaming services online rather than traditional cable or antenna television, according to Pew Research. Younger consumers show interest in on-demand media services, like Netflix or HBO, which have shows that fall beyond the scope of traditional television.

These changing consumption habits could help popular independent creators, especially those with established audiences, to transition between mediums, according to Monaghan.

“Because television is changing so much at the moment, that transition from web to traditional TV is going to be less distinct,” she said. “What do we mean when we [define] television [as a medium]? Is a Netflix series a web series?”

Bailey’s web series Brown Girls, co-created with Fatimah Asghar, follows the lives of two young women of color in Chicago. The series is currently being developed by HBO, the network behind Insecure (adapted from Rae’s web series “Awkward Black Girl”) and High Maintenance (also an adapted web series). Yet, Bailey finds herself nostalgic to work in the digital space again, a medium without any gatekeepers that she refers to as “uncharted territory.”

“Web series, depending on how and why you're doing it, can be an incredibly freeing space for not only new writers but more established ones as well,” Bailey said in an email to Broadly.

Flexibility across all media mediums is key, according to Brunson, who sees herself creating for both digital and television. In the case of popular Canadian LGBTQ+ web series “Carmilla,” the show was turned into a feature film screened in theaters and broadcasted on national television. However, some creators like Asian American filmmaking company Wong Fu Productions (known for its Asian Bachelorette parody), remain digitally focused by placing selective content behind online paywalls.

“There are no institutions of great web series,” Bailey said. “But because of that, it really is an even playing field and really the only place where I was able to find content that spoke to me on a deeply personal level.”

While notable digital works do receive recognition—like the Webbies, Web Series World Cup, and an Emmys category—there is little to no emphasis on prestige or ratings when it comes to creating a series, according to Bri Castellini, an independent filmmaker and community director for Stareable, an online community for web creators.

“I think that there's a real value to not worry about keeping your process inclusive,” Castellini said about web series that speak to niche communities. “Your first goal should be telling a great story and finding an audience, and you can't really build an audience as a relative nobody by putting your stuff behind a paywall.”

Web series or digital short films establish a more intimate director and consumer relationship, which allow for direct audience input and suggestions in the creative process, Castellini noted. This contrasts to television writing rooms, where plot and character flexibility can be limited by executive approval.

In 2016, Google launched its own web series “GODCOMPLX” as part of the company’s efforts to shift mainstream media narratives on computer science, technology, and the people within these fields. The effort was spearheaded by Daraiha Greene, Google’s Global Lead of External Community Affairs, who pitches diverse, tech-based storylines to producers and writers rooms.

“Because we were facing so many restrictions in Hollywood, I decided it was time we took our work to the next level and start developing our own content,” Greene told Broadly. “With our web series, we were able to create with our [computer science] mission in mind and cast with inclusive representation as our primary goal.”

Quinta Brunson in ABC's "Single Parents"

The cultural inequalities in the media industry stem from the top down and are largely systemic, according to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s 2016 media report. Decisions to alter a character’s storyline, or even profession, require a chain of approval. “[Through our own series], we don’t need to secure approvals from the reporting chain within a network, wait for an open window in the writer’s room, or work within their budgets,” Greene said. “Overall, we have more control over what we convey and how we share our message to the public.”

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With the Golden Globes four days away, the frustration from #OscarsSoWhite, and the #MeToo movement, Hollywood is struggling with equality and inclusion at all levels. The 2018 Emmys were criticized for presenting tone-deaf jokes on diversity, and the 2019 Golden Globes directors’ nominations appeared to snub female directors once again. On the awards’ stage, every decision and every nomination is construed as a dismissal or a recognition by high-level industry players.

On the contrary, the digital media landscape garners much less attention than the mainstream, but it has become both a training ground and a lucrative medium for creators that attract loyal viewers.

“[I see] audiences get upset over the lack of diversity on television and films, but [what they don’t realize] is that people are going out of their way to do that on digital,” Brunson said. “The more we support and treat digital as a powerhouse platform that it is, the more we change those things.”