IT was Jessica Rose who gave this funny little genre its first hit, way back in 2006. Lonelygirl15, if you'll recall, was the headline-grabbing video diary of a pretty teenager, later exposed by net detectives (led by the Los Angeles Times' Richard Rushfield) as a brilliant, CAA-backed fiction. The lonely girl was by no means alone -- she had a team of writers and producers behind her, and though the case was closed on lonelygirl15, the frontier of "webisodic" video was wide open.
The problem with open frontiers is that the people seeking to colonize them, to borrow a quote from Ms. South Carolina, simply "don't have maps." Which is why, almost two years after lonelygirl15, no Web series has established a viable, let alone profitable homestead.
But this week, more wagons are arriving. On Monday, Sony Pictures Television launched C-Spot, an online comedy channel featuring six sharply produced programs with enough short episodes to fill a 13-week season.
And today, it's Jessica Rose herself. The almost-21-year-old actress from New Zealand will soon return to the online world as the star of "Blood Cell," a new horror-thriller from Web TV studio 60Frames Entertainment, directed by Eduardo Rodriguez. The show, whose trailer went up Tuesday night at deadcelldeadfriend.com, follows Rose's character, Julia, as she contends with an unseen murderer who will talk to her only via her fancy photo- and video-enabled cellphone. Which hopefully gets good reception because, as the name of the website suggests, if Julia's signal goes dead, a blond somewhere gets it.
Going along with the conventional wisdom about online audience-building, C-Spot and 60Frames will "syndicate" their shows, allowing them to play on several platforms. C-Spot shows will appear on Sony's Crackle, Hulu and AOL Video, while 60Frames can be seen on Bebo, Blip.tv, iTunes, MySpace and others. And everyone's on YouTube. Revenue-sharing deals allow the creators to get a piece of the advertising pie no matter where their shows get watched.
60Frames and Sony Pictures represent the vanguard of Hollywood's efforts to unriddle the Great Question of Web-only TV: In an entertainment landscape dominated by multihour, multinight giants like " American Idol," how do you win repeat viewers in three piddling minutes?
Finding the Answer has become more than just a competition for Hollywood's first generation of pure Web executives. 60Frames CEO Brent Weinstein says shows like "Blood Cell" reflect the "spiritual design" of his company, whose mission was to "expand the notion of what works in the online space."
"It's not just comedy," said Weinstein, who said his company has 32 series in active production or postproduction. "Thrillers can work, dramatic series can work -- this is something that we think really can prove that there's an audience out there."
For Sony, on the other hand, it is just comedy. Instead of trying to pull the proverbial sword from the stone, C-Spot is attempting to make online comedy smarter, better and higher-budget.
On that score, Sony Pictures Television's Sean Carey said C-Spot shows cost between $5,000 and $10,000 per episode. (Sources at 60Frames said "Blood Cell" episodes cost less than $5,000.)
"We spent more on these shows than anything that we've made historically," said Sony's Carey.
And it shows. C-Spot's production quality noticeably outpaces that of its competitors, represented by sites like TNT's SuperDeluxe.com, MySpaceTV.com, and Freemantle Media's new AtomicWedgieTV.com.
One of C-Spot's better shows is "Gaytown," the brainchild of MySpace comedian Owen Benjamin. The show chronicles the travails of a straight man trapped in a gay world -- a surprisingly fertile premise that Benjamin uses to point up all the little injustices gays face in the real world. In one episode, Benjamin and two other closeted straight dudes are busted in a public restroom in the middle of a fantasy baseball draft.
Benjamin wrote, produced, starred in and scored the show -- a model of the kind of uber-control creators of these Web series can enjoy but also of the kind of work that goes into them.
"A lot of people get these production budgets from companies and they try to pocket as much of it as they can," Benjamin said, adding that he didn't follow suit. "If you're going to tell people that this new media can act like TV, and you're going to take it seriously, it has to look good. It can't just be the [junk] you see on YouTube all the time."
Just so, this crop of Hollywood-anointed Web creators is banking on the prospect that the Web may become a kind of idea sandbox, where the best-performing Web shows go on to have a more lucrative afterlife in bigger media.
"We really wanted this to be, in an ideal world, a precursor to a TV series," said Brad Roth, the co-creator along with Mark Feldstein of C-Spot's "The Writers' Room." What that meant for the pair's Larry Sanders-esque mockumentary was a more traditional TV look and feel and an aversion to the kind of raunchy, profanity-laced humor that's become a hallmark of Web comedy.
One of "The Writers Room's" in-jokes is that the cast is made up of real TV writers, including Bruce Kirschbaum ("Seinfeld," "Everybody Loves Raymond") and Jeff Kahn ("The Ben Stiller Show"). More than that, the show's 10 episodes were shot in five days, so it's not inaccurate to say it's really just a camera pointed at a room full of writers riffing all day.
C-Spot also features "The Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show" (which parodies strange Japanese talk shows and even has a guest appearance by Ron Jeremy), the "Best of Penn Says" (a vlog diary by Penn Jillette) and "Hot, Hot Los Angeles," a kind of comedic soap opera, half "The Hills," half "Entourage" and a little half-baked.
Sure, a few of the shows will probably get canceled after their first season, but others deserve to be renewed. Along the way, both C-Spot and 60Frames may well add some mainstream legitimacy to online TV.
But even as webisode budgets rise and more boldface names are tempted onto the Web, the Question still hangs in the air: What will it take for large numbers of us, 14-year-olds included, to feel like the computer screen and its thousand blinking, ringing distractions is a good place to watch TV?