Webseries Emerge From the Shadows

Major industry players the likes of Vivendi are capitalizing on webseries by launching new platforms (Studio+ and Blackpills) that focus on a rising trend: watching videos on mobile.

“Webseries have existed since at least 20 years but it is only now, and finally, that they have a future.” This statement was made by Joel Bassaget, author of the Séries Mag web blog, during the opening ceremony of the Marseille Web Fest 2016.

Long synonymous with amateurism, webseries have for several years now attracted the attention of television channels. As early as 2010, Radio-Canada launched its ICI TOU.TV video-on-demand platform on which it proposes a host of webseries. Four years later, the CBC launched Punchline (renamed CBC Comedy in 2016) which presents humorous webseries.

In Europe, the BBC launched its first webseries in 2011 and the France Télévision group launched in 2012 a platform dedicated exclusively to fictional webseries—Studio 4.

However, it is only recently that true media giants began demonstrating a strong interest for this [not so] new format, starting with the launch at the end of 2016 of the Studio + app by Vivendi, Canal+’s parent company, in collaboration with Telecom Italia, and the launch scheduled for spring 2017 of Blackpills. This rival offer proposed by Daniel Marhely, creator of Deezer, and Patrick Holzman, cofounder of Allocine, benefited from the financial support of Free, an internet and telecom operator.

What motivates such media giants to capitalize on webseries to such an extent?

A rising mobile market

It’s no longer a secret that video has invaded all of our screens. Suffice it to examine the most recent figures released by YouTube to convince yourself of that: 1 billion users and hundreds of millions of hours of video watched each and every month.

However, there’s an important shift with respect to this trend: more than half of the videos are viewed on mobile devices. Given the evolution of mobile screens and the development of 4G technology, users are watching more and more video content on the go.

These short daily ‘breaks’ (while commuting, in waiting rooms, during coffee breaks, etc.) never exceed ten minutes or so, and that’s what explains the phenomenal success of short formats on the web.

Targeting young audiences

Millennials are without a doubt the largest consumers of web-based videos. They represent a prime target for television channels seeking to rejuvenate their audiences as well as for major corporations in search of new customers.

The Media Technology Monitor estimates that, during the fall of 2016, 80% of Canadians aged 15 to 34 used their smartphone to watch online videos. It’s actually smartphones, and not PCs or tablets, that represent the most commonly used devices by these young adults to view videos on the web.

A similar trend can be observed in many other countries. Médiamétrie revealed that in France, 95% of young people aged 15–24 consume video on PCs, mobiles or tablets at least once a month, compared to an average of 70% among all Internet users.

It is therefore not surprising that Instagram (Facebook’s photo and video uploading platform) decided to produce Shield 5—a series of 28 episodes each lasting 15 seconds—in February 2016.

Small series, big budgets

To reach this generation that is used to big-budget series, the industry’s new actors use every means at their disposal.

In the case of Studio +, which was launched simultaneously in Europe and Latin America, the ambition of the Canal+ group was to attract subscribers and have them discover original short works such as the Tank road movie (a 10 x 10-minute format) or Kill Skills, which follows the tracks of a hired killer in London. The offer is improved week after week with new episodes and original new productions that will be completed by global acquisitions.

After the trial month, the application costs 4.99 Euros (the equivalent of a little more than 7 Canadian dollars) per month or 1.99 Euros if the user is a Canal+ subscriber. Vivendi budgeted 35 million dollars in investments in its creative productions for 2016–2017. The average budget allocated to a webseries produced by Studio + works out to about 1 million Euros.

For its part, Blackpills has ordered a first series (also in a 10 x 10-minute format) from Luc Besson: Killer’s School. Inspired by Nikita and Kick-Ass, this series benefits from European and American distributions—testimony to a clearly international ambition. Millennials obviously form the target audience, as confirmed by another order for Junior, a webseries on teens that has been ordered from Zoe Cassavetes.

For both of these operators, the 10 x 10-minute format already seems to have become the norm, which is not the case of many other web platforms operated by France TélévisionARTE or Radio Télévision Belge Francophone (RTBF).

A new ‘new wave’?

However, the recent interest in webseries must not have us forget that they were initially developed as spaces where everything and anything was possible. They allowed young authors, born alongside the online culture, to talk about science fiction and heroic fantasy or propose completely unleashed comedies. All of these genres, considered too divisive to attract large television audiences, managed to build their notoriety within the Internet’s multiple niches.

It’s clear that this generation of young authors will henceforth influence the future of video, whether it be online or elsewhere. “I systematically speak in terms of the ‘new wave’ when I talk about webseries, explained Joel Bassaget during the opening ceremony of the Marseille Web Fest 2016, because I believe that the ‘culture’ behind webseries will naturally end up ‘infecting’ the cultures of cinema and television with more and more authors being trained in quicker and less costly production methods. For these creators, there is a solution for every problem.”

Industrialization vs. freedom

In the same manner as television did not replace cinema, webseries are not intended to replace television series, all the more so seeing as the frontier between web and television has become blurrier since the arrival of players like Netflix…

However, although webseries appear to have a bright future, their creators should keep in mind what makes their success, namely freedom, creativity, and originality. In short, webseries will have to become industrialized without losing the freedom of expression that is part of their DNA.

Alexandre Pierrin
Alexander Pierrin works as a writer/director on projects ranging from documentaries to humoristic webseries and radio performances. He wrote and directed the fictional webseries “doXa” for Studio 4 (France Télévision) as well as SURVIVRE, a documentary webseries on survivalists for the IRL platform (France Télévision). Finally, he was nominated for the “Prix SACD-Longueur d’ondes de la Fiction radiophonique humour 2018” for the collective creation Yoga Citoyen.
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