11/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

After Emmys: Are Web Series a New Threat to Primetime TV?

Back when I was a youngster, "TV series" (then on only three networks) meant a full run of originals from September to June, often 39 in number. Now we get little more than half of that -- or act grateful when a series like Mad Men returns, once a year, with an explosion of about a dozen new episodes. And the latest: NBC airs Leno every night in primetime to cut costs further. Plus, the total commercial time is more than twice the old standards.

True, the general quality of TV programs (especially when you factor in HBO, Showtime, etc.) is no doubt higher. Still, one wonders how much longer until Web series, which also have limited runs, but without commercials, start of supplant TV series -- if the online shows continue to improve, add star and creative power, and expand by leaps and bounds.

It's now easy to find real stars in these series, with people like Will Farrell, Matt Damon, Judd Apatow, Ashton Kutcher, Rosario Dawson, Zac Efron, Michael Cera, Candace Bushnell, and so on, appearing in, or even creating, their own programming. The NBC series "Heroes" has an extensive second life on the Web, with separate plot lines and characters that cross over from TV to online and back again. Felicia Day recently scored a breakthrough deal for her Web series "The Guild" to get national Xbox distribution. Directors Bryan Singer and Ridley Scott are reportedly working on or backing sci-fi series.

The New York Times yesterday even featured for the first time, in its fall Arts preview, a wrapup on what is coming from Web series.

Still, a lot of Web series sites have fallen by the wayside as advertising for many has not yet come through (sound familiar?). But as the Times preview notes, "while small companies that hoped to specialize in Web video are forced out of business by a lack of advertising, other producers enter the field because it's cheaper than making television."

I've developed a real interest in this genre (especially since I hate primetime TV commercials) partly because my son, Andy Mitchell, a recent film school graduate, has his own major series, from Koldcast TV, coming out in October. It's titled "MacAwesome" and already gained important notice based on its promos, music video and this teaser.

FutureScape released a reported on the Web series landscape earlier this month which concluded:

--More stars are launching Internet TV shows, often funded by major sponsors

--Sound business models and commercial opportunities are emerging

--Web shows will break out across the entertainment sector as a whole

The future is uncertain, but as the constant nervous quips in last night's Emmy broadcast showed, there is much for TV to worry about, including the explosion of star-studded Web series. On the comedy side, you might say that primetime TV will have to be "funny or die."

Greg Mitchell is editor of Editor & Publisher and his latest book is "Why Obama Won."