08/29/2012 12:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Web Series: The Solution to the Network Television Problem

Web series like Dr. Horrible, Husbands and Awkward Black Girl are making a splash online, raising the bar for free, quality serial programming available worldwide instantly. Network TV needs to catch up.

When Felicia Day launched the web series The Guild back in 2007, it was one of those hipster underground kind of project that only real internet savvy folks like ourselves would stumble upon. The Whedon fans stayed cause of the Buffy factor, and the gamers felt a real sense of community. This was finally a series about them, and so what if it was not on TV? The gamers were online anyway, and here was a series of cute little 5-minute installments to tie them over while their WoW screens were loading.

It wasn't until the Writers' Strike of 2008 when Joss Whedon set out to create Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, a three-episode web series starring Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion (and of course Felicia Day, who had inspired Whedon's project in the first place), that the idea that a web series could have real klout both on- and offline took off. Dr. Horrible put web series on everyone's radars, at least for a short time. Viewers were drawn to the series because of the names associated with it, and it was hailed for its great production values and for the effort which had clearly put into it. Dr. Horrible was worthy of "real" television - and ironically, that's exactly where we'll soon be able to see it.

Since then, a lot of television veterans have stepped out of the network game and branched out online. A prime example is former Friends star Lisa Kudrow, whose web series Web Therapy has been very successful, and featured appearances by pretty much everyone who is anything in the television industry.

But web series aren't just wanna-be network TV, and that's what makes them so important. The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, currently in its second season, is a perfect example of this. With this series, writer, director and actress Issa Rae set out to fill a void which regular television hasn't been able to: that of the black girl who is so much more than any of the stereotypes TV has painted her as. The main character J is an awkward dork, and that is what defines her. And that's a powerful statement in itself.

And while Rae and co-creator Tracy Oliver initially tried to get the series optioned by a network, in subsequent interviews the pair have admitted that adapting the series to fit network requirements would have required a major restructuring of the show, including re-casting of most of the main roles, and other changes that would totally destroy what ABG stands for. Free of network censorship, ABG can exist online in its purest form, available for free to anyone all over the world who wants to experience it. And not only that, but this series is good. The acting, writing and production are all top-notch, and the show is pretty damn funny, too. You will literally find nothing like it on television, and that is only a good thing.

Of course, another web series currently making a splash is Once Upon a Time and Buffy writer Jane Espenson's Husbands, which follows two newlywed Hollywood celebrities who just happen to be men. While the series makes an obvious statement, the statement is not the point of the show, and that's why it works. Husbands is hilarious, and as with ABG and Dr. Horrible, all aspects of this series looks and feels so professional. While Espenson and co-creator Brad Bell still imagine that the series could be picked up by a network, this would only ever happen based on its success online. This is another show which would never have come into existence if not for the fact that the internet allows for uncensored, free creativity.

As Espenson has stated, "We want [the show] to change the world." And being free and accessible to everyone is a big part of that. Putting a show like this on a network not only restricts its content, but also its availability.

This is why the distribution approach of the web series Dating Rules From My Future Self is so puzzling. Available for free online, this series has starred Roswell's Shiri Appleby and The Vampire Diaries' Candice Accola and comically shows young women navigating their way through the dating scene, guided by helpful text messages from the future. But while it's distributed on YouTube, it is only available to watch within the United States. While the production company has been unavailable for comment, this likely has to do with sponsorship agreements, and the fact that Dating Rules is still holding onto the traditional network model.

The fact that Dating Rules (and similar restricted series like the Zelda-inspired Legend of Neil) sticks out like a sore thumb among these other brilliant creations, however, only goes to show that web series are changing the way serialised television works. It is a well-known fact that the internet has changed the rules of fandom, and internet-savvy television series fans expect to be able to experience their favourite shows at the same time as their online peers, to join in the global communities forming around their fandoms of choice.

Television piracy is a major problem for American networks, who for some reason (whether it be because they are holding onto tradition or because they are caught in licensing agreements with other countries' networks) are holding back on making their programming available worldwide through the internet, of course with commercials and for a small fee.

It's already happening, on a micro scale. Some networks are working across borders to make shows available very close to the original airing dates. And networks have released web series, too, mini episodes of shows like Battlestar Galactica and Lost, free to watch no matter from where (though for the most part, they essentially work like deleted scenes). But still, UK and Australian audiences have to wait months to catch up on shows like Once Upon a Time and The Vampire Diaries, while Americans in turn have to wait for cult hits Merlin and Doctor Who. And avoiding spoilers is, as you know, practically impossible if you want to have any kind of presence online.

But services like Netflix, Amazon and iTunes are slowly beginning to change the network distribution model. As are web series; the more successful and popular they become, the more time and money will go into producing them, and the more irrelevant networks as middlemen will seem. Which is a win/win for fans: either quality television will no longer need networks to reach an audience, or else networks will adapt and start applying the web series distribution model.

Do you watch web series? And if yes, which are your favourites? Do you think they serve an important function which network television series can't emulate?