With awards season soon drawing to a close, gold plated statuettes have been doled out at both the Emmys and the Golden Globes to spotlight television’s best and brightest talent.
What these televised award shows also inadvertently showcase is the industry’s continuous lack of diversity, which is made evident every time a nominee’s face flashes on the screen or a winner takes the stage. Black web series are poised to fill that gaping deficiency by offering multidimensional content created for and by Black storytellers.
The launch of YouTube in 2005 provided a free, accessible space for creative individuals to host and share their video content. Aymar Jean Christian, an assistant professor of media, technology, and society at Northwestern University and producer of web sitcom She’s Out of Order, suggested that the Black web series Chump Change might have been the first independent web series on the platform in 2006. Dozens of Black web series appeared during this time, including the viral Trapped in the Closet soap and BET’s Buppies, Christian told EBONY.com, but Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl was the first post-YouTube series to gain a critical mass of viewers and champions.
Today, increased new media capabilities, such as social networking, an incessant demand for more varied Black characters and stories on television, and a handful of inspirational success stories have culminated in a flourishing industry. This swell of Black web series can be found at Televisual, where Christian has compiled a list of over 130 programs headlined by Black talent.
Amongst the featured shows are The Couple, Roomieloverfriends, and The Number, three series created and produced by one of the industry’s frontrunners, Black & Sexy TV. Together, the Black & Sexy TV team, comprised of Dennis Dortch (director of A Good Day to Be Black and Sexy,) Numa Perrier (The Couple,) Brian Ali-Harding, Jeanine Daniels, and a few interns, have churned out five branded web series beginning in 2011.
“As a friend of mine has stated, ‘Black people are in a famine when it comes to content for us. The appetite for images of ourselves is bigger than the current offering,” said Dortch via email. “This hole in the market has allowed us to offer an alternative not currently found on television or film, for those who are technically savvy.”
Dortch revealed that from the inside looking in, the result of Black & Sexy TV’s hard work has been a success. Their YouTube channel boasts almost 28,000 subscribers—impressive for a web series—they have syndicated Roomieloverfriends, and have another series Hello, Cupid slated for February. However, the hamster wheel grind that the small team initially adopted to generate consistent content—the key to their success—had quickly become the company’s potential downfall.
“We were afraid to look up and see what we are doing because we might realize how crazy the pace was,” he admitted. “We are definitely in the ‘growing pains’ phase and knocking our heads with mistakes much like the much publicized woes of Oprah launching OWN.”
For web series creators like Dortch, drive, commitment, and unreserved passion have substituted for large-budgets and extensive resources afforded traditional media outlets. And while Awkward Black Girl lead Rae to a television deal with Shonda Rhimes and Tony Clomax’s series 12 Steps to Recovery landed a network deal with Punch TV, at the moment, they are the exceptions. Televised network series have continued to reign supreme, in spite of declining cable subscriptions and pirated programming.
“Web series are already filling a void left by television—Drama Queenz filled the void Logo left after canceling Noah's Arc, for example—but they're hard to find because the marketing money isn't there,” Christian explained. “And because the marketing cash isn't there, neither are the seven-figure production budgets. Very few people make a living doing it, and those that do would probably call themselves middle class.” Dortch and Perrier, who together raise three children, have taken on freelance editing and acting jobs to generate a supplemental income. “We are an up and coming company that is operating in the red at the moment as we focus on building our audience and value,” disclosed Dortch. “Becoming a lucrative company is our priority this year.”
Still, as Lauren Neal, the 23 year-old co-creator and protagonist of fledgling series Spicy Wit, pointed out, “It’s not about the money.” A pet project of Neal’s four years in the making, the mockumentary-style sitcom focuses on racial identity politics at a prestigious academic institution. The pilot episode “Hate” premiered earlier this month, but was originally conceived in 2011 while Neal and co-creator Nick White attended Brown University. Similar to the Black & Sexy TV team members, who work from home, Neal, White, and additional Spicy Wit contributors conduct their business primarily through conference calls, Google hangouts, and Dropbox. “Our editor was in Maine, I was in L.A., our designer was in Vancouver, and my producing partner was in DC,” said Neal during a recent phone interview. “It’s been a really interesting experiment and it truly happened online.”
Neither riches nor fame are guaranteed for those in the web series industry. In fact, the chances of acquiring either are slim to none. But the possibilities are endless, the barriers to entry are all but non-existent, and unprecedented opportunities are on the horizon. Welcome to the Wild, Wild West, as Dortch likes to call it. “Creating and distributing content online is a brand new business with no rules and things changing everyday,” he noted. “It's a great time to be in the entertainment business online, because no one knows what they are doing.” Hulu and YouTube have embarked on original content initiatives, tapping independent web series creators, but as Christian mentioned, Black content continues to be underrepresented in those efforts. To sustain their series, many Black web series creators and producers have looked to crowdfunding websites Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Both the Black & Sexy TV and Spicy Wit team have successfully raised thousands of dollars for their series, confirming the special ingredient crucial to any web series’ survival: support from the viewers.
“Inspired, the audience valued what we were doing and stepped up when we asked,” said Dortch.”
“We gave a gift to them and they gave it back to us. That's how the world should work.”
Patrice Peck explores the complex intersection of culture, entertainment, race and gender as a multimedia journalist. Follow her musings at Twitter and Facebook, and visit her at www.speakpatrice.tumblr.com for more writing and video.