It started with a girl named Bree. At least that’s what she said her name was. She was 16, American and girlishly pretty. In June 2006, under the name LonelyGirl15, she posted her first video online. It lasted a minute and a half, was shot in her bedroom and showed her talking direct to camera. She namedropped a couple of other video bloggers (vloggers) and pulled a few funny faces. “What you need to know about my town,” she said, “is that it’s really boring. That’s probably why I spend so much time on my computer, I’m a dork.” That was it. Typical of the confessional teenage vlogs circulating the Web at the time.
A few days later, the next video appeared, showing Bree goofing around with a puppet monkey. In the third, she talked about being home-schooled and imparted some trivia about Antarctica. Pretty mundane stuff. It wasn’t until the sixth vlog, titled My Parents Suck..., that the tone shifted: in it she complained that her parents had forbidden her from going out with her friend Daniel on account of her “religion.” It wasn’t clear what religion this was. Within hours the video had notched up 50,000 hits. (The previous postings had counted 50,000 to 100,000 hits in the course of a week.) Two days later the tally was up to half a million. Suddenly LonelyGirl15 was a phenomenon. With each new video, as parental tensions heightened and suggestions of the occult crept in, the buzz grew ever greater.
Then, in September 2006, the Los Angeles Times exposed it all as a hoax. Teenage Bree was in fact 20-year-old New Zealand actress Jessica Rose. LonelyGirl15 was the fictional brainchild of three California-based filmmakers. None of it was real. Curiously, this didn’t deter the fans. To them Bree’s story was still compelling. The vlogs ran until August 2008, by which time the series had notched up more than 110 million views. It was pioneering. LonelyGirl15 had established a new type of entertainment: a hit online series with content devised specifically for the Web.
Now, two-and-a-half years since LonelyGirl15 first appeared, Web series are the hottest new format in Hollywood. No longer amateurish or user-generated in feel, the latest crop of webisodes are slick productions. Many boast celebrity involvement. In recent months, for example, Web series have been launched by Ashton Kutcher (Blahgirls, an animated gossip site for girls), Stephen Colbert (Children’s Hospital, a Grey’s Anatomy spoof starring Will & Grace’s Megan Mullally), and Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane (Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy, a cartoon sketch show). Also in the pipeline are projects from Josh Schwartz (creator of Gossip Girl and The OC), the Coen brothers and film directors Bryan Singer and David Lynch. In the US, all the leading studios have digital arms (including HBOlab, Warner Bros’ Studio 2.0 and Sony’s Crackle) that produce spin-off Web series from mainstream shows (such as The Wire and Gossip Girl) as well as original content.
When it comes to Web series, Hollywood can’t afford not to be ahead — particularly given how quickly viewing habits are changing as a growing number of consumers view content online (through streaming and downloaded videos). Already the most successful Web series can attract audiences of more than a million. Plus, it’s never been easier for a show to reach its audience — posted on video sharing sites such as YouTube and social-networking sites such as MySpace and Bebo (a particular boon for independent producers who don’t have access to traditional means of distribution).