From 'The Guild' to 'Husbands,' Web TV Comes Into Its Own

A new sitcom from Buffy writer Jane Espenson is the latest in a long line of online-only shows trying to build network-caliber audiences

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Today begins a period that's like a secular Christmas for television fans: the time when established favorites return to the air, and channels roll out a cornucopia of new shows. Increasingly, exciting television shows aren't premiering only on actual television networks. Tomorrow Husbands, a new web show about marriage equality from a team that includes veterans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Caprica, and Desperate Housewives, premieres online. The Husbands team took to web television in the hopes that they could lay down a marker for a new kind of gay comedy—and to persuade a network to take a chance on the show.

Web television has been around since 1995, though it took a decade for online shows to become an established medium. Felicia Day's web series The Guild, a comedy about a guild in an online role-playing game who become friends in real life, has been running online since 2007. Now in its fifth season, the show's episodes had been watched more than 45 million times on YouTube. Similarly, Joss Whedon's three-part series, Doctor Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog, created during the Writers Guild of America strike that lasted from 2007 to 2008, sold briskly on iTunes and DVD.

Web shows have increasingly become auditions, testing a concept and building an audience, before making the leap to a television network. Children's Hospital, the darkly satiric medical show created by Daily Show veteran Rob Corddry, began on The WB.com and now airs as part of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup. Friends star Lisa Kudrow started her improv series Web Therapy independent online in 2008, and this summer, it premiered on Showtime.

The creators and staff of Husbands have learned from their predecessors. Jane Espenson, the Husbands creator and writer who's written for shows ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Game of Thrones and helped create SyFy's show Warehouse 13, funded Husbands herself, just as Whedon did with Doctor Horrible.

"I approached it like someone should approach any kind of game—don't bring more than you can afford to lose," she says. "My plan wasn't really to make my money back on the web, but to make the point that there is an audience for this subject matter."

It helps, Espenson says, that her line producer on the show, M. Elizabeth Hughes, is a veteran of the web TV genre: She's worked on The Guild and other web shows, and knows well the importance of cultivating an audience in a medium where shows don't have advertising budgets or the luxury of hoping people will stumble upon them while channel-surfing.

"Web creators and stars make themselves more accessible than television creators and stars because they know that they need to be active and visible in the medium they've chosen," Hughes says. It creates a community between fans and creators...I think that makes the project sustainable...People will forgive low production values if the story and characters are fresh and engaging."

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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