How Successful TV Shows Began By Creating A Web Series

During my junior year in film school, I signed up for  TV Comedy Writing with the hopes of learning how to write (and one day be employed) for a major television show.

The allure of writing for television is the opportunity to tell a story over an extended period of time with characters you love (or love to hate). As part of our course work, we had partners and were instructed to pick a TV show that was currently airing and develop an original episode around that particular show.

I chose FX’s Louie, but in the process I was introduced to Broad City, a show on Comedy Central. I instantly became a fan of the quirky humor and did my research on the TV series, only to find out that it started on YouTube as a web series.

As a writer, you can’t help but salivate at the idea of telling a compelling story on television over such a long period of time.

The problem is, getting a show on a major network or streaming service is a daunting task, but not insurmountable.

This is where YouTube, Vine, Snapchat and maybe even your smart phone come in to the picture. You can always build an audience by producing an original web series, which could prove that there is a widespread audience for your show.

And believe me, Hollywood is always looking for new content and niche programming.  Another example of creating a web series turned TV show?…Whatever, Linda.

Okay, so what’s really inspiring and cool about Whatever, Linda is how storytelling and quality triumphed over it’s struggling viewership online.

That being said, the online show racked up over 20 awards worldwide including the equivalent of a Web Emmy.  That was enough to get the attention of  Orphan Black co-creator Graeme Manson (Endgame, Flashpoint, The Bridge and Cube [the film]).  Manson is now adapting the critically praised web series Whatever, Linda about a Ponzi scheme devised by disenfranchised secretaries on Wall Street – for TV.

And Netflix’s stock may continue to rise too if their newly minted deals with online influencers such as Vine personality Cameron Dallas and YouTube sensation Miranda Sings strike a binge-worthy chord with viewers.

So, if you’re still thinking that you need tons of camera equipment, impressive graphics and a top agent to land your big break – think again, or rather think smaller for a perhaps faster result.  Sometimes it’s the constraints of time and budget that bring out your best creativity.  Check out the list below to find out how creating a web series launched 9 must-see TV shows.

Developing a Web Series to Launch Your TV Career

TV Show: Human Giant / MTV

Original Platform: YouTube
Original Concept: Created by Aziz Ansari, Rob Huebel, Paul Scheer, and Jason Woliner. The show consists of comedy shorts that originally started as a live event in New York at the Upright Citizens Brigade.
Flip Factor: After having an episode shown on Channel 101 NY, MTV picked up the show for it’s 10 PM spot.

TV Show: Portlandia / IFC

Original Platform: Thunderant Website
Original Concept: Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein had already racked up the laughs as the Internet comedy-sketch duo Thunderant. The two then collaborated to create this improv sketch comedy show about life in the Northwest centered on its many eccentric inhabitants.
Flip Factor: The Independent Film Channel (IFC) picked up the show in 2011 after execs saw it building a large cult following online.

TV Show: Workaholics / Comedy Central

Original Platform: YouTube
Original Concept: The creators, Blake Anderson, Anders Holm, and Adam Devine were part of the sketch comedy group Mail Order Comedy, which they formed just to make extra cash. (The guys actually worked “regular day jobs” from working the door at a comedy club to delivering pizzas.)
Flip Factor: After Comedy Central exec Walter Newman discovered the YouTube videos of the creators, he asked them to pitch a series for the network. That idea wound up being Workaholics – a show about three friends who just graduated college and end up living together, working as telemarketers and pretty much unmotivated to do anything else with their lives.

TV Show: Children’s Hospital / Cartoon Network

Original Platform: TheWB.com
Original Concept: Don’t let the title confuse you, this one is definitely geared for the 18 and over crowd. Children’s Hospital is a twisted parody on the classic medical drama, where sexual deviance runs amuck and very little medicine is practiced.
Flip Factor: In 2008, the show premiered as 10, five-minute episodes. A year later, Adult Swim picked it up and premiered Season One in 2010.

TV Show: Broad City / Comedy Central

Original Platform: YouTube
Original Concept: The reckless and quirky misadventures of two slacker girlfriends in New York, who talk about everything from women’s rights and Bed, Bath & Beyond to bad dating experiences and weed-fueled rants.
Flip Factor: The Creators, IIana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, met at Upright Citizens Brigade when Glazer was paired up with another partner at UCB and the two couldn’t see eye to eye on a sketch show idea. Rather than give up, Glazer decided to work with Jacobson instead. Amy Poehler found the two online and helped shepherd the project to Comedy Central, where she also served as Executive Producer. Even though Broad City was initially a YouTube offering, the episodes didn’t go viral (try 2,500 views). Comedy Central still gave the show a shot and it premiered to strong ratings and critical praise.

TV Show: Adventure Time / Comedy Central

Original Platform: Nicktoons
Original Concept: Set in a post-apocalyptic world, a young boy has a dog with magical powers that can shape-shift at will. The series started as a seven-minute pilot that creator Pendleton Ward made alone.
Flip Factor: Adventure Time only turned out to be a fan favorite after finding its audience by proving buzz-worth on the internet.  After airing on Nicktoons’ showcase series, Random Cartoons!, Nickelodeon passed on Adventure Time but by then it had already amassed a cult following online. This led to Comedy Central taking a chance; and the show, with its simplistic hand-drawn animation, has since become a major hit on their network (try 14 million viewers a week) for both kids and adults.  Even this type of success was too much for the series’ creator! 

TV Show: Web Therapy / Showtime

Original Platform: LStudio.com
Original Concept: A vain, horrible woman who is also an unlicensed therapist named Fiona Wallice (played by Lisa Kudrow) gives three-minute sessions via webcam. Fiona could care less about their woes and only runs the service to raise money from investors to take her “malpractice” globally.
Flip Factor: The dark comedy series received a Webby Award for Outstanding Comedy Performance. Soon after, Showtime decided to pick up the show where it ran for four seasons.

TV Show: Drunk History / Comedy Central

Original Platform: Funny or Die
Original Concept: Created by Derek Water and Jeremy Konner, this web series was about a wasted narrator attempting to read and converse about stories from American History, hence the name “Drunk History” (complete with slurred speech and celebrity reenactments in full period costumes).
Flip Factor: Benefiting from the huge Funny or Die platform, the show was picked up by Comedy Central and Will Ferrell and Adam McKay were brought on as executive producers. The shows creators claim of being “political without being political” has led to three successful seasons with the fourth set to bow in September. 

TV Show: Fred / Nickelodeon

Original Platform: YouTube
Original Concept: In 2006, Lucas Cruikshank created the character Fred Figglehorn – a 6 year-old boy with anger management issues and dysfunctional home to boot — as part of a funny Halloween video he wanted to share with his cousins.
Flip Factor: After the Halloween video became a viral hit, Lucas set up a YouTube channel for Fred. After a year, the channel had garnered one million subscribers, which was the most on YouTube at the time. The success eventually led to a spot on Nickelodeon, where it became a franchise, consisting of several shows and films.

TV Show: The Annoying Orange / Cartoon Network

Original Platform: YouTube
Original Concept: Dane Boedigheimer voiced an Orange, who’s way too human for his own good and annoys the other fruits and veggies in the fridge through name-calling and crude humor.
Flip Factor: This show started with 4 million subscribers on YouTube before it eventually made its way to Comedy Central for two seasons, and the character had an extended shelf-life with mass merchandising, a video game, toys, clothing and the list goes on. Not bad for a former MTV production assistant, who got his inspiration for his character by working for JibJab.

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