The recent proliferation of the video shorts on the Internet may provide a glimpse of the future of production and distribution of motion pictures. One such short, Lazy Sunday, was produced by cast members of the long-running network television program Saturday Night Live. Cast member Andy Samberg had come to the attention of network producers when they saw several comedy sketches he produced and starred in on the Internet. The popularity of Samberg’s original online-distributed videos did not occur strictly as the result of the virus-like linking and e-mailing distribution pattern that is quickly becoming more common. Rather, these videos achieved exposure on Channel101.com, a Website that functions as a forum and distribution outlet for short video makers.
Channel 101 is an interesting example of a hybrid mode of production and distribution of motion pictures, borrowing elements of a film festival and a Website to showcase five-minute videos created by members of the general public. It is the brainchild of two freelance television writers, Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab. There are two key components to Channel 101: a monthly competitive screening of short videos held in Los Angeles and a Website that features downloadable short videos as well as a forum for discussing the creation and content of those videos. When a short video is submitted to Channel 101 by a member of the general public, the selection committee will reject it immediately or pick it up as a “pilot.” If chosen as a pilot, it is then screened in front of a live audience of roughly 300 at Cinespace, a screening room-cum-bar in Los Angeles. The members of the audience are shown ten videos, five pilots and five ongoing series, and are asked to vote for their five favourites. At this point, the audience can elect to reject the pilot, thereby “cancelling” the show. If the audience decides that the video is one of the best five of the ten, the show is “renewed,” and the creators of the video make a new episode for the next month’s screening, resulting in a video series with ongoing characters. These shows are referred to as “prime time” shows and their creators are referred to as “Prime Timers.” These Prime Timers become the selection committee that screens initial submissions.
The inception of Channel 101 in the spring of 2003 coincided with the rapid proliferation of broadband Internet access that has made downloading short video clips possible for a growing number of people. The popularity of the site, as well as the rhetoric used by Channel 101’s creators in forums, articles, and other elements of the Website’s discourse, indicate a demand for media that is not a product of the increasingly consolidated media production and distribution infrastructure. It is gaining popularity at a time when two popular modes of regulated production and distribution of motion pictures—film and television—have developed massive infrastructures and standardised labour that, by virtue of their size, are resistant to rapid change.
The Channel 101 enterprise presents an alternative arrangement of creators, distributors, and audience members by shortening the time period that any single individual may occupy any of these roles and by increasing the accountability of the creators and distributors to the audience. As a result, the short videos produced and distributed by Channel 101 are products of a creative community, rather than creations of individuals with discrete artistic sensibilities. The creators of Channel 101 claim their unique mode of production and distribution of serialised entertainment constitutes an improvement on the network television system because it prevents creative control from residing in an individual or a small group of individuals for a sustained period of time. However, upon closer examination, it may have much more in common with the television mode of production and distribution than the haphazard home-video quality of viral videos, as well as the ephemeral paths they take to reach viewers online. In this analysis, I aim to discover the ways in which Channel 101 actually differs from that traditional television model and the ways in which it duplicates the consolidation of creative power that exists in the corporate creation and distribution of serialised entertainment.
If one examines the aesthetics of the videos on the site, one finds that they are as homogeneous as those of any cable or network television prime time line-up, if not more so. This is not the result of a single, powerful individual controlling the content of the enterprise, but rather a product of a unique power structure that encourages a consistent tone, style, and content by promoting collective authorship. Though the occupiers of the creative roles may change, the individuals who occupy those positions are all equally obliged to indulge the relatively stable and homogeneous desires of the entire community.
In “Unconventional Programs on Commercial Television,” Joseph Turow makes connections between personnel shifts at the network executive level and changes in the content and style of programming. By accounting for the implicit social aspect of production and distribution, including friendships and working relationships, Turow sheds light on processes that have an impact on programming but may not necessarily show up in official documentation of the producer/distributor’s day to day affairs (Turow 126). While the programs Turow studied exhibited properties that set them apart from most network television fare, they were often produced or written by members of a single social network. There was an internal implicit norm that members of this creative community adhered to. This “web of relationships” reduced the risk for network executives and producers by guaranteeing some regularity in the product (Turow 126). Even in a system where there is no financial risk to creators or gatekeepers, such as the Channel 101 system, which is vehemently not-for-profit, the need for programming that is both unconventional yet predictable in terms of its perceived quality persists. Social networks have always been a part of the tightly knit community of television writers and producers. The rise of social networking sites on the Internet has made these connections visible, and arguably increased the size of such networks, as well as the speed with which they change.
As much as the variations in visibility, size and rate of change of the social connections impact the end product, its worth keeping in mind that Channel 101, like so many online entertainment collectives, draws together groups of people who have pre-established social bonds from the offline world. Several of the video makers who contribute to Channel 101 have worked in the television industry. The importance of existing social networks to the collaborative creative process cannot be overestimated. Message boards play an integral role in conveying what shows are popular with the Channel 101 audience, as well as providing a way for video makers to organise collaborations. In these ways, Channel 101 is as much a social enterprise as it as an entertainment enterprise.
As more and more structural functionalist analyses of the culture industry reveal its increasingly Byzantine inner workings, the romantic twentieth-century notion of the individual author appears to be not long for this world. Collective authorship may well be the paradigm for studying a society in which Internet use is constantly gaining ground on more traditional forms of recreation such as film and television. However, something is misleading about the term “collective authorship.” The term implies that members of this creative collective contribute equally to the finished product, when this is rarely, if ever, the case. Similarly, there may be the temptation to believe that a collective author is less likely to be out of touch with the desires of the audience than an individual who stubbornly follows his or her muse, oblivious to the preferences of others. In truth, collective authorship, as a practice or an analytical approach, may merely paper over unequal levels of creative power within the cultural production scheme. By scrutinizing creative communities such as Channel 101 from a structural functionalist standpoint, we may move towards a more nuanced view of the collective author.