A fetching blond Englishwoman in a white sundress lounges on her bed and eyes her webcam. “Have you ever lied to your friends?” she asks. She has lied about a bunch of things — including her name, she admits. Then her video goes black.
So begins the opening minutes of KateModern, the second online serial from the creators of the lie that started it all, lonelygirl15.
When lonelygirl15 started posting videos on YouTube in June 2006, she was just another kid laying her life bare online. Fans dug Bree’s rants about her annoying parents and the way she mugged with her purple monkey puppet. But as her strange story unfolded, it seemed increasingly phony, and set off an internetwide chase for the truth.
The curtain went up a few months later, revealing that behind the girl fighting a religious cult was a trio of twentysomething filmmakers and an exec at Creative Artists Agency. Lonelygirl was in fact a new kind of dramatic form — the Web serial. It transformed the YouTube confessional into interactive drama, blurring fiction with reality — and picking up sponsors and millions of viewers along the way.
Instead of the creators getting co-opted by Hollywood (they say they’ve turned down production deals from major Hollywood players, but won’t name names) or becoming one-bit wonders, they set off to expand the genre (and their wallets). KateModern, which just launched its second season in January, builds on that pioneering model, both in format and financing.
While Lonelygirl consisted mainly of short YouTube clips, KateModern plays out over a sprawling social network, buttressing the vlogs with everything from instant messages to flash mobs. The serial subsists on advertising that’s incorporated into the show.
Barry Parr, a media analyst for JupiterResearch, a technology research firm in New York City, says this is just the beginning. “Everyone’s trying to figure out what can be done with social networks,” he says, “I would expect to see a lot more experimentation to come.”
Shot in London and running on Bebo.com, a leading social network in the U.K. and Australia, KateModern also revolves around a troubled young beauty trying to escape her dark past and forge a new identity. In fact, the creators have set the saga of this 19-year-old art student inside the same underworld that plagued Lonelygirl, expanding a fictional area in cyberspace where serial characters live and interact.
Bree and Kate's shared reality
Just like Bree, Kate and her friends struggle to ward off a secret society called the Order. “It’s kind of like the Marvel universe, where the comics are separate but they feed the same reality,” says Miles Beckett, the 30-year-old co-founder of LG15 Studios, the startup behind the Web serials.
As with the first show, the story is built around bite-sized videos that appear five days a week and run from banal to creeptastic. Kate cleans her room. Kate’s pal Charlie does aerobics. Kate struggles with psychotic breaks. It’s the standard stuff of online diaries. But to follow the drama, viewers have to click between feeds of different characters. Instead of watching, say, an hour-long drama on TV, it requires the viewer to take an active role in piecing together the overarching story.
Because this is designed from the ground up for a social network, KateModern blurs the line between truth and fantasy more than Lonelygirl ever did. Each character has a profile page, just like the real people on MySpace or Facebook. On Bebo, every time you visit your homepage, you get automatic updates on any new content created by friends in your network. So when you add Kate’s crew to your list, the serial runs seamlessly alongside the other overblown dramas of your life.
In addition to chatting over KateModern forums, in the episodes, characters invite viewers to offline gatherings. These happenings aren’t meet-and-greets; like a cross between Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding and Dungeons & Dragons, they’re live-action role-playing games that advance the plot. In August, Kate fans were lured to a conference center in London, to find a (staged) murder scene with clues to Kate’s past.
There’s one other key difference between Kate and Bree: Viewers know from the get-go that Kate’s a fake. The lack of such meta-mystery buzz over KateModern means that the producers have to cash in on something besides gimmick. “Now that people realize [it’s] fictional,” Beckett says. “It’s all about the entertainment.”
Production costs are low, only $5,000 to $10,000 per week. For now, the business model is built on product placements. While the company won’t release how much it charges advertisers, Beckett says LG15 is making a profit, and now has a staff of 15 people on each show.
Both shows have developed myriad business relationships. Lonelygirl, now in its third season, has featured a plug for Icebreakers gum and a cameo by singer Katharine McPhee. In KateModern, characters chat on MSN and call each other via the Orange mobile network. Kate also picked up ads from Cadbury, Toyota, and Warner Brothers.
But Kate’s creators are not the only ones who see dollar signs in this new form. Since the success of Lonelygirl, MySpace has entered the fray with MySpaceTV, a user-generated video hub, and Facebook has initiated the Facebook Diaries, in which an Emmy-winning producer fashions member vids into an online reality show.
“Being a social network first and a video site second allows us to create community and extensions around all of our video content,” says Jason Kirk, vice president of MySpaceTV, which features character profiles, blogs, and comments. “No other site offers this to the degree we can.”
Joanna Shields, Bebo president of international, says Web serials are not a passing fancy. “We’re absolutely committed to this,” she says. “It’s a natural extension of how people on social networks interact.”
For LG15 Studios, this could mean a reverse commute: starting with a brand it launches online and extending it later on television or in film. “We could build a show on the backbone of the internet,” says co-creator Greg Goodfried, “then build something else on top of that.” They wouldn’t be the first.
The creators of the TV show thirtysomething recently made waves when their Web serial Quarterlife got picked up to be a series on NBC (the premiere had a poor showing on February 26 and will be moving to Bravo).
The new format is here to stay. “When you look at the way the younger generation interacts with content, they’re pretty A.D.D.,” says Beckett, “They’re I.M.’ing and watching videos and talking on the phone and doing homework. Unless bigger brands adapt, they’re not going to be able to reach that audience.”