H+ - The future of big budget Internet TV? No, but it's close.
Here’s the secret to television produced for the Internet: It actually works best when it looks and feels like television. It’s a shame that Warner Bros haven’t figured out that yet, because if they had, their new web series H+ could really be something.
H+ is a 48 episode web series that looks at a futuristic virus that is let loose on the populace that wipes out a significant number of humans. There’s no Outbreak monkey involved here. Instead, the series is set in a near-future where humans have opted to embrace transhumanism by allowing their minds to connect to the Internet concurrently with their day to day living experience. No longer does one need to load Google Maps on their phone to find their way about – it can instead be achieved with a simple thought. So, what happens when a computer virus is let loose, working its way through our brains now permanently Connected?
It’s a neat idea and one that is complemented nicely by some solid-looking production values. Produced by Bryan Singer (X-Men, The Usual Suspects), H+ looks and feels like a production with a decent budget (distinguishing it from the DIY/mumblecore aesthetic that defines so many other series made for the web). It’s not exactly a production that looks and feels like a $200+ million Avengers movie, but it does at least look and feel like something shot for $20 million. With TV actors. In Vancouver.
And that’s really actually okay.
The cast includes Alexis Denisof (Angel, How I Met Your Mother), Sean Gunn (Gilmore Girls), and Hannah Herzsprung (Baader Meinhof Komplex). And it wasn’t shot in Vancouver, but rather in Chile of all places. This is a series that spans five continents, 13 geographic locations and 15 major characters. It’s done on a budget and needs to be keep its expenses as lean as possible. For a distribution mode that is only barely showing signs of a revenue model, it’s difficult to ask for anything more than that.
Thematically, the core idea of H+ is an interesting conceit. Currently, we’re seeing the rise of wearable technology with watches available that talk via Bluetooth to mobile phones, iPod Nanos being converted into wristwatches, and Google’s Project Glass. The idea of implanted technology that connects to our consciousness is not only likely in the future, but it is a future that is getting pretty close to us today.
Two episodes launched on Wednesday this week. The first establishes the world of H+ through various news broadcasts, while also showing the effects of the outbreak through the eyes of a couple who are deep in an underground carpark (and thus out of wifi reach). It’s a gripping and tense couple of minutes. The second episode builds upon the first by taking it deeper with a tense discussion between a group of characters in the carpark tying the healthy bodies dropping like flies to the ground (along with the noise, dust, and shakiness that has accompanied what might be a plane crashing above ground) and the technology that connects them all.
While H+ is off to a good start as far as its production and concept is concerned, there is a fundamental problem with the series. Each episode is too short. H+ appears to have been conceived with the already outdated notion that online viewers can’t engage with a video longer than five minutes. Each episode of H+ runs between 4-8 minutes and when you factor in opening titles and closing titles into that time, you’re not left with enough to really sink your teeth into. A narrative work requires a couple of minutes at least to adapt from the real world into the world of the narrative. By the time the H+ viewer has adapted, the episode is nearly over. Warner Bros Digital Distribution have gone about H+ the wrong way. They shouldn’t be producing a web series. They need to be producing a series for distribution over the Internet.
Viewers have gotten savvier about the content they consume online. Also, the technology we consume content with has gotten far more sophisticated. Download time is barely ever an issue anymore with real-time streaming commonplace in viewers homes and on their phones. Viewers have trained themselves to engage in longer-form content online. Pay attention next time you’re on a workday commute on a train and bus and note just how many of your fellow commuters are watching TV shows on their laptops and tablet devices. The number of them is increasing rapidly.
There’s no need, in 2012, to be producing narrative content in chunks as short as 5 minutes anymore. The format has moved on from there. Instead, it needs to more closely resemble the length of an actual TV show in order to have viewers connect at a deep enough level with it.
With 48 episodes marking the first season of the series, supposing that every episode is a mere 5 minutes long, that equals at least 240 minutes (or 4 hours) worth of production. Pushing the runtime to 15 minutes* would still keep the show short and tight, allow the narrative to flow better, and provide H+ with a very reasonable 16 episodes of content to air across YouTube. Surely viewers attention and the product would be best served by that.
Despite the format problem, H+ looks set to be a compelling series. In a cluttered market with a great number of original web series being produced and fighting for viewers attention, this big budget effort has the marketing clout to generate buzz. With a sharp concept, great production values, and a good cast, viewers are immediately given the impression that they are in safe hands as the series progresses. It’s important for any show, but doubly so for an original web series. It’s off to a good start. Lets see how the other 46 episodes pan out.
*Based off the length of your average Adult Swim cartoon.
H+ publishes new episodes every Wednesday and can be watched on their YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/HplusDigitalSeries