Back in June, IndieWire's Aymar Jean Christian, wrote a compelling article on "Why Views Don't Matter for Indies," and it's worth re-reading this month as the traditional media outlets prepare to bombard American television audiences with the next season of sitcoms.
The article highlights NYU Grad Film thesis student Ingrid Jungermann's latest web series, F TO 7TH, as an example of the kind of high quality, diverse, intelligent, and progressive performance and storytelling that the web promises and that we should be watching. His comparison of Jungermann's F TO 7TH to Louis C.K.'s LOUIE demonstrates that ratings aren't a measure of success, or art, and shouldn't be considered as such online.
Christian makes a couple of excellent points in his article:
On disregarding ratings and popularity as a measure of success:
Ratings "are best-guesses based on statistical probability and constantly at odds with how and where viewers watch television."
"...virality' is not a significant measure of art." (Glazer, for Televisual)
On the flawed practice of measuring web series' value by ratings, or shares:
"The web has exponentially more channels, so audience measurement is more fraught. Nielsen and Comscore, the major measurement firms for web video, routinely disagree on ratings, often by wide margins. YouTube has spent years trying to legitimize viewcounts on the site, which are scarily easy to manipulate. Google's most recent solutions -- auditing views and choosing "preferred" networks for advertisers -- may reinforce existing inequalities on the site..."
"...most popular videos... are designed to hook viewers in the first three seconds and encourage them to post on their timelines or subscribe at the end of the video."
"...academic studies on spreadable media suggest that what's most likely to spread tends to focus on 'ordinary people, flawed masculinity, humor, simplicity, repetitiveness and whimsical content'..." (Shifman, New Media & Society)
On the great promise of the internet for the proliferation of diverse, quality content:
Non-traditional media outlets, like Vimeo and YouTube to an extent, offer some room for the absurd, which is good because, "as we know from "Louie," absurdity exposes cultural norms and the fluidity of identity. Social life is absurd."
Web series provide a space for diverse media creators and performers that largely doesn't exist in the current traditional media environment. F to 7TH highlights female talent on both sides of the camera, and does so such an extent that the myriad roles for women on the show challenge the media-made image of a woman on screen.
Web series, and F TO 7TH as an example, move toward fulfilling the promise of the internet in its capacity to provide "Open access to distribution was [that can] diversify the narratives we see from the media."
Christian's article makes great sense, and is encouraging both for creators of quality online content and audiences, but is denying the centrifugal force of ratings - which beget reviews, which beget sharing, which begets larger audiences, which beget ratings - an OK answer for content creators like Ingrid? LOUIE might not have the ratings that matters to traditional media, but the show and Louis C.K. certainly have the accolades of the traditional media outlets; the multiple (well-deserved) Emmys for which LOUIE has been nominated since its debut may make up for low ratings that, for a creator of his stature, could be dubbed "niche."
What does the online ratings mess and potentially comprising "spreadability" factor mean for creators who are making LOUIE-level content but don't have his cache or the swooning awareness of the media (which translates to funding)?
This is why the CRI exists. There is quality content at our fingertips, but it must be seen and shared and valued in order for it to thrive. 2014 CRI Fellow Forest Conner is working on ways for filmmakers to better market their films to diverse audiences and have a chance at story-driven spreadability. Artel Great, also a 2014 CRI Fellow, is establishing an alternative distribution network for diverse content - Project Catalyst - which is targeted directly at a large but underserved multicultural audience. 2013 CRI Fellows Josh Penn and Michael Gottwald wrote extensively on campaign-inspired methods of sharing and promoting original independent content.
The promise of the internet for independent filmmakers isn't fulfilled yet, but the CRI is working on it.