Ross Brown: Distracting the Gatekeeper While You Sneak In

Remember a time when iron gates and heavily armed guards with gleaming armor kept back the teeming masses of marginally-talented humanity that were constantly trying to push their way into a profession that they had no business even dreaming of? There used to be a dividing line with people patrolling the perimeter with swift and brutal measures for those daring enough to attempt the crossing.

Some made it. Most did not.

Luckily, after many years passed, there came a bright new hope in the form of the Internet, which any old Tom, Dick, or Harry could use and suddenly you didn't need to tunnel your way under the fence to the promised land. You could instantly get there from the comfort of your own living room without ever having to get out of your pajamas!

This week I spoke to Ross Brown, professor at Chapman University and author of Byte-Sized Television: Create Your Own TV Series For The Internet who not only let me in on some of his books secret, but shared a few shocking nuggets of his own.

Hello. How are you today?
Hi, I'm good how are you?

Great! Your book, Byte-Sized Television: Create Your Own TV Series For The Internet, is coming out in February. One former student of yours who hasn't even read the book said that if it is even half as informative as the class you teach, then it's worth its weight in gold. How do you react to warm words of praise?
Well, gosh its great they say that and they aren't even waiting for a grade from me. It's awfully nice.

The Internet is kind of like the Wild West of entertainment. There are no sheriffs or guys standing guard at the gates only letting the elite few in. Does this mean the end of the money men in suits who used to hold the power to green light or veto your idea?
I don't think it's the end of the suits. Some people said that years ago when the Internet was breaking big with publishing and it's changed the publishing business and it's changed the music business and it will change the video entertainment business. It's already changing it there. But there's always going to be a place for the suits somewhere in this because there's different types of content. I don't think individual people can go out and make Avatar.

Do you think episodic TV online can revolutionize the television industry the way that digital downloads turned the music industry on it's head? It seems like the music industry was unprepared for what happened in some ways and didn't fully realize until it was too late.
Yes, I think the video industry is trying, and by that I mean feature filmmakers and certainly the television videos and networks are trying to grapple with it on a daily basis and they're caught in between two things: on the one hand it's a huge threat to their business model, not just web series, but the fact that people can go to Hulu and other sites and watch episodes . If you have twenty million viewers for CSI but five million of them now watch minus commercials, then the advertisers don't want to pay as much money and so on. Now how are they going to recoup that revenue? But they are also using it as a development laboratory and CBS has a series on the air this year. Bleep My Dad Says, as they so politely call it.

Oh yeah, Shit My Dad Says!
Yeah it was a series of Twitter postings that became a book that became a phenomenon but they bought other blogs and things because they realize that, just like they used to do in the '80s when they went to comedy clubs and found original and creative voices in stand-up comedy like Jerry Seinfeld or Tim Allen or any of those guys, now they can find original creative voices who are blogging or doing other types of web series on the Internet. So they just look at it as a giant development laboratory!
When I first heard about the Shit My Dad Says show, I thought they were joking. I guess because the character is such an angry, cantankerous old guy, he might be enough to carry the show but pulling from Twitter's 140 character blurbs seemed like a stretch to me, don't you think?
It really isn't any different from seeing Roseanne Barr do her stand-up act and saying that's the center of a sitcom there. You can't just translate the stand-up material to a sitcom; you've got to get somebody who knows how to tell stories in that format and can do them over and over again week after week. But you can translate a persona, a really great central character. I'm not so sure they've done that with Bleep My Dad Says, to be honest, or done it as well as we'd like it to be done, but it wasn't a totally harebrained idea. They had a dynamic character. I actually read the book, not the Twitter postings and the book had a lot more heart to it than just the straight raunchy humor from the guy.

There are a LOT of these web series out there and I know one I enjoy and I've heard you mention before is Mr. Deity which is one that makes my inner Catholic school girl cringe but it's really funny. What do you think of it?
I like Mr. Deity and I actually found out about it through my wife because a friend of hers sent it to her. I liked it because I thought it was a smart way to not just be glib about the premise and they really got into the philosophy of religion and all that stuff and it really appealed to me.

What do you think about the lack of censorship and watchdogs on the Internet? Is that great for creativity or does it allow some people to go too far?
Both things are going to be true. There are going to be people who are just going to do potty humor or Jackass to some dangerous dimension where somebody gets hurt or something unfortunate like that. But it is good that you don't have to appeal to the same huge mass audience that CBS does, so things can be a sensation on the web with several hundred thousand loyal followers. That can work creatively for the person and it can even work to a small extent financially. They are not going to make millions and billions like the networks do, but they can sustain their creativity and help support themselves. I think that's good. The same way that cable television provides an outlet for content that would not be successful on broadcast television. They don't have a large enough audience for Mad Men to justify putting it on NBC, but it works great on AMC.
In the case of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, you had a group of talented actors get together and film something they wrote. Do you think the whole DIY approach to Internet episodic TV is a good opportunity for actors and actresses looking for a creative outlet?
It's a terrific outlet for them. I remember reading about a group in Los Angeles called the Groundlings that have been around forever. They did a lot of improv and a lot of their actors went on to much larger careers on Saturday Night Live and other places. Lisa Kudrow was there etc, etc,. They have a ninety-nine seat theater and they went out in the alley and took one of their sketches and filmed it, put it on YouTube and got a deal with Sony.

I did the math and the number of viewers they got from the YouTube posting would be more than if they did the act live every night and sold out for six thousand years.

So maybe I should stop yelling at my kids for posting nonsense on YouTube.
Ninety-nine percent of the stuff that's on the web is amateurish, but it gives people the opportunity to develop. It's a real opportunity to put your stuff out there and hopefully get some exposure. If nothing else, you get the practice of completing a show and putting it out there.

When you teach your class, do you go into the full production aspect or do you just give them the building blocks and send them on their way?
I do it as part of the curriculum; the book actually came from the classes I teach. I do two semesters of the class and in the first semester every student writes a script and pitches a concept for something under five minutes. It can be between two and five minutes, whatever suits the concept. Then I get to be the network and I actually pick two of them that we produce and shoot and do post-production on. We divide the class up into teams and assign people director, cinematographer, etc. Then in the second semester we do three more episodes of each of the two series. So we expose them to what short form Internet television is, but also episodic television. One of the challenges is we don't have the time or resources for them to really produce a series, but we're trying to train them in working with a premise and a set of characters that are ongoing. You have to keep replicating it week to week. So this was a great opportunity to bridge that gap.

What kind of equipment should a person have and will it break the bank?
It need not break the bank. Web series are not about production value they are about the cleverness of the content the writing and the performances. If you can get an adequate image, that is fine for almost all web series. Just a regular camera that you can probably borrow from somebody will work. Probably not such a good idea to use your cell phone, though. The editing software is going to be on your computer already. In the book I talk a little bit about the two things you might want to rent or buy and they are a tripod, to make sure it's steady, and an external mic so everything doesn't have the sound of those videos your dad made when you were little. You can rent those very inexpensively.
Things have come so far since my college film class where everything was shot in black and white and you actually had to send your film out to the lab to be developed. Kids these days have it easy don't they?
Kids today are just amazing. Just a few weeks ago someone brought a kid who was 13 or 14 to sit in on one of my classes and I asked if she'd made videos before or edited them and uploaded them to YouTube and she said, "Oh yeah, I've done about twenty of them." They really don't think of it as anything more complicated than emailing. It's just part of their technological upbringing.

I just had a student ask me if I ever had to type a script not using Final Draft, but using something like Microsoft word.

You should have told them you had to bang it out on an ancient Smith Corona.
I was professionally writing with a pencil at one point and gave the pages to the secretary who typed them for me. Before that it was a stone tablet I chiseled it all on.
That's very Ten Commandments. You are first and foremost a writer. You've written many scripts and produced a lot of TV shows.
That was my primary occupation before I became a college professor. I was a show writer or a sitcom writer and producer. I was the second AD on National Lampoon's Vacation where you Culture Brats would be interested to know I worked with Anthony Michael Hall when he WAS a teenager.
You also worked on Fatso. I love Fatso. What was Dom Deluise like?
Dom was very funny. Dom's thing was he just liked to shake you up so he'd say, "Could you just hold this for a minute?” and he'd give you something that would occupy your hands and then he'd put his hand on your rear end and then he'd look at you and go, "Oh, I'm so sorry." You couldn't even be mad at him. And of course in today's world, people would be screaming, "That's sexual harassment," but nobody took it seriously. We'd just say, "Oh Dom, cut it out."

Any plans for a book tour?
I'm going to do some appearances in L.A., most certainly at the stores that specialize in entertainment industry books. I've just started to do interviews and I'm getting the word out on social media.
I'd like to ask you our CB 3 are you ready?

Thriller or Purple Rain?
I've got to go with Thriller.

Debbie Gibson or Tiffany?
This is one where I'm going to have put a personal thing in there. I'm going to go with Debbie Gibson because she actually appeared on one of the TV series I produced, Step by Step, and was such a lovely person that week that I am forever indebted to her.

Wow. That's some serious props for Gibson. 16 Candles or Pretty In Pink?
That's a toss-up for me.

They are both equally good but again, a small anecdote from my past being that one of the shows I worked on was The Facts Of Life. In the first year of the show, they had nine girls and they whittled it down to four eventually, but one of the girls from the first year who they cut was Molly Ringwald.

The guy who was the head of the company then and went on to co-found Castle Rock and said quite humorously one day, "Yup, I'm part of the brain trust that cut Molly Ringwald." One of my other claims to fame in life is that I'm the person that deflowered Natalie on The Facts Of Life, in a purely literary sense of course. I wrote the episode.

If you wrote it, you did it! I'm going to put that in BOLD letters! No, I'm going to put it in the title!
At the time it was one of those episodes that people gave us a thumbs up for our sensitive handling of the subject. We'd have conversations where we'd say, "Guys, the show is called The Facts Of Life and they're 21 years old. They can't just be kissing their boyfriends at this point in time."

It was great to talk to you, if you come to the east coast for any book tour dates please let me know so I can come and wave hello!
I will, thanks!

For more information about Ross Brown or Byte-Sized Television: Create Your Own TV Series For The Internet, please visit his website, Byte-Sized Television.

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