Category Archives: Introduction

Creating in the Digital Age: A Q&A with Brad Bell


In the digital age, there are many paths to creating great content. On the web, creators have the autonomy to write and produce what they want, when they want, and with whomever they choose. This openness has allowed for characters whose stories we might have otherwise missed.

One of the pioneers of this method of storytelling is Brad Bell, the creator of the YouTube personality “Cheeks”—a character he later developed into the web series Husbands with prolific TV producer Jane Espensen. We chatted with Brad (he’s a real smartypants) ahead of his visit to TH5 on April 4 for our panel, “Indie TV: Where Creators and Fans Pilot New Shows.”

What inspired you to take Cheeks and develop a series for him outside the traditional model? What was that process like?

Cheeks was initially a satirical vehicle to express whatever pop culture commentary that struck me. Basically, it was the only conscious through line of my varied creative experiments. But the more I wrote and performed as Cheeks, a fully formed character took shape and, before long, it felt like Cheeks needed to go beyond the confines of the YouTube video window. Then, when Jane and I were first brainstorming Husbands, we envisioned an Odd Couple dynamic, so it just made sense for (and I’m mixing my sitcom analogies, here) Cheeks to be the Dharma to Brady’s Greg.

As far as making Husbands outside of the traditional model, I’ve never been much of a traditionalist. (Shocking, right?) My favorite sitcoms are those which use humor to challenge the status quo, and have discussions about gender politics or double standards or social mores. Shows like All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore, Soap, and South Park. Even I Love Lucy was more subversive than you might realize. (See Episode 36, “Job Switching.”) We wanted to continue that tradition of TV with Husbands, and that style of comedy requires a very precise ratio of camp/realism, silly/cerebral, candy/commentary. Ultimately, I guess Jane and I just trusted ourselves more than anyone else to get that recipe right, and make exactly the kind of show we’d want to watch.

What were some benefits and challenges of forging a new path like you have done with Husbands?

That’s a perfect metaphor —”forging a new path”—to describe the challenges and benefits. Imagine you’re in the jungle, forging said path. You’re cutting vines and toiling for days, smoothing out the uneven Earth little by little. You’re exhausted and dirty, and to top it all off, the speed at which you’re traveling is tedious, because you can’t move forward until you make a path.

Now, compare that to the experience of just walking down an existing path in the jungle. Granted, it’s probable that this path has plenty of deadly predators, and maybe a thick fog that reduces your ability to see more than a few feet ahead, but the work to make the path has already been done. You can focus on putting one foot in front of the other, and give more attention to whatever’s making that rustling in the bushes. However, this path is limiting, because you can only go where it leads you. And sure, this path might be the most direct route to an oasis of unimaginable treasures! Or there might be a shorter route to the same oasis. Or an undiscovered (and even more unimaginable) oasis of treasures awaiting you at the end of a path that no one has yet forged!

Bottom line is, there are infinite possible benefits and challenges because there are an infinite number of possible paths. My strategy is to survey the paths that exist, and walk along them when/if it makes sense to do so. However, if the human bones littering the path start to pile up more as you walk along, be ready to jump into the overgrown forest floor and take your chances.

Do you hope to see Cheeks and Brady on more a traditional platform (i.e., as a series on a network), and if so, what does that say about the value that is still placed on certain platforms over others?

There’s so much to this question! To answer it fully, we need to clarify why there is a higher value placed on content that is perceived to be “legitimate television.” Oddly though, the standards by which people define television isn’t the platform. They just think it is.

For example, Orange is the New Black is a television show, right? I would say yes. But, by platform specifications, it’s a web-series. Why? Because it’s delivered via the Internet, either on your computer, tablet or set-tops boxes and smart TVs. Cable and broadcast (which have actually both been the same platform for years, digital) is a different platform than the one delivering Netflix or YouTube. That begs the question: if Netflix and YouTube are technically delivered by the same system, why is Netflix perceived as TV, while YouTube is a cesspool of skateboarding fails? The two primary reasons are visibility and length.

Let’s start with length. For seventy plus years, the TV viewing public has been fed content with a run time of twenty-two minutes or forty-four minutes, for comedy and drama respectively. TV seasons are anywhere from ten episodes to twenty two episodes—give or take a few, depending on the decade. Interestingly, most award shows (as well as creative unions) determine the classification and qualification of entries (or employment) based on minutes per episode, and the number of episodes produced per season. So, if you’re looking for an empirical answer to “What is television,” then length is your best qualifier.

Now, let’s talk perception. After all, perception determines reality, especially in Hollywood. This is where visibility comes into play. To find House of Cards, you don’t have to weed through endless “crazy card trick” videos on YouTube. It’s presented to you by Netflix on a nice sleek menu, likely on that screen in your living room, and exists among a selection of content you perceive as “real” television. (You’ll notice that, with new media, the goal of visibility has more to do with the psychology of marketing than it does driving viewership.) There are also forty-foot tall billboards for House of Cards, bus ads and fully immersive ads on website home pages. See, in this case, a multi-million dollar advertising budget classifies the content as “legitimate” and “important” in the eyes of the public. Throw in high-quality storytelling and A-List talent, and no one will even notice your show, technically, “isn’t television.”

But of course, it is television. The term web-series is irrelevant, because the platforms are irrelevant. It’s all television now. It’s just a matter of professional television versus amateur hour. The Internet is not “the future of television.” Neither are the two slowly merging. That’s already happened. It’s only the perception of the public that lags behind. My point in saying all this is, I would love to be able to produce Husbands in the volume and frequency that the audience wants, which would be an order of episodes along the lines of a traditional television season. However that happens, or whatever platform it might be on, is less relevant.

What was the impetus for a Husbands graphic novel? Were the things you wanted to do with the characters/world that you felt couldn’t be achieved through the series?

When we wrote the graphic novel, we’d ended the second season, and hadn’t yet met with The CW. There was uncertainty about whether we’d continue the series, so we thought a comic would be a fun way to continue the series in the meantime. Aside from the obvious things that would be too expensive to produce for the show, like exploding meteorites and spaceships, it also gave us a chance to explore familiar gender dynamics, and examine the ways in which those would change—or stay the same—when the roles were filled with two men.

What advice would you give to aspiring creators who would like to follow in your footsteps?

Besides, “Pick someone better to follow?” Hmm. I’d say, if you want to follow in my footsteps, study what I do. Then find a way to do it better.

Apart from Husbands, anything you can share about other projects you’re developing? More web series? Graphic novels? 

Eek! Tough question to answer because, yes, I’m developing a few projects, but nothing I can talk about yet, unfortunately. Although, while I’m really excited about what I’m working on during the present Husbands hiatus, what I’d most love to do next is make more Husbands. (For many, many years to come!)

You can watch Husbands on CW Seed.

The Future of TV in an Era of Cord Cutters and Cord Nevers

By now, YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix are all household brands. For many people they are new entrants that live alongside established home entertainment mainstays like Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, DirecTV. But new research shows what the Gigaom video above articulates—1.1 million people said goodbye to those mainstays last year, cutting the cords that bind them to big-bill cable packages. And behind that generation of cord-cutters are those that have never even considered the cord, conducting as many aspects of their lives on their computers and mobile devices—especially their entertainment.

It’s easy then to understand the gold rush for original programming by so many non-Hollywood entities like Amazon, Microsoft Xbox and Sony Playstation, as well as the growing set-top market. There’s Roku, Apple has their waiting-for-an-update AppleTV, Google has Chromecast, and Amazon has just announced Amazon Fire TV, compact, streaming box with voice  search via the remote and “three times the power of” the former three competitors.

Amazon Fire TV may not be the first set-top box, and Amazon Studios may not be the first non-Hollywood shot at original series, but both have the Amazon trademark of innovation. “The goal of innovation isn’t simply to cast aside all previously held beliefs,” says Joe Lewis, head of original comedy programming at Amazon Studios, and TH5 panelist. “There are elements of the television viewing experience that have worked well since cable operators first mounted their antennas atop mountains in Pennsylvania in the 1940s. Progress is as much about knowing what can be improved as it is knowing what to leave alone.”

One way Amazon believes the television process can be improved is by inviting viewers and Hollywood outsiders into the development process. “An important mission of Amazon Studios is to bring our users into the process of making television. That doesn’t only mean that viewers get to help decide what pilots get turned into series. It also means that writers can create those pilots as well,” says Lewis.

That’s an exciting and enticing proposition for writers who might otherwise lack access to the inner-workings of Hollywood, and it doesn’t seem to be an empty gesture. From its latest round of pilots, it has given a series order to a series discovered through its submissions process, Gortimer Gibbon’s Life onNormal Street, from UCLA MFA Screenwriting alum David Anaxagoras. Amazon Studios offers $10,000 if a submitted series is added to their development slate and $55,000 if it goes into production. 

Do these new programming and streaming options foretell the end of an era in Hollywood or the beginning of a revised set of practices for creators and additional viewing options for binging viewers? Only time will tell, but on April 4 our A-list panel will explore this question and attempt to read the tea leaves. Join us as Andrew Wallenstein, editor-in-chief, digital for Variety moderates “The Programmers of the Future in an Era of Cord-Cutters and Cord-Nevers” with panelists Joe Lewis, Belisa Balaban (senior vice president, alternative and live programming, Pivot/Participant Media), Jamie Byrne (director, content strategy, YouTube), and David Craig (clinical assistant professor, USC, and producer, Media Nation). To buy tickets, visit

Indie TV: Where Creators and Fans Pilot New Shows

The Internet broke the network bottleneck. Through platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo, creators release series directly to fans who follow shows and share them with friends. Web-content creators can write stories in whatever length, style and genre they choose, on their own schedule, and with actors of their choosing. The result is a truly open television ecosystem, where creators, talent and fans work together to realize stories they want to see.

Transforming Hollywood’s April 4 panel on Indie TV will take a look at that ecosystem by chatting with top web creators. The panel is moderated by Aymar Jean Christian, assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University, who says it is “by far the most exciting panel [he’s] ever convened.” The reason for the excitement? “The creators on this panel have written or distributed multiple smart and funny series that expand the sitcom, romantic comedy, and drama television genres.”

Below, Christian breaks down why he’s so excited to engage each of our panelists in conversation.


“In the indie TV market, creators produce stories in whatever size fits the narrative. Episodes of Adam Goldman’s first series, The Outs, ranged from 12 to nearly 50 minutes. Each installment is scaled to let the drama unfold as naturally as possible. For his next series, Whatever this is, Goldman took a different approach, and, having raised more funds on Kickstarter, released six half-hour episodes. Whatever this is gives viewers a robust picture of life as a creative worker — or rather how uncreative and sad that life can be.”



“On the other hand, Jay Bushman’s work on The Lizzie Bennet Diaries expands TV narrative beyond the episode to include other platforms where fans can engage with characters.  The Lizzie Bennet Diaries isn’t the first interactive series — we can think of The Spot in the mid-90s or lonelygirl15 in the mid-00s — but it is a best practices case study for the social media era.”



“Black & Sexy TV, which Numa Perrier co-founded with partner Dennis Dortch, has grown into a hub for the best acted and cinematically intimate romantic comedies and dramas on the web, helping revive a part of the black TV and film market that’s been challenged in recent years. Numa also stars in the network’s popular series, The Couple, where she breathes life into a character without a name.”



“One of the first creators to demonstrate the power of Kickstarter to help fund and raise awareness for web comedies like The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, Issa Rae has continued to release series from other black TV writers on her YouTube channel while she develops for and works in television.”



“Amy Rubin’s Little Horribles is a series without peer on television, a comedy of errors recalling Louie or Seinfeld but focused on a self-indulgent thirtysomething lesbian in Los Angeles. Little Horribles, and many other web series like F to 7th, Pursuit of Sexiness, and The Actress, which Rubin’s Barnacle Studios’ distributes, is how writers use the short-format to their advantage and focus the humor to fit in a single location. For this strategy to work, producers have attract great actors, who respond to strong writing.”



“Brad stands out as a creator who writes and stars in a sophisticated show that rivals, even outdoes, a lot of network TV sitcoms starring gay characters. While it’s hard to single out what works for a show, one of the clear strengths of Husbands is its crisp writing, anchored by Brad’s engaging performance. Husbands gracefully mines and challenges stereotypes while leaving plenty of room for broad and physical humor.”

Christian respects indie TV creators so much because “they are very aware of what their audiences want, what their actors and collaborators want, and when to break the rules of medium. It takes a genius to master such a broad set of skills.”

Don’t miss a fascinating look into this aspect of the transformation of television. To buy tickets, visit


Veronica Mars and the Case of the Fan-Funded Film

The story of how the movie Veronica Mars came to be is much like the episodes contained within the series itself—a clever protagonist must work outside the system to solve the problem of an untimely death.

In this case the protagonist is Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas, the untimely death is the cancellation of the TV series at the hands of traditional Hollywood, and his tools employed include nearly every major component of the new entertainment landscape: high quality content, the power of a rabid fan base, the influence of silicon beach, and the impatience of the Internet.

As any good Marshmallow knows, the CW cancelled Veronica Mars 2007 due to poor ratings. Over the next few years, Thomas and Kristen Bell would attempt to push a Veronica Mars movie at Warner Bros. with the help of Joel Silver. But as late as 2010, the studio wasn’t interested enough to put their weight behind it.

“The idea that fans of a cult television series might be able to fund and support it over time has been floated for several decades,” says USC Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts and Transforming Hollywood 5 Co-Director Henry Jenkins. “Many of these shows lack the breadth of viewership which would sustain it through traditional broadcast channels, yet they have a depth of commitment which can be a powerful force when compared to the followings of other kinds of popular culture—from comics and books to most forms of niche music.”

Veronica Mars had that commitment, and it was perfectly paired with new technology in Kickstarter. With Warner Bros.’ approval, the now famous fundraising campaign that asked for $2M raised over $5M in a month from nearly 100,000 donors. “We can see the Veronica Mars campaign as transformative in demonstrating just how big the opportunity is here for the right creators and the right properties,” says Jenkins.

Two weekends ago, Veronica Mars was released by Warner Bros. in 270 theaters, and, in keeping with its progressive past, it was released simultaneously on VOD platforms—a first for Warner Brothers. In theaters the film grossed nearly $2M, or $6,833 per theater, landing it a bottom spot in the top ten for that weekend. Not bad for a fan-funded film.

“Kickstarter has long demonstrated its ability to fund independent and niche media, but since Veronica Mars, we are seeing more and more cult media-makers who previously worked on the edges of the mainstream—from Spike Lee to Steven Sonderberg—cross over into this space. We will see more,” predicts Jenkins.

And if the Veronica Mars movie is a punctuation mark to the series, it certainly isn’t a period. The CW announced in January that Thomas will bring the Veronica Mars world to their online platform for original content, the CW Seed.

Does this mean that the clever, cynical sleuthing of Veronica could be resurrected as a new series? If so, what does that say about the conventional wisdom of Hollywood and the power of fans to demand—and receive—the shows they want? For now, Jenkins sees limitations to funding projects in the Veronica Mars way. “These mechanisms work best where there is a recognized audience already somewhat familiar with the offering: so, we can see works by cult auteurs work here, or we can see it as the court of last resort for a canceled series. It also can work where there is an underserved population—a minority group of some kind (racial, ethnic, sexual, political, cultural) who wants to establish that there is a base of support for a particular kind of media production.”

Join us on April 4th as we continue the conversation on new forms of television production and distribution during our panel entitled “Second Screens, Connected Viewing, Crowd-Funding and Social Media: Re-Imagining Television Consumption. Panelists include Ivan Askwith (lead strategist, “Veronica Mars” Kickstarter Campaign), Vicky L. Free (chief marketing officer, BET Networks), Nick Loeffler (director of business development, Kindle Worlds), Stacey Lynn Schulman (senior vice president, chief research officer, Television Bureau of Advertising), and Sharon L. Strover (professor, College of Communication, University of Texas at Austin) and will be moderated by Henry Jenkins.

For more info, and to buy tickets, visit