Shattering the Fourth Wall To Find Web Audiences

1Executive Summary

Web series are often praised for their diverse subject matter and original points-of-view. But what does pretty much every single prominent web series over the past several years — ranging from serious dramas like “quarterlife” to more fantastical fare like “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog” — have in common?

Well, they all tend to start off like this:

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The term “breaking the fourth wall” is used to describe what happens when a character looks into the camera, acknowledging its — and the audience’s — existence. And within the online video world, a main character who directly addresses the audience has become a defining characteristic of many shows.

The pioneer of the format is generally considered to be the EQAL-produced “lonelygirl15,” the seminal web series that began as a series of increasingly spooky YouTube videos featuring Bree (Jessica Rose), who people initially believed was a real 15-year-old girl with odd parents.

For Miles Beckett, who co-created the series in 2006, the decision to structure the show as a first-person narrative came from observing the then-rising trend of YouTube “vloggers,” people who used the site to broadcast video blog entries. Success came because people engaged with Bree like she was a real person, even after it was revealed that she was fictitious. The format became a factor in enabling the show’s ground-breaking interactivity, because as Beckett put it, “people are more willing to talk to the character if the character is talking to you first.”

In order to maintain the audience’s suspension of disbelief, “lonelygirl15″ had to mimic amateur vlogger production value, which in the show’s early years affected its ability to attract advertisers. But the EQAL team was able to win sponsors over by telling them that “it looks like this because that’s what people want to watch online.”

And the “lonelygirl15″ approach has continued to bring in fiercely loyal audiences. “I think the sponsorship has more weight, even with smaller audiences, because of this,” Beckett said. “The way we produce the show [which includes the hosting web site and other interactivity factors] creates a level of engagement between character and show and audience that is so deep and so emotional. We’ve absolutely found that, with the integrations we’ve done with Neutrogena or Toyota or Cadbury, it’s like these fans become fans of the product as well. They’ll go and buy it because their favorite characters and shows like them.”

When Brent Friedman of Electric Farm Entertainment was developing last summer’s “Gemini Division,” the high-profile sci-fi series produced by NBC-Universal, he turned to the direct address format as well. By structuring each episode around Anna (Rosario Dawson)’s video phone messages, Dawson was given the chance to show some range, showing different facets of the same character in the contrast between her communications with her bosses and her confiding in a loved one. And the future-phone technology was also a way for the show’s sponsors, which included Microsoft and Cisco, to get their branding plastered on the screen every episode. “It made their brands feel organic to the world [of the show],” he said.

Friedman’s initial inspiration for the first-person approach was extremely simple: “We realized that the best production design we were going to get out of this show was Rosario’s face,” he said. But “lonelygirl15″ never came up during the show’s development — in part because of the technical difference between the two (Bree made public video blog entries, while Anna is communicating with unseen characters), and in part because, since the launch of “lonelygirl15,” the format has become so ingrained in the online video medium.

Friedman’s reasoning for the popularity of the first-person format also comes down to engagement. As opposed to TV, which is often enjoyed in a group setting, web video is “a window on a computer, watched by one person. One person watching another person creates a bond — it’s a great shortcut for making a connection with your viewer,” he said. In a medium that requires creators to get audiences invested in under 5 minutes, that can be an incredible boon.

Television is something we bring into our living rooms, our bedrooms, and when a camera goes close on an actor’s face, the actor’s face is almost exactly to scale. Essentially, we’re inviting the people on TV into our homes. But in the digital age, we seem to demand a higher level of intimacy from the characters we follow, especially as the screens grow smaller and yet more personal. Consider, after all, watching these shows on your phone, the same device that you use to communicate with your friends and loved ones. The screen is small, fits in your pocket, and with it you’re able to check in on Bree and Dr. Horrible anytime, anywhere.

The more the fourth wall shatters, the more real these characters become, paying off for advertisers, creators and audiences alike.

Liz Shannon Miller is the Reviews Editor for NewTeeVee Station.

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