Doctor Who, The Walking Dead, Community and the Joy of TV Webisodes

Doctor Who, The Walking Dead, Grimm, and Community webisodes have given fans extra for a decade, and the trend isn’t going anywhere...

If you’re a Den Of Geek regular, you’ll probably already be aware of the selection box of online treats that accompanies many of your favorite TV programmes.

The last six or seven years have seen US TV companies in particular seek to extend the value of their most popular shows – and ramp up their engagement with viewers – by offering a host of online content alongside their scheduled programming.

This will often include additional and exclusive content such as trailers, interviews and competitions, all created to attract fans eager to get another fix of their favourite show. But it’s the ‘webisodes’ that often prove most popular among online audiences, with series such as The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, True Blood, Community, Ray Donovan, and Grimm among others all producing bonus online episodes to complement their TV output.

The official definition of a webisode is an episode of a series that is available as either for download or streaming, as opposed to first airing on broadcast or cable television. While there is no set length, most are relatively short, ranging from 3–15 minutes in length.

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Often they act as an extension or companion to a high profile series, offering fans a little extra of their favourite characters, or perhaps a back story not broadcast on TV. Some stretch over multi-episodes, some are self-contained; some feature the show’s stars and others focus on the supporting characters.

Web series can serve to provide fans with a fix of their favorite TV show in between broadcast seasons, as well as promote forthcoming seasons of the show.

A number of webisodes are tied into the story arcs of their parent shows, and if they don’t advance the plot, they still contain information that the obsessive viewer will want to consume – we all know devotees of TV shows that crave the minutiae, the geeky stuff, the tidbit of trivia about their favourite show that they can drop into conversation with their peers.

Sometimes a webisode can fill in the blanks, or offer resolution to a storyline that was missing from the TV series. For instance, E4’s sci-fi comedy drama Misfits produced an exclusive eight-minute online film giving fans a chance to say goodbye to Nathan, a departing lead character.

They can also fill in the back story to sometimes incidental characters – for example, one of the most popular online series is a companion to AMC’s The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead webisodes are all based in King County, Georgia – our hero Rick Grimes’ hometown – and directed by make-up artist and special effects creator, Greg Nicotero. The first, “Torn Apart,” features a woman called Hannah, recounting her story of how she is infected after the zombie outbreak. It is only in the final episode that we realise Hannah is the first zombie that Rick encounters way back in the first ever episode of the TV show, “Days Gone Bye.”

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According to fans, Hannah’s ‘half corpse’ is an iconic walker, so humanising her in this way is a clever move by the writers. It ties in perfectly with the TV show; it’s not essential for a viewer of the TV series to know Hannah’s back story, but it’s exactly the sort of thing you’ll appreciate it if you’re a fan.

Conversely, some series start life as webisodes and only then get picked up by national or cable TV for broadcast. Canadian sci-fi-fantasy series Sanctuary began in 2007 as an eight-webisode series released only through the internet. The success of the webisodes led the Syfy Channel to commission a 13-episode season for 2008, and the first four webisodes were rewritten and reshot as a two-hour premiere episode, “Sanctuary For All.”

But it’s not just sci-fi and horror where the platform is gaining traction. Community has several online episodes featuring original content, to name just one US comedy.

Interestingly, the show incorporates sponsorship into its online content creation, with a couple of the episodes sponsored by big US companies – to the point it even shapes the content. Study Break is a three part web series that was sponsored by Road To The Emmys, meanwhile, is another three-parter sponsored by car manufacturer Infiniti. It has the study group on their way to an Emmy party, riding in an Infiniti QX 56.

Also, a pioneer of digital content was the NBC comedy Chuck. The webisodes took the form of mock instructional videos for Buy More, where the show’s protagonist, Chuck Bartowski, works. A number of the show’s supporting players appear in the webisodes, but Chuck himself (Zachary Levi) doesn’t, which some fans quite rightly point out as odd, given that the show is named after him.

However, it’s not just in the US that webisodes are gaining popularity. In an interview last year in the Radio Times, Doctor Who writer and producer Steven Moffat recognised the growing appetite for internet-exclusive content, vowing to take digital episodes more seriously.

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“I think we now have to accept that online stuff isn’t a spin-off anymore,” he said.

Moffat confessed he “never used to see the value of making Doctor Who stories purely for an internet audience,” but changed his mind following the success of online offerings such as “Pond Life” and “The Night Of The Doctor.”

A self-contained seven minute story, “The Night Of The Doctor” was made available on BBC iPlayer and YouTube as part of BBC One’s lead-up to the show’s 50th anniversary special. Set during the Time War, it showed the previously unseen last moments of the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann), and his artificially controlled regeneration into the War Doctor (John Hurt). It was watched by 2.5m people in its week of release.

“I actually think The Night Of The Doctor is one of the best ones we’ve done, and I don’t think it would be improved by being 45 minutes long,” said Moffat. “What more storytelling do we need?”

Mofatt has also promised that Doctor’s 12th incarnation (in the form of Peter Capaldi) will be the subject of prequels and mini episodes, available exclusively online.

Back in 2006, one of the first cult TV series to offer online episodes was Heroes. Jesse Alexander, a producer on Heroes, its spin-off Origins, Alias, Lost, and more recently Hannibal, claims it was Heroes that established the idea of “engagement television.”

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He says the show’s producers consciously exploited a range of media beyond TV to sustain interest in the show.

“Finding ways to generate revenue especially when producing an expensive series like Lost or Heroes is important and a transmedia approach – using content on multiple, often overlapping media platforms – is a good way to do this,” he says.

As mentioned earlier, webisodes are often a vehicle for a programme’s supporting cast to bolster their screen time. Heroes saw several characters that played minor roles in the TV series become more central characters online. The character Risk, for example, is used online to plant the seeds for future developments in the TV programme.

A show that’s currently utilising its comedic supporting cast is Grimm. Now in its fourth season, Grimm is an update on the classic fairy stories by the Brothers Grimm, transporting the action to modern day Portland, Oregon.

Like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Grimm mixes fight scenes, folklore, scary creatures and a sometimes goofy ensemble crew of characters. It also offers up comic relief in the form of some of its supporting cast – and this is highlighted in its three mini-episodes that punctuate seasons 2-4.

Two of the webisodes feature an Eisbiber called Bud (he resembles a beaver when ‘woged’ or transformed from his human form), who pops up occasionally in the TV series to offer up some laughs. In “Bad Hair Day,” Monroe and Rosalie prepare an exotic hair growth potion for him, but predictably, it works a little too well. In “Meltdown,” Bud is joined by the ever sarcastic fan-favourite Sergeant Wu, where they are attacked by a marauding zombie, evidentially escaped from the TV episode “Goodnight, Sweet Grimm.”

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The third, “Love Is In The Air,” one of the main characters, Juliette, get a rare chance to ham it up, as she and Rosalee get set to host what looks like one of the dullest parties in history – but of course there’s a twist.

The episodes are light-hearted and whimsical, and let the show’s fans know that the cast don’t mind hamming it up for the laugh too.

Webisodes – and indeed all other forms of online content – clearly have an audience in these shows’ fans. They are part of a move by TV companies and providers to provide more value around their programming and extend the size of their estate.

Do some work better than others? Yes, of course. But as long as fans continue to demand more of their favourite shows, the more TV series will continue to invest in the format.