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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Female-centric web channel hoping to score dramatic hit

Posted: 07/8/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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Maggie Grace stars in the web series Susanna.

LUIS SINCO/LOS ANGELES TIMES Enlarge Image

Maggie Grace stars in the web series Susanna.

LOS ANGELES -- The wails of an infant haunt much of the 13-minute YouTube clip.

On the Internet's dominant video site, laughing babies, talking twin babies, roller-skating babies long have made for amusing, sure-fire click bait. This case of a crying newborn represents something entirely different: It's an attempt at groundbreaking original programming from the site.

Susanna is a 12-part series starring True Blood's Anna Paquin as a new mother who develops acute postpartum depression and struggles in caring for her child. The web series, which saw the last of its videos posted on June 21, is the latest commission from female-centric WIGS, the top channel for scripted drama on YouTube.

"This whole platform for female-driven narratives and storytelling is just really exciting," Paquin said. "As a woman, it's sometimes a little hard to find material that's challenging or interesting, where you're not playing a wife or a girlfriend. I'm lucky enough to be on a TV show where I get to play a ballsy tough chick. That also is a rarity. This fits into that category. That's why I wanted to be a part of it."

Launched a year ago by Jon Avnet, the writer, director and producer best known for Black Swan and Fried Green Tomatoes, and Rodrigo Garcia, director of Albert Nobbs and the HBO series In Treatment, WIGS has constructed a roster of fan favourites, such as Blue, starring Julia Stiles as a single mom who moonlights as a prostitute; and Lauren, a drama about sexual misconduct in the military.

Its marquee talent, which includes Jennifer Garner, Alfred Molina and Virginia Madsen, and carefully crafted stories have attracted about 46 million views -- a modest performance by YouTube standards, where a South Korean pop star doing a horsy dance can capture 1.7 billion clicks.

But Avnet and Garcia say they are in it for the long haul, thanks to backing from a big-name advertiser, American Express, and a television network, Fox, which views the channel as a way to inexpensively test dramatic concepts that could reach the television screen. Avnet, Garcia and their Hollywood collaborators are eager to learn the nuances of storytelling in a medium that rewards brevity, rapid pacing and near-immediate plot reveals -- and do so without creating second-class, tiny-screen entertainment.

"We're old fuddy-duddies as far as the Internet's concerned, but... you don't have to read the crystal ball to know that the Internet is here to stay," Garcia said. "But storytelling is not going to go anywhere."

WIGS also represents a programming experiment by YouTube, which financed 100 channels of original content more than a year ago in hopes of broadening its audience and changing the perceptions of Madison Avenue ad buyers. The experiment yielded mixed results -- not unlike the world of broadcast TV, where 65 per cent of new network shows can fail in the first season.

Avnet and Garcia received a $5-million initial advance to create 100 episodes of original scripted programming for and about women. WIGS fit with YouTube's efforts to migrate new audiences to the youthful platform. The creative duo were eager to figure out how to exploit a site that reaches one billion users each month at a time when digital distribution, through services such as Netflix and Hulu, plays an increasingly important role in delivering programming to viewers.

"Could it be we could be creating the sort of watercooler experience for the iPad generation?" Avnet said.

Robert Kyncl, YouTube's global head of content and business operations, described Avnet and Garcia as the ideal YouTube students who search for fresh insights and information to attract and retain audiences. They pay attention to YouTube's scientific analysis and travel frequently to its headquarters in San Bruno, Calif.

"One of the reasons they've succeeded is they have an incredible creative core. Because of that, they're able to attract amazing talent," Kyncl said. "Most important, Jon and Rodrigo have embraced this platform model incredibly well."

The little-discussed issue of postpartum depression allowed for an evocative yarn. Avnet had been mulling the idea since an actress in London years ago confided details of her severe depression after the birth of her child.

He wrote several episodes of Susanna, in which a new mother, Katie, develops acute depression and is hospitalized, leaving her and her baby in the care of a career-focused younger sister, Susanna, played by Maggie Grace. The little sister struggles to close a big business deal while accepting that Katie won't be recovering soon -- thrusting a resentful and unprepared Susanna into the role of nurturing the infant April, with whom she falls in love.

Blue and Lauren have established a fan base, and both returned for second seasons. A more high-profile breakthrough could help define WIGS as an entertainment destination, just as Mad Men elevated the AMC cable network or The Sopranos made HBO appointment viewing.

"Every single network that has been created, post the three (original broadcasters), has had one hit that put them on the map," Avnet said. "That's what our business is, it's a one-hit business. If we did that today, on our platform, it would be a tectonic shift."

-- Los Angeles Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 8, 2013 D3

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