June 23, 2007
Autonomy and Authorship Versus Mainstream Distribution: Homestar Runner

Are Internet and indy creators just TV wannabes? This is a question that I've seen posed in many ways time and time again, from indy rock groups who claimed to want to buck the system who were then offered big money from record labels and faced the big dilemma of staying true to their anti-authoritarian nature or joining the network and reaching a much bigger audience.

Then there was the story of Extreme Championship Wrestling, the renegade wrestling group who became really popular among Internet fans and Internet tape traders through word-of-mouth and a syndicated television deal for their local Philadelphia-produced show, only to then face the question of how to go big without changing the nature of their gritty product.

Of course, that's not to say that there aren't many ways in which autonomous auteurs can't reach wider distribution without having to relinquish creative control over their product, as there are myriad examples of independent content that have parlayed to a wider audience while retaining their hardcore basis, but I can't think of any situation in which the conflict isn't there.

The proselytizers for these niche products obviously want to share with a greater audience, but there is a struggle there between being the "in" product that they love with the perceived sacrifices one would have to make in making that product more mainstream. Even when a media product makes the successful transformation from grassroots to mainstream, there is always that struggle in the core fan base between wanting to see the popularity grow and maintaining it for one's self.

More than anything else, it is the struggle when identification with a niche product starts to define someone's personality or become part of their public persona. Since I became known as a wrestling guy (and a soaps guy) at MIT, I would always tease people about how they should really take a look at As the World Turns or WWE Smackdown. Of course, if I came in to cite an example from last week's Monday Night Raw, only to have a room full of people who all said they watched it, I might feel as if I were losing my identity, what set me apart from my colleagues.

On the creative end, that struggle identifies as well. Independent producers who have full control of their content are empowered both by the fact that they don't have to answer to anyone but their fans and also by the fact that, as long as they resist going mainstream, there remains a question mark as to how popular their work could really be (versus having that answered if they go mainstream and the brand doesn't end up doing well.) I know I have had many friends in my life who had the potential to move their talents to even greater venues but who resisted doing some, partially because they were afraid that they might not succeed at that level.

All these thoughts were raised by news I read earlier this week from John Scott Lewinski's Wired piece about Homestar Runner's choice to keep the animated series an Internet property, despite some interest from both Comedy Central and Cartoon Network.

I know that Homestar Runner has gained quite a fan following recently, but the creators have decided that hanging on to their indy status would help maintain the integrity and quality of their work. Lewinski wrote, "Homestar's online antics became a hit on the web, and the audience grew through word of mouth. The brief Flash cartoons were polished and full of dry, hip, postmodern humor. Supporting players like Strong Bad and The Poopsmith had star power drawn all over them."

Since merchandise sales have allowed the Chapmans to turn their attention to the cartoon as their major professional endeavor, they felt they had the ability to resist more widespread distribution through television.

They were quoted as calling television "creepy" and said, "What they do works for them, but if we were doing our show there, we'd still have producers telling us what to do, what to change, what to write, etc. We love the control and the immediacy that writing and creating cartoons on the website brings us."

I have no doubt that the Chapmans could be successful in taking the property they've cultivated "more mainstream," if that's what one should call television distribution versus Internet distribution. The question is in different metrics of popularity in television versus online distribution. However, the decision made by the Chapmans may make many of their fans happy and will be an interesting one to continue following as Homestar Runner continues its successful...ummm...run online.