Aymar Jean Christian has always been interested in television. But when he started watching web series in 2008, he began to think long and hard about the future of TV. Nine months ago, Aymar launched a web series platform of his own: Open TV, a space to promote and watch video series made specifically by people whose are underrepresented in commercial television.
Open TV specifically features artists from marginalized groups—like queer and trans performers and people of color—whose videos range from dance to poetry, drag, comedy, and drama. Series or episodes are presented monthly on the platform with an accompanying in-person screening event and a Q&A. Aymar himself is a Communication Studies professor at Northwestern University in Chicago—his academic work focuses on changing television markets and how diverse communities are represented in the digital age. Open TV came out of research into roadblocks that independent artists experience in the film and television industries. It’s also inspired by the public TV program Soul!, which showcased African-American artists, writers, actors, and musicians on nationwide television from 1968-1973.
Open TV aims to serve as an incubator for independent TV and provide minor financial support, networking for web series such as You’re So Talented, Southern for Pussy, Futurewomen, and Let Go and Let God. The site hosts develops original series as well as hosting series that have already landed on YouTube, Vimeo, or elsewhere. Where cable companies and networks fail at supporting diverse communities, Open TV welcomes them.
I talked to Aymar about the future of TV and supporting marginalized creators.
A still from Let Go and Let God, an upcoming short film about depression that will be hosted on Open TV.
Can you talk about some of the shows in development at Open TV, like Two Queens in a Kitchen?
Two Queens in a Kitchen is by Elijah Mckinnon. He pitched this series to me to do a different kind of kitchen show. Basically there are two different artists who are queens, so they are either queer-identified, cis-women, gender non-conforming people, or women of color, and they talk to each other about the Black Lives Matter movement or cultural appropriation. That will be released in the spring and all of those artists are in development with Open TV. It’s kind of a series that promotes these artists but also their affiliation with Open TV.
Ricardo Gamboa is a PhD student at NYU and a Chicago native from the Southside and he wrote this really ambitious show called Brujos. It's about gay male grad students who are witches and are caught in a supernatural struggle. It's a 12-episode action drama. Every episode is told through the zodiac and in every episode, someone dies or gets laid. It also includes lectures from professors about racism or queer critique. For Brujos, we are developing a graphic novel. We are paying an artist to do a graphic novel based on the script. It gives us something to sell. It also gives us something to show. It serves as a sample for private donors, grants, and producers. It also lets us reach out to comic fans. The beauty of this being an non-profit academic research project is that my goal is just to grow new representations across all of these identities.
You started getting into web series in 2008. But was an interest in television and independent television something that was always kind of present in your life?
I always had an interest in television. I’m a kid of the 90s. But I initially went to grad school and wanted to know how people express their identities on the internet. It led me to this place where I was looking at chat rooms and hook up sites, to gay people and seeing how they interact within that space. I was initially interested in vlogging—in particular, queer vlogging and how gender non-conforming people and gay men express their identities. I realized that vlogging was becoming a business so gradually my interest shifted to, “What is the business?” My professors told me, “Well this is television, just in a different way.”
Open TV started when I was a little frustrated with web series. I wanted to know if there was a way to really work expansively and include all identities and relations and not create something that can be consumed and marketed by advertisements.
Do you think web series creators often pick their topics based on what they think could have a shot at getting picked up by a TV network?
Absolutely. You talk to the producers and they all want to develop a deal with a major network. It’s very limiting in how they’re developed. I want to support all of those people but I also want, from a research perspective, to ask the question, “What does queer television look like?” I’m looking at queer pretty expansively, in terms of intersectionality across race, gender, class. I want to make sure there is something queer in Open TV. Black women, older queer women, disabled queers, Latino men, gay men.
Can you talk about Soul! and how the show influenced you? Were there any other public television programs that influenced you?
What was remarkable to me about Soul! was the fact that they had poetry, dance, and other arts that you don’t see on television, whether that be reality or scripted, and that they were by these radical black artists too. It was really shocking to me. It reminded me that public television started differently than it is now. I think in the beginning of the 1970s and the late 1960s, it was still new and forming its identity. It was really open to all of these forms. The story of Soul! is that it actually became too radical for television. The funder, who was the Ford Foundation, pulled funding. That was the heyday of the black power movement. Nixon swept the country in a very direct critique of black political agency. I think that Ford just didn’t want to get caught up in that.
But Soul! was really popular within the black community. After that you see that public television’s black programming takes a market shift to this post-racial turn and feature works where producers were very much invested in integrating black politics into mainstream discussions. We live in an age of media surplus where we can get discourses that are relevant to the communities on demand on YouTube, or wherever we want. Why watch public television? For me, the internet offers a way to push public television to its original mission of being responsive to what people are talking about. I wanted to be a little bit broader and push Soul! beyond the black community and looking at diverse communities and try and be sincere to those communities. Being in Chicago and having public screenings where people can talk to us and talk to artists about why they did what they did, talk to me about their own ideas, is very important.
I want to push commercial television but I also want to integrate the art world. Video and performance art really developed in the 1970s-80s—a lot of those works are direct critiques of commercial television. I think that was good but it was only made for this specific art that was only interested in challenging the form of art, and not necessarily being what communities want to consume and talk about, like with television. I kind of want to integrate all of these things that are happening and challenge these art worlds to be responsive to people who represent it.
Yeah, like Honey Pot Performance, who created an alternate reality series called Futurewomen that’s on OpenTV. Also, a lot of the episodes on Open TV can be watched quickly—most are between 2-12 minutes long. Is that something you’re drawn to—or is it common in web series?
I’m really invested in short-form story telling. It is itself an art form that we need to develop. I want web series to think of short form as an opportunity. TV is expensive to make, you have to pay a lot of people to make it. Even if you’re really smart about it, it’s still a large investment. That large investment is why TV networks and TV representations are conservative. They want to make sure it’s relatable to all of these people. For short form, you can say, I don’t want to be relatable to all of these people. I also think there is so much television these days and people are literally giving away days of their lives to watch something that ABC made to get rich. Whereas if you give us three hours of your life, you can watch artists across identities, across genres, different kinds of story telling strategies, for me it’s an argument in increased investment. For less time, you get more diversity.
A still from Nupita Obama Creates Vogua, a performance art video hosted by Open TV.
Is it a goal for the artists on Open TV to be on a larger platform?
Open TV is a study in development which involves taking production to the market. We try and generate interest but it’s artist centered so I don’t make creative notes to people. I have a team who creates notes and the artist is free to take them or not take them. We are there to pilot their projects and help them get it to the next level. Every project has it’s own development cycle, it’s own goals, and its uses. Sam Bailey is writing You’re So Talented. She is focused on keeping that show in Chicago. She also just got back from Ghana with a short film, she’s also writing a feature film, she’s got ideas for another show. So for You’re So Talented, it’s really about exposing her identity to the world. For Futurewomen, they don’t want a reality show on Bravo! For them, it’s making them better known in Chicago. It can also serve as a demonstration of their method. They develop all of their shows in collaboration in community so they can say, "Here’s the link to our show, here’s what we do." For Zackary Drucker, she wants to make one of those [Southern for Pussy] kinds of videos once a year. She wants to do it at that length, at that production value. It’s completely different for everybody. For Nupita Obama, I’m applying for a DCASE grant. I do want to do more.
What’s your process like for producing?
In most cases, I’ll meet with you and look through the script and outline and strategize how to make it and how to release it. A lot of that is creative but it’s mostly, “Who do we need to get it done?” Most artists have great ideas, they just need a producer. I want to focus on the marketing aspect. I’m meeting with producers separately and finding people who are interested in producing work. Producers are really just the person who keeps everything moving. They make sure you have your locations right, they take care of the paperwork, they help you find a team.
Do you always have live events or public screenings of new pilots, episodes, and series?
Always. That’s a really important part for me. As a researcher it’s important for me to get data on reception. You never know if anyone is going to comment online or share and talk about what they think. I like to have a Q & A that I can keep for my record.
Do you think the future of television lies in web series?
I don’t know. The future of television is digitally delivered but independent television is always going to be a minority. I also think it’s a breeding ground for new artists. It’s a way for those conglomerates to discover new talent. Whenever studio film has been in recession, independent film becomes a little bit more popular. If you look at the graph of black sitcoms in the 90’s, it drops down in the 2000’s and it stays that way until Blackish appears in 2015. So for fifteen years, since they couldn’t find work, writers left Hollywood. There’s a huge drought of black writers and it’s going to show in the programs.