I was delighted to see that Alan Partridge, one of my favourite comedy creations, is back. Steve Coogan’s cringeworthy Norfolk-based DJ hasn’t been on TV for eight years but will be starring in a series of Web-only shows sponsored by Fosters. They look like being the flagship content for a comedy-themed branded online channel, www.fostersfunny.co.uk. Aficionados will be interested to know that Alan is now plying his trade as a mid-morning DJ on “North Norfolk Digital.”
Webisodes were all the rage a couple of years back when the social network Bebo, among others, commissioned series such as Kate Modern, with funding from sponsors like Ford and P&G. But even though budgets were a fraction of TV budgets, the sums didn’t add up, and the nascent trend was all but killed off by the economic downturn. So, it’s intriguing to see that major talents such as Coogan (who recently co-starred opposite Will Ferrell in The Other Guys) and co-creator Armando Iannucci (a BAFTA winner for the fabulous The Thick Of It) have turned to the Web to revive perhaps their best-loved creation for 12 11-minute episodes. Presumably, there was a decent — if entirely justified — financial incentive to do so. Set against the cost of TV airtime, though, Fosters may have nabbed itself a bargain.
Note also that Harry Hill — one of ITV’s biggest stars, despite his offbeat and surreal comedy — has also gone online. He has created a series of comedy sketches for AOL (http://harryhill.aol.co.uk/), which are resolutely lo-fi, though none the worse for that. It seems bizarre that ITV couldn’t give him the platform online to experiment like this, but then again the UK’s largest commercial broadcaster has history here: Among other things, it created a global Internet sensation (Susan Boyle) but failed to monetize the millions of hits she generated. Hopefully, under a new regime, ITV won’t keep missing open goals, but I wouldn’t count on it.
In the bigger scheme of things, however, the appearance of major TV stars in Internet-only vehicles may just herald the revival of the Web as a content platform, especially if other brands are moved to follow the lead of Fosters and make the investment.