Web series immerses audiences through interactivity

Jill Golick, left, with web series actress Marlee Maslove, who plays Hailey Skye on Ruby Skye P.I. [Julie Strassman-Cohn photo]

Ruby Skye P.I. isn’t just a television show. The teen-targeted web series blurs the line between fact and fiction, interacting with the viewers between episodes and connecting the story to real life.

Jill Golick, the creator of the program, has built a batch of websites that bring viewers into the story. For example, there are Tumblr accounts for her characters – a microblogging service popular among teenagers – where fans can follow the characters’ posts.

The show is at the end of its second season, after releasing an episode a week for nine weeks. Throughout the season, the teen detective protagonist, Ruby Skye, is working on solving the mystery of a haunted library.

To coincide with the show, Golick’s production company, Story 2.OH, built a website at odearylibrary.com, which is supposed to be the online version of the haunted library in the show.

The website is designed to look like a real library site, with activities for viewers, such as links to author interviews and book reviews “written” by the characters.

“Each episode stands on its own, but if you want a really deep experience, then you’ve got a lot of content to explore,” she said.

In fact, there’s so much to the program that a media studies class at Toronto’s Bialik Hebrew Day School studied it the way they might study a novel, Golick said. As part of the study unit, the students created their own web series and had a mini web-series festival, she said.

Golick, who has worked on several network TV shows for teens and kids, such as Instant Star and Zoboomafoo, co-writes Ruby Skye P.I.

She said one of her goals with the show is to create well-written independent female characters who don’t care what other people think of them.

“I don’t think we serve our daughters very well with what we put on kids and tween television,” she said. “We don’t tell them they’re smart and capable and can change the world.”

That’s why she works with Plan Canada’s campaign, Because I Am a Girl, which aims to empower women and provide opportunities for girls in developing countries. In the show, Ruby Skye’s sister, Hailey, fundraises for the campaign. Golick has even set up a personal page for Hailey on the campaign’s website to accept donations.

Although the show is online only, Golick said she thinks the show has higher production values than many network television shows for kids. Most children’s shows shoot in a studio and spend around three days per episode. Ruby Skye P.I. shoots an hour’s content on location in Toronto over 10 days. The haunted library is shot in University of Toronto’s Emmanuel College library.

This show isn’t Golick’s first time telling a story on the web. More than five years ago, when Facebook had just opened its registration to people outside of university, Golick began a project called boymeetsgrrl.

“I started to think you could tell a television story by using social media and letting characters tell their own stories,” she said. She used the classic “boy meets girl” story and created two characters. The boy was a video-blogger who was sharing his story about meeting a girl. Suddenly, she ran into the frame and told him he had given her an STI (sexually transmitted infection).

A Facebook account was created for the female character, where she would post notes asking people what she should do about the situation, and within 24 hours, people from all over the world became engrossed in the storyline, suggested diagnoses for whatever he had given her, and giving her relationship advice.

“It’s such a surprise as a storyteller that people are participating in this way,” Golick said. “They hated the guy. They said to her, ‘Get rid of him.’”

Although she tried to make it obvious that the story and characters were fictional, she said not everybody figured it out.

“There’s definitely a blurring of fact and fiction when you move into the web-space,” she said, adding that the vast majority knew it was a work of fiction, but some people got very upset.

Ruby Skye P.I.’s characters have been much more obviously fiction. All the photos have a logo on them, and the characters don’t interact with people in a real way.

However, given that online media is growing all the time, viewers should remember that not everything they find online is true.

Although there are several challenges that come with producing a web series – particularly in financing and finding an audience – Golick has been very successful. The number of views hit the one million mark recently, and they had one day with 100,000 views.

However, there’s still a long way to go. That number is still quite small compared to network television shows.

“I think it’s going to be a while before the web is mature enough to support this kind of a narrative, dramatic story,” Golick said, but her experience shows that young people are not afraid of new kinds of content. The web is the right marketplace for a show for teenagers, she said.