Jane Austen once called her protagonist Emma Woodhouse "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." Surprisingly (or not), while the title character in Emma is slightly brash, she is, ultimately, endearing. Consider, for example, Alicia Silverstone's Cher in Clueless, or Romola Garai in the 2009 BBC miniseries of Emma (or, if you're a purist/bibliophile, just read the darned book for yourself. It's public domain, so you have no excuse not to).
Emma Woodhouse in the once hotly anticipated YouTube series Emma Approved is, however, a heroine whom no one but the creators much like.
How did this happen? By all rights, Emma Approved should be a huge success. Riding the waves of the new-media behemoth that was The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which was created by the same people, this modern, entrepreneurial Emma should have charmed fans just as easily as Lizzie Bennet did, but that has not been the case.
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries made quite a splash in the young-adult literature community. The series, which won an Emmy for Original Creative Achievement in Interactive Media, followed grad student Lizzie Bennet as she tries to be there for her sisters, Jane and Lydia, fends off George Wickham, and comes to terms with her feelings for the standoffish William Darcy. Produced by Hank Green (of Vlogbrothers fame) and Bernie Su, the show's first episode has garnered over 1.6 million views since debuting in April 2012 (viewership numbers for the rest of the series are mostly in the range of 300,000-500,000 views), and inspired a fandom. As Su puts it, though the creators knew that "It's one of those things where you don't know what it is until you see it," the show caught on and earned the love and respect of a devoted fan community.
Emma Approved, which envisions its protagonist as a lifestyle coach who contends with business parter and longtime friend Alex Knightley, has not experienced the same success. So far, its first episode has only netted about 320,000 views, with average viewership of the rest of the episodes in the 60-100,000 views range. While Emma Approved is a much newer series (it only premiered in October 2013), these numbers are indicative of the fans' response to the show.
"The LBD [Lizzie Bennet Diaries] had characters that were so real and detailed, along with well thought through plot lines and episodes. Unfortunately Emma doesn't seem to have been thought through at all," says 15-year-old Australian fan Amelia Hannah, sharing a sentiment common in the fandom.
Much of the success of LBD, as the fans have dubbed it, was due to fact that Lizzie Bennet was so identifiable. She talked like their friends, she Tweeted like their friends, she even selfied like their friends. The show was a good introductory lesson in the power of great transmedia, a concept that still confounds many content creators and viewers. Transmedia involves taking the characters from a story that is traditionally confined to one medium (say, a YouTube channel) and extending their story into other media (like Twitter, Instagram, blogs, video games and Pinterest). Essentially, transmedia opens up the world of the characters and lets content consumers learn as much (or as little) as they want.
Su, who serves as showrunner for both The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved, knew that there was an "untapped audience of young females who are literary, or educated" in the online community, and so when Hank Green came to him with the idea of adapting Pride & Prejudice into a vlog, he jumped in. Soon enough, a team was assembled under the name of Pemberley Digital (the name of Darcy's estate in Pride and Prejudice) with a full writing staff and a transmedia team.
Jay Bushman led the transmedia efforts for The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and wanted to make sure that the story and the world surrounding it were well-integrated. "It was really important when I sat down to have the initial conversations that to do the transmedia meant that I needed to be a member of the writing staff, and we didn't really differentiate between the social media and video elements," he says, though they understood the importance of making the series coherent without the social media elements. "We had to keep the different audiences in mind...We had to make sure everything in the social sphere was reiterated in the videos."
Also helping The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was the format; most of the initial audience was familiar with vlogging as a form of communication. It's a form Hank Green and his brother John participate in very visibly, with their Vlogbrothers YouTube account, which started when John and Hank kept in touch by writing each other a public video letter every day for a year. By framing Pride and Prejudice as Lizzie's video diaries of her encounters with Bing Lee, William Darcy, and more, Su and Green took a classic story and put it in a context familiar to today's teens.
Unfortunately, neither of these elements were quite as present for the second full go-round (a mini-series based on Austen's unfinished Sanditon aired in between). Bushman didn't have the time to participate in Emma Approved, but his assistant from The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Alexandra Edwards, has taken the helm for the new series. Though the characters from LBD had been very present on Twitter, much to the fans' delight, Edwards says they made a decision early on to go in a different direction with Emma. "We're doing more with blog content, and the idea of Emma's business as lifestyle coaching...We felt like there was more interesting stuff to be done with the lifestyle blog than a LBD-style Twitter."
Some fans don't mind this different approach to transmedia. Nikki Baker, a 26 year-old fan from North Hollywood, likes it, saying, "The clothing spots and articles keep the audience engaged and interested in what Emma and Harriet will wear and say next." But this didn't work so well for most of the fans, who loved the more interactive nature of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. As fan Amelia Hannah puts it, "With The LBD, interaction with social media meant that 'Lizzie' could talk to her viewers outside of videos...Unfortunately it seems that Pemberley Digital took everything that worked with The LBD and scrapped it with Emma Approved in order to differentiate the shows."
Another key difference was how the "fourth wall" changed. Lizzie in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was knew that her videos were public, and other characters' awareness of the videos played an important role in the series' plot. With Emma Approved, though, the distinction of what is and is not visible to the characters in Emma's world is not immediately apparent. The creators' intention is that Emma's videos are not public in Emma's world, so none of the characters have seen them - they are, instead, footage for a documentary that Emma wants to make about herself, and are presumably stored somewhere on a hard drive, waiting to be excavated by Pemberley Digital. While many fans were more or less able to figure that out, they were confused by the appearance of the videos on Emma's blog - if these videos don't actually exist in Emma's world, then why are they posted alongside Emma's advice on outfits, tips for helping friends, and Harriet's ukelele songs?
Su admits that it's a bit of a tricky situation, but he made the choice to blur the line between "in-world" and "out-of-world" to help audiences find the videos, which might not be as easily accessible to viewers who aren't familiar with YouTube channels. "Even some of my writers are questioning this move, but it's simple. I want discovery first. If you're confused about how to find a video, then we are in trouble," Su says.
Brazilian fan Vitória Paes, 22, doesn't think that approach pays off, though. As she puts it, "Sure, there's the main site with the update of the week, but by going through it I feel like it breaks the illusion of reality, which is really my favorite part." Many other fans have expressed similar frustration with the lack of consistency in Emma's universe, expressing their frustration on their Tumblr blogs and/or Twitter accounts.
So what's next? Well, Emma Approved will keep chugging along. The Pemberley Digital team took a hiatus this winter, their first break since starting The Lizzie Bennet Diaries over two years ago. "TV shows don't run 52 weeks a year," Su says. "Lizzie Bennet Diaries never took a hiatus. It was exhausting. It's almost stunning to me that we had this streak up until now where we had to take a month off, and re-align and re-staff up, and I think the show is better for it."
Looking forward, Pemberley Digital plans to keep adapting old works, though they won't necessarily stick to Austen books in the future. Su is happy to see the many other modernizations of classics that LBD has inspired (such as The Autobiography of Jane Eyre, A Tell-Tale Vlog, The Nick Carraway Chronicles, and many more), but he's concerned about their business side. "I want them to succeed. I don't want these content creators and writers to go into crazy debt to make these shows. That doesn't help us [as a community]," he says.
"Hopefully, eventually, working on one of these shows will be their full-time job, and they can afford to have it be that," Su adds. "That's what Pemberley [Digital] should aim toward, to be sustainable...Not to be a $20 million series, but make it like couple hundred thousand dollar series. That's certainly very doable. I'm hoping. Fingers crossed."
For the die-hard fans who want to know more about what Bernie Su had to say about both series, click to the next page.
How the fans' input affects the shows:
Well, you can't take all opinions equally, because there are opinions that may seem negative, but they're positive. When they say something like, "Oh, I don't like Emma right now, the character," well that's okay, because Emma is someone unlikeable at this point in the story, earlier on, and so forth. And so there's stuff like that.
But you can kind of see which characters and which nuances the fans will latch on to, and you can play with it. I think our most notable example of this is in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, we had two characters - well, we had one character - who really was there just to serve a plot point, and to dish exposition. We saw that one character became really popular, just with the archetype we designed for him, and the fans had put some fan fiction, or imagined this character with another character, as good friends, and so we just kind of went that direction, because it didn't harm the main narrative, and it was something that was different and fresh and exciting and fun, and made for some good companion content.
On the fan role-playing in Welcome to Sanditon:
We were experimenting. With Sanditon, I wasn't the showrunner of that show...Jay [Bushman] and Margaret [Dunlap], who were the showrunners for that show, I let them kind of run wild. So whatever you want to do, as long as it fits the budget, we can do. If you want to create this mass-connected world, like we did with Sanditon, that has a lot of role-playing, we'll call it, by all means, go ahead.
Now, I may not have gone that way if I were designing it that way, but I was really curious to see how it would do, so I was very supportive of it. And you'll find some people who loved the idea of it being a fictional town, and people who thought it was poor content, or people who thought it was lower-quality story content. And they're entitled to that opinion.
So that show did what it did, and then it ended, and while they were doing that show, I was developing Emma Approved, and I had a very clear vision of how I wanted to do this show, and make it very different from both The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Sanditon, which have a philosophy of how to tell the narrative. And my opinion, I'm very close to it obviously, but I think it's working very well.
What happened during Emma Approved's hiatus:
If you look around the fandom, you'll probably see different stories than what actually happened. It really just came down to being exhausted, is why we went on hiatus. It's just really hard to do a show, a scripted series with all these moving parts, and keep it on, keep it going. TV shows don't run for 52 weeks a year. I mean, I think some soap operas did at one point, but I don't know if they do, I just know that they run every day.
But for us, Lizzie Bennet Diaries never took a hiatus - we were always in production. It was exhausting. It's almost stunning to me that it took us up until this streak, until now, that we had to take a month off, and re-align and re-staff up, and get the team together. And I think the show is better for it. So that's really why. I think the fans thought that, we'll call them the "mean fandom," thought we were doing it because we were getting attacked and criticized too much, and that's not true, it's just we were tired. That's really it. And there are so many moving parts in the machine that it's like, let's take a step back here, and really re-align the synergy of the show, and the show's better for it now, for sure.
About the success of the Emma Approved/Welcome to Sanditon Kickstarter campaign:
It's a net positive. If you follow along, you'll notice we haven't fulfilled yet. Mainly because the DVDs are not done. I'm glad to know that we're not the only Kickstarter, we're far from the only Kickstarter that's had delays and problems like this, like overwhelmed because the thing was so big.
So it's a net positive. It gave us some operating dollars, it allowed us to create a show called Sanditon, it allowed us to give bonuses to our cast and crew, which we never would have been able to do without that, and so it's good. It's definitely good, and it's exciting to know that the fans, even the ones who generally, who are the Kickstarters, who are patiently awaiting their DVDs, most of them are very receptive and happy and supportive of this stuff. There are a couple who are upset, and I understand, I get it. I understand, and I try to be apologetic, but you can only apologize so much. So I get it, if they're mad at me, I'm not thrilled about it, but I understand.
But the Kickstarter does show that online video can monetize, very clearly. There's a clear path. Can you sell DVDs? Just did it! DVD still does exist, people are still asking for it. So I see that, I bring up the Kickstarter positively in every light. I still, as a content creator, would prefer never to need it. I'm hoping that Emma Approved never needs a Kickstarter, for example, and I hope that our future shows never need a Kickstarter. That is my hope.
Bernie Su's perception of both series:
Lizzie Bennet Diaries was primarily a two-media series. And what I mean by media is how media is presented. And the two medias for Lizzie Bennet to present story were video and social. A web series, and social. And the interactive was grand, and won the Emmy for it, and it does something Emma doesn't do yet, which is present point of view in narrative. You can see the story from Lydia's point of view if you follow the Lydia channels on Tumblr and YouTube and Facebook, and you can see the story from her point of view. Emma Approved doesn't do that.
So does that make Emma Approved less innovative than Lizzie Bennet Diaries? No, it doesn't. There's a difference here...Emma Approved is actually a five media series. What are the five medias, you ask? Video, which you know; social, again, which you know; there's a fashion blog, Emma's fashion series, that is a completely photo-driven narrative. It supports the narrative, complementary, and so forth. And of course, text. Emma has a blog, and that stuff also supports the narrative. It's in character, it supports the scenes through the month, through the episodes. Finally, as you just saw, music. It's not a soundtrack, it's not a score, it's characters writing songs as part of the narrative. This is how we feel, this is what I'm saying, and is the song you see. Communicating through song.
So it's feasible to say Emma Approved uses all five medias to tell story, together. And it's hard to say how many shows, if any, do this, on any platform. And I think that's a defining feature for Emma Approved.
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