It started with a girl named Bree.
At least that's what she said her name was. She was 16, American and girlishly pretty. In June 2006, under the name LonelyGirl15, she posted her first video online.
It lasted a minute and a half, was shot in her bedroom and showed her talking direct to camera. She name-dropped a couple of other video bloggers (vloggers) and pulled a few funny faces. "What you need to know about my town," she said, "is that it's really boring. That's probably why I spend so much time on my computer,
I'm a dork." That was it. Typical of the confessional teenage vlogs circulating the web at the time.
A few days later, the next video appeared, showing Bree goofing around with a puppet monkey. In the third, she talked about being home-schooled and imparted some trivia about Antarctica. Pretty mundane stuff. It wasn't until the sixth vlog, entitled My Parents Suck..., that the tone shifted: in it she complained that her parents had forbidden her from going out with her friend Daniel on account of her "religion". It wasn't clear what religion this was. Within hours the video had notched up 50,000 hits. (The previous postings had counted 50,000 to 100,000 hits in the course of a week.) Two days later the tally was up to half a million.
Suddenly LonelyGirl15 was a phenomenon. With each new video, as parental tensions heightened and suggestions of the occult crept in, the buzz grew ever greater.
Then, in September 2006, the LA Times exposed it all as a hoax. Teenager Bree was in fact 20-year-old New Zealand actress Jessica Rose. LonelyGirl15 was the fictional brainchild of three California-based film-makers.
None of it was real. Curiously, this didn't deter the fans. To them Bree's story was still compelling. The vlogs ran until August 2008, by which time the series had notched up more than 110 million views. It was pioneering.
LonelyGirl15 had established a new type of entertainment: a hit online series with content devised specifically for the web.
Now, two and a half years since LonelyGirl15 first appeared, web series are the hottest new format in Hollywood. No longer amateurish or user-generated in feel, the latest crop of webisodes are slick productions.
Many boast celebrity involvement. In recent months, for example, web series have been launched by Ashton Kutcher (Blahgirls, an animated gossip site for girls) and Stephen Colbert (Children's Hospital, a Grey's Anatomy spoof starring Will & Grace's Megan Mullally).
Also in the pipeline are projects from Josh Schwartz (creator of Gossip Girl and The OC), the Coen brothers and film directors Bryan Singer and David Lynch. In the United States, all the leading studios have digital arms (including HBOlab, Warner Bros' Studio 2.0 and Sony's Crackle) which produce spin-off web series from mainstream shows (such as The Wire and Gossip Girl) as well as original content.
When it comes to web series, Hollywood can't afford not to be ahead - particularly given how quickly viewing habits are changing as a growing number of consumers view content online (through streaming and downloaded videos).
Already the most successful web series can attract audiences of more than a million. Plus, it's never been easier for a show to reach its audience - posted on video-sharing sites such as YouTube and social-networking sites such as MySpace and Bebo (a particular boon for independent producers who don't have access to traditional means of distribution).
For actors, directors and writers, web series also mean artistic and creative freedom. The web channel StrikeTV, for instance, born out of last year's Hollywood writers' strike, showcases a host of new web projects developed outside the studio system.
Webisodes are a new format. There are no established rules for studio executives to follow. Webisodes have no common traits other than brevity (usually they last no longer than a couple of minutes). The initial thinking about what a webisode should look like - the creators of LonelyGirl15 believed the camerawork should be simple, with a character always filming the action, and each episode no longer than three minutes - hasn't been borne out.
Scoring a web series hit, however, is still no cinch. Even shows whose view count passes 100,000 in the first week (a fair index of success) can find it hard to sustain. Studios can at least afford to hedge their bets with lots of shows. The best financial hope for independent producers is still corporate sponsorship or being optioned for television.
The recent web series from Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, a musical superhero spoof penned during the writers' strike and bankrolled by Whedon, premiered online free in July before going on sale on iTunes and grossing more than $2 million in the first few weeks.
No doubt as viewing habits evolve, this won't prove such a singular exception for web series.
It won't be long, for instance, before all TV sets can readily access the internet and viewers can watch webisodes as they would regular television. How long then before web series rival TV in ratings and quality? And how long before we get our first Sopranos of the web?