PITTSBURGH — Imagine you're a television producer: You write all your own scripts, you have no set deadlines, no advertisers to please, no subject or language restrictions, unlimited airtime, and you never have to pay your actors — they're just happy to be onscreen.
This is the digital dream-life of Justin Kownacki, the creator of Pittsburgh's Web-based soap opera Something to Be Desired, a dramedy about young, single Steel City bohemians struggling to find love and meaningful work in their hometown. After three successful seasons, Kownacki has cast and begun production on the fourth, which promises more love triangles, more disc jockey infighting, and increasingly adult confrontations.
"It certainly hasn't gotten boring yet," says 29-year-old Kownacki. Shot on digital video, screened on Kownacki's website, and featuring all local actors, both experienced and beginners, Something to Be Desired has surged in popularity, earning a following of about 5,000 viewers a month. "In a year," Kownacki says, "we've gone from explaining what a Web series is to explaining how we're different from other Web series." So what makes his show different? "The big thing online right now is spoofs. Our show is an ongoing, continuous storyline," he says. "It's got this soap opera background, but it's got a sitcom delivery."
Something to Be Desired concerns a small circle of friends (and enemies) in Pittsburgh, most of them clever, offbeat, and mildly depressive. They run small magazines, work for the local radio station — which is suffering through a corporate takeover — and yearn for each other in funny, sometimes tragic ways. The fictional radio station, WANT, is the cornerstone of their lives; interior scenes are shot inside the real Pittsburgh radio station WQED, just a corridor away from the original Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood set.
Though the episodes are short — five minutes or less — Kownacki uses countless locations and a small army of extras. He has filmed in borrowed apartments, recording booths, cafĂŠs, restaurants, and streets. Most ambitiously, he shot among the crowds at the annual Hothouse event, a celebration of the arts that drew more than 2,000 visitors last year. Something to Be Desired has five core cast members and four "peripheral characters," but after a recent round of auditions, Kownacki added 12 new regulars (including the show's first character over the age of 40 and its first nonwhite actor). He is considering lengthening the episodes to 10 minutes.
While the series boasts an impressive fan base, Kownacki admits, "I haven't earned a penny." A graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, he works as a freelance writer and videographer, taking gigs wherever he can find them — a difficult task in a small city with limited interest in multimedia, he says. But the actors are highly dedicated, enjoying the show's novel tone and Kownacki's flexible, imaginative directing style.
"There are some scenes where Justin asks me to do something," says actor and Point Park graduate Kevin Koch, "and I'm like, wow, I didn't know I could do that." It's a surprising compliment for a director who has virtually no acting experience and almost never watches television. Koch, who is trained in stage performance and has little experience on film, adds that the camera helps: "It keeps you on your toes."
"You'd think there'd be a cap eventually," Kownacki says, chuckling. But he freely imagines future seasons tackling more-mature issues: "It's going to be about folks in their early 30s dealing with wedding rings and babies. In a way, it feels like a real, legitimate show."
Something to Be Desired can be downloaded for free from the show's website, www.somethingtobedesired.com