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Town without TV 

Moderation Town, a locally shot web sitcom premiering on showcase.ca, is looking for laughs from online audiences.

In the digital world, the usual laws of time---or, at least, deadlines for comedy series---don't apply. While most television shows advertise the exact date and time of their debut episode weeks in advance, the same cannot be said for Moderation Town, a locally shot web series that launches tonight at showcase.ca. Or maybe tomorrow. Well, definitely sometime this weekend.

"We're just talking with sponsors and trying to iron out some of those last-minute deals," says Evan Jones, who created Moderation Town with his Stitch Media partner Victoria Ha. It's about a week before the show's planned December 9 launch, but Jones still isn't sure exactly when it'll go live.

Whenever it does, Jones thinks it stands a good chance of catching on. Moderation Town is a sitcom about the citizens of a small Nova Scotia town who start up an internet moderation company after the closing of a pulp mill. In the half-dozen, six- to nine- minute episodes that comprise season one, the internet neophytes learn more than they care to about the sexually explicit, hateful and flat-out gross content lurking in the dark corners of the web.

"It's this ragtag bunch of people who are figuring out how this whole thing works and how to get along with each other," says Mark Mullane, who co-wrote and directed Moderation Town. "We sort of see this as a pilot episode broken up into six parts."

Jones and Mullane are united in their high hopes for the series, which represents a new professional direction for each. Jones' company has done web serials before, but only the branded entertainment kind, such as "Reebok's Workout with Sidney Crosby." Mullane, on the other hand, describes himself as an "old-school TV" guy.

A micro-budget web series is an underdog by definition, but Jones points to online hits such as The Guild as evidence that internet TV can be successful. "The numbers for [The Guild] are staggering---60 million page views," he says. "We're a little bit more realistic about it, but our numbers are climbing every day just based on our trailer alone. I would hazard a guess that we've hit 24,000 page views without having launched our first episode."

Showcase itself has had some success with online shows. Its Pure Pwnage series, which, like The Guild, focuses on gamers and gamer culture, began as a web-only endeavour before graduating to television screens.

The show is also the beneficiary of funding from Film Nova Scotia and the Independent Production Fund, an organization that helps to finance Canadian content. Moderation Town was one of 11 web series to split $1.2 million worth of assistance from the IPF this year, as the group made a calculated shift toward new media.

"We do see them as the future in many ways," says Andra Sheffer, executive director for IPF, of web series.

Rather than contribute a miniscule percentage to the budget of a network television show, Sheffer says it makes more sense to be the source of as much as three-quarters of the funding for low-cost web productions.

"We were so overwhelmed this year by the number of great web series that we ended up putting 80 percent of the funding into web series this year," says Sheffer, adding that Moderation Town was among the lucky productions selected to receive funding from a list of 176 applications.

Moderation Town's creators are determined to maximize both the creative and commercial potential of the show. Jones and Mullane are excited to have an actual moderation company, ICUC Moderation Services, aboard as a sponsor, one that may even make it into the story in subsequent seasons. Of course, the show needs to find an audience to earn a second season. But Jones says an open online casting call last summer produced interest---as well as half of the cast---while chatter on Facebook and Twitter has increased since the Moderation Town trailer went online. And Showcase's promotional might should also help.

Meanwhile, Moderation Town has allowed creatives like Mullane and lead actors Pardis Parker, Danielle Barker and Nick Flanagan a chance to experiment with a new kind of low-budget filmmaking format. "The lower stakes do grant you a lot more room to improvise and experiment, and it keeps things really loose on set," says Parker in an email.

Jones and Mullane might argue about the size of the stakes, if not the budget. But whether Moderation Town is a big success or an epic fail, the show is a harbinger the increasingly web-based future of Canadian television.

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