Friday, February 29, 2008

My Friday Read:

So I've been reading this article in this month's Wired regarding how everything going to the web is going to be free (a gross oversimplification of an economic formula that is far more complex than what I want to go into here). What's interesting about the article as it relates to us mediamakers is the following:

"Over the past decade, however, a different sort of free has emerged. The new model is based not on cross-subsidies — the shifting of costs from one product to another — but on the fact that the cost of products themselves is falling fast. It's as if the price of steel had dropped so close to zero that King Gillette could give away both razor and blade, and make his money on something else entirely. (Shaving cream?)

You know this freaky land of free as the Web. A decade and a half into the great online experiment, the last debates over free versus pay online are ending. In 2007 The New York Times went free; this year, so will much of The Wall Street Journal. (The remaining fee-based parts, new owner Rupert Murdoch announced, will be "really special ... and, sorry to tell you, probably more expensive." This calls to mind one version of Stewart Brand's original aphorism from 1984: "Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive ... That tension will not go away.")"

Now let's relate this to the debacle which is QUARTERLIFE.

So the word is out that QUARTERLIFE, the show that began its life as a web series and was later picked up by NBC is over with after having posted some of the worst ratings in that timeslot in 17 years (10 PM Tues). NBC has canceled the show and moved it over to Bravo for the rest of its run.

So, in the interest of figuring out the intricacies of future web-to-TV programming moves, and building a solid foundation for a viable business model, let’s conduct a post-mortem on what exactly went wrong with QUARTERLIFE and use the yardstick of "free on the web". There’s going to be a lot of finger-pointing in this post as well as Monday-morning quarterbacking, but truly that’s the nature of the beast and I’m of the opinion that those involved really didn’t follow what has to be one of the most important factors for any web series:

No one listened nor talked to the audience.

Conceptually: QUARTERLIFE had a lot going for it --

- It premiered on the web, where its core audience (under 25ers) resides.
- It was created by the gentlemen who have given us MY SO-CALLED LIFE and THIRTYSOMETHING.
- It featured a good looking cast of unknowns.
- It had a social networking component on Facebook and MySpace.
- It had enough backing to create 4 episodes worth of material (4 x 44 mins)

With all this in their corner, what QUARTERLIFE creators Zwick and Herskowitz didn’t do was understand the web and what it provides. As Jill Golick pointed out in her posts, Z & H did not utilize the social networking component of their show to its best advantage - that is, they didn’t send out updates via Facebook or MySpace. They didn’t remind (read: market to) people that their show was on the web and new episodes were available… or at least they didn’t do it enough.

( I think this is because these guys are old school TV guys. Nothing wrong with that, but they should have brought in an expert at social networking and web marketing to develop QUARTERLIFE with them. The fact is they were selling the show when they should have been selling what was showcased on the show - the fashion, the music, the furnishings, etc...)

Kent Nichols also points out that Z & H got so far ahead of themselves that they didn’t listen to the feedback they were getting from their audience. They had a lot of very-expensive (for the web) episodes in the can by the time they were getting feedback. Interactivity is a huge component of the web and to ignore, or to not be able to respond to what their audience was telling them was a major handicap.

Another huge impediment to success on the web was the fact that QUARTERLIFE looked like a TV show when it was on the web and didn’t look like a TV show when it was on broadcast. Z & H have admitted as much. Storytelling is different on the web. Period. This is going to be a lesson many of us are going to have to learn and quickly adapt to if we are to succeed.

Another impediment to success was the fact the show was so expensive - QUARTERLIFE needed a sale to a broadcast network in order to be financially viable. I blame the fact that no one in mainstream TV or movies today knows how to create media for less. There has been a financial structure in place for so long that to move out of it is really uncomfortable for production mangers and producers.

QUARTERLIFE was made for around a million an episode. Cheap for Hollywood; dollar-burning extravagance in terms of web production. Hollywood has long fallen into the trap that production value is a function of budget. All they know how to do is throw money at a problem.

Production value is more a function of creativity and planning than it is budget. This is the formula by which Hollywood, if it wants to function in this new media, silicon-valley world, is going to have to operate. Doing more with less. At least that is the mantra that they are spouting now.

(Actually Hollywood is going to have indie guys like me do the production value-thinking and buy it all after the fact)

I also think that QUARTERLIFE didn’t know its audience. I would never have placed this show on NBC. I would have placed it on MTV. Think about who watches NBC: thirty and forty-somethings for the most part. MTV is where MY SO-CALLED LIFE found its audience, and MTV is the audience that uses the web the most everyday. MTV also markets to its audience really well. They stay in touch...and more importantly they respond.

So what does this all mean for other shows moving from the web to TV like SANCTUARY?

I think it means that in developing the rest of the series for SciFi, SANCTUARY is going to have to review all of the feedback they have received thus far and arrive at a consensus as to who their audience is and what they want out of the show. The tools are there to listen, learn and move forward.

I think their production model needs to be refined. The fact that they can shoot the entire thing green screen is a big help. The fact they can now create the rest of the series on a TV budget for Scifi is a big help, but they shouldn't relax the creative muscles they've had to develop through austerity.

If the world is moving toward a "free economic model" as the Wired article indicates, then it is up to the production and development folk to make it work from their end. Yes, I am saying it has to be made cheaper, faster and with just as much entertainment value as before. Maybe not as much spectacle, but surely just as much entertainment.

And that's where we come in...


Emily Blake said...

Here's something else to consider. This show premiered on Myspace. Every scene I saw of it showed some girl staring at her computer and being so OMG about everything it made me think the show would be just like that - a Youtube video. That's all well and good if it's a free short video I can look at while I'm checking my email, but I'm not taking time out of my night of TV watching to sit and watch something that looks like a Youtube video.

That's part of the reason I wasn't even remotely tempted to watch a minute of it.

Cunningham said...

I think this falls under the whole:

"They didn't know their audience."


"They don't know what the web is yet."

The web is different than television and vice versa. Crossing them over is a slippery slope that's going to take far more planning than previously thought. My personal take is that they are going to have to be separate experiences but interconnected somehow.