Television is a vast wasteland, according to Newton Minow.

Two bits...

Posted: 16 November 2007 | posted by David J. Loehr |

According to this story at the LA Times, NBC has officially picked up Quarterlife, the new online serial from the creators of Thirtysomething. It will begin airing on NBC in midseason, while Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz continue to own and control the property, which has been airing on and on its own website.

But. If they're members of the Writers Guild--and I know they are--then how can they in good conscience sell this show and presumably continue to write and film it until the Writers Guild strike is over?

It's one thing to create and produce the show as it is now, in eight minute episodes that air only online. It is, in fact, something I've been curious about myself, in that they've bypassed the networks entirely. The show was originally developed under the only slightly less precious title "1/4life" for ABC, which passed on the project. So they took it online. By doing it this way, they control the content, they collect the revenue. Ironic, considering.

Now, by going in the other direction, migrating from the web to the network, they manage to have their cake and eat it too. They get their show on television, they keep control of the online presence, they have it all.

But by doing this, they're providing fresh, scripted programming to the network, which undercuts the strike itself, not to mention the reasons they're striking in the first place. Would they stop dead on the online version, considering it would eventually be aired on television? That doesn't seem likely. In fact, the timing for that couldn't be worse, since the series only just launched. Still, I don't understand how they can rationalize this new deal.

Yes, theirs' is a model for the brave new world of scripted programs on broadband. Maybe more writers should consider such projects. I know I have. Instead of a complex pilot process, just get some theatre actors and film them. It can't be any worse than the pilots we wind up with now. (Well, of course it can, but there really are talented people outside of LA and NY, and some of them have cameras and computers and a little free time. How to weed through the field? Maybe focus on theatre companies with streaming media. Just saying.)

Depending on the actual agreement, it may also show that networks are willing to think outside the box, so to speak. That's something that should be shouted from the rooftops. After all, here's a network buying a show that started life streamed online. It was designed as an end in itself, with the expectation of advertising and sponsorship revenue to support the series and help maintain a broadcast-quality production. Clearly someone thinks there's that kind of revenue to be had online.

In the interests of full disclosure, I ought to admit that I've watched the first few installments of Quarterlife and have found it marginally more entertaining than watching paint dry. That's neither here nor there. It's certainly deeper and more ambitious than a lot of what passes for television these days, and certainly Zwick and Herskovitz's other shows could be acquired tastes as well. I acquired some, not all. So I'd be willing to give this some time. (Heck, if I can change my mind about Chuck...) The fact is, it's good enough to go on real live broadcast television.

The question is, which is it, scab program or beacon to the future? A show that helps to undercut the strike or sets a new standard for writer/producer contracts?