If you’re too busy to care who is Lost, wonder if Dr. McDreamy is a commentator on Fox News Sunday, or use your cable mainly to keep up with C-Span (you know who you are), you might be unaware of the new world of entertainment developing online. The race is on to integrate movies, TV shows, and music with your computer. Networks and individual shows are trying to attract more of your attention — and advertisers to sell you more products — and they’re using the ongoing internet revolution to do it. As Hollywood works to figure out the new frontier, conservative artists with talent and skill have an unique opportunity to jump into the fray.
Just this season, the major networks have begun to post shows in their entirety, for free, online. ABC will let you view this season’s episodes of hits Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, and Desperate Housewives as well as new shows they hope will be hits, such as The Nine, Ugly Betty, and Six Degrees. NBC Rewind offers only the most recently aired episode of shows new this season, including the absorbing Heroes, the beautiful Friday Night Lights, and the much ballyhooed Studio 60. CBS launched the website Innertube which streams full episodes from select shows this season, including the entire CSI stable and the nuclear disaster series Jericho. Fox ON Demand, unlike the other networks, demands that you install software on your PC, but doesn’t offer its most popular shows online, such as the Simpsons or American Idol. Cable channels have not been so quick to upload content: Why offer a show for free when people pay to see it? However, download giant itunes allows you to buy episodes of some of your favorite cable shows the day after airing for $1.99 a pop.
In addition to providing missed episodes of the actual shows, networks have stepped up their additional content on their websites. Producers have long offered cast bios and photograph downloads of their shows, hoping that you’ll turn your passion for Desperate Housewives into the background on your computer desktop. But now you can live much more in the virtual world of your favorite show. Love Jack Bauer in 24? Download the show’s theme as a ringtone for your cell phone. While you’re at it, sign up for trivia, games, and reminders to be texted to your phone. Can’t shake your addiction to Lost? Download the producer’s video podcast and watch it on your lunch break at work. Love those leopard print heels worn on Ugly Betty? There just happens to be a handy link to buy them on the website. Fascinated by dark superhero saga Heroes? The website offers a downloadable graphic novel. All this content is working for the networks. According to Comscore, a company that tracks web traffic, 1.3 million people logged onto the Grey’s Anatomy website in September, about 5 percent of the number of people who watched the show when it was broadcast. It may seem like peanuts, but that’s 1.3 million more people to advertise to without much production cost.
To keep excitement up for their shows, producers have started posting webisodes — short, online episodes — which illuminate the characters or plot. Four million downloads of Battlestar Galactica’s ten webisodes were reported; some two million viewers watched the season finale. These two minute dramas spanned the time between last season’s finale and this season’s premiere, presumably preserving society from hordes of Galactica-starved sci-fi fans rampaging through the streets. NBC has produced webisodes of Late Night with Conan O’Brian’s superhero spoof Pale Force, which he promotes on his TV show. CBS’s Innertube has gone even further, producing online-only series. Barbeque Bill (star of BBQ Bill) follows a good ole boy as he tows his barbeque around the country, meeting with minor celebrities. Animate This offers animated versions of celebrities’ real life stories.
Don’t think the webisode craze stops with the networks. Brawny (you know, the paper towels) recently produced and ran 10 – 15-minute webisodes on its Brawny Academy website. The reality web series featured eight naughty men sent by their women for retraining at the academy because of sins such as spitting, not flushing, and sitting around too much. Promoted on female friendly websites like iVillage, the show was designed to convince women that Brawny cared about their marriages as well as their paper towel consumption. Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” Evolution webisode hopes to reshape how girls think about beauty, while still selling soap.
Some web content skips traditional networks and advertising models altogether. Youtube, recently bought by Google for a staggering $1.65 billion, is the universal clearinghouse for videos. People post anything they want, from rants to karaoke to things they blew up in their backyard. Some have hit the big time on Youtube. One band, Ok Go, posted an offbeat music video of a treadmill dance (and you thought they were just for the gym). It became such a sensation that they were invited to lug their treadmills to New York and perform at the MTV Music Video Awards. Now their song is seeing radio time. JibJab (remember the much e-mailed cartoon This Land is Your Land during the last presidential election?) has created a host of web sketches they’re hoping will inspire you to visit their site. A sitcom pilot made for NBC, but rejected, Nobody’s Watching, was “leaked” to Youtube. The goofy Midwest characters continue to produce videos mocking Hollywood and hope to build enough buzz to gain a second chance at a sitcom. Or at least that’s what they want you to think. There may come a day when they don’t need a traditional network.
Star Trek fans didn’t wait for a network to create new episodes of the Star Trek franchise; they boldly went ahead and made their own. Star Trek: The New Voyages, an online community unto itself, follows the continued adventures of James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock, and the crew where the original series left off in 1969. Presenting Captain Kirk as a character in the vein of Hamlet or Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman, they write, act, produce, create special effects, and post the series all for the love of the Star Trek mystique.
Networks are jostling to remain relevant to a future in which TV, movies, and music are fully integrated into the internet, with portable devices allowing entertainment on the go. NBC has just announced massive cuts to its broadcast primetime lineup in order to focus on providing programming over the internet. Other media conglomerates are sure to follow. Hollywood is scrambling to figure out how to use new media. Copyright issues are thorny. Youtube and other sites are notorious for posting copyrighted material. In the highly defined union rules of Hollywood, no one is yet sure what credit or payment is due for work on a webisode. And how do you make money off advertising in online content? Measuring the ratings or viewership of this media is a new science, of course. Nielsen Media Ratings has just announced a plan to study ways to measure consumption of mobile media.
What does this mean for consumers? As choices increase, consumers are increasingly able to select their type of media. Gone are the days when everyone at the water cooler discussed the prior night’s episode of M*A*S*H. With the loss of a large, relatively universal market goes the need to appeal to a broad spectrum of hearts and minds. Everyone can now preach to his own choir. One thing is clear: The thing that makes comedy funny and drama gripping doesn’t change based on whether you watch it on broadcast, cable, or on your computer. Quality — and unfortunately, titillation — will still rule the day. This creates an opportunity for new voices to shout in the bigger and less controlled marketplace. Artists with a more conservative voice have an opportunity to compete alongside the nihilists, socialists, and hedonists. Gentlemen (and ladies), start your laptops.
– Rebecca Cusey writes from Washington, D.C.