TV enters a new universe
Original shows are debuting on the Web, while existing ones find new life in video games and even blogs.
Mike Stickle has been in love with TV ever since Edith Bunker asked Archie to tell her she was "somethin'." These days, the former magazine executive is trying to break into the business, creating a show of his own, tentatively dubbed "Floaters," a comedy about three young women in New York. It launches in May.
But don't look for it on any network. Rather, it will appear on the website phoebeworks.com. And don't expect a "Friends"-style half hour. His will be broken up into eight-minute daily blocks for Internet streaming and smaller two- to three-minute chunks for cellphones or iPods, because, says the neophyte producer, the new generation wants "portable, quick entertainment."
Mr. Stickle is not some cockeyed optimist, hoping that viewers (and money) will simply materialize. He has funding and a business plan based on a documented burgeoning demand for mobile entertainment. More important, he has the cultural edge, making him part of the early stages of a major transition for the broadcasting industry, says Jack MacKenzie of the media research firm Frank Magid Associates. It's being driven by the 80 million-strong demographic currently between the ages of 10 and 28. "Multiple platform distribution will be required by this next generation," says Mr. MacKenzie.
Networks behind hit shows such as "Lost," "24," and "Desperate Housewives" are becoming marketing juggernauts, with multiple products such as video games for cellphones, online diaries, and webisodes for the Internet. But these are all designed to drive viewers back to the mother ship - the on-air TV show. The new technologies are changing that, offering content that is a destination of its own for viewers.
"What these new platforms do best is deliver quick, in-and-out, bite-size entertainment," says Israeli Internet entrepreneur Arik Czerniak. He calls them "media snacks." Mr. Czerniak, the founder of a user-generated website called metacafe.com, says the desire for such fare is not a passing fad. "This is a huge, cultural shift from long pieces of entertainment that people watch on sofas to the quick, what I call 'lean forward,' kind" - content that requires total, if brief, engagement.
People are not only multitasking their work, they are multitasking their entertainment as well. "You have a three-minute break at work, you're near your computer, you want a quick diversion; you pull up a video or two. It's all intertwined," Czerniak says. But because the pace is so constant, he says people also want to get the best material fast. "People are laser focused," he says. "If you only have three minutes, you want to make the best of it."
More than a few producers of long-form TV are concerned about the future of traditional viewing fare. "With so many new outlets available," says "24" showrunner Robert Cochran, "sometimes I ask myself, 'What is going to happen to the core TV business, which was eroding anyway because of cable?' " The industry veteran worries about the solo nature of such entertainment. "As this all gets so splintered," he says, "we will lose part of what used to be the point of entertainment, which was to bring people together to share an experience."
Others worry about the ability to regulate content in this new environment. This issue took on a particular urgency this past week as the WB announced that it would release two versions of its new drama, "The Bedford Diaries": one "sanitized" version for FCC-regulated broadcast and another unedited, racier version for the Internet.
"I call it the 'Lord of the Flies' scenario in cyberspace," says Adam Thierer, director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "It's our kids raising themselves in cyberspace, because kids know much more about these technologies than their parents, and it's heavy lifting to get the adults up to speed."
But new formats can provide a welcome creative synergy, says "24" story editor Duppy Demetrius, who has worked on "24" games both for the Sony Playstation and the cellphone. "Videogames allow you to push the story and characters further, sometimes in unexpected ways," he says, adding that the games allow him to explore characters' backstories in more depth as well as test them in new situations. "With so many outlets through which to tell our stories, it's a win-win situation for everyone."
The most telling hallmark of this looming generation is its participatory component, says Mark Glaser, host of the PBS blog Mediashift (pbs.org/mediashift). "This is a generation raised on reality TV featuring real people just like themselves," he says. "These shows feed into the mentality that everyone can be a star and everyone can make their own shows, good or bad."
These users are far more likely to explore new material rather than rely on familiar "branded" TV shows, he adds, much like Florida law student Erika Mariz, who says she never watches TV. "When I want to watch something, I go online and look for new videos," says the 23-year-old. "If I want to watch something funny, I type in 'funny' on the Google or Yahoo video search, and lots of funny things come up." Ms. Mariz says she particularly likes commercials from foreign countries, because they're "like a whole window into a different culture."
Mariz and her peers herald a coming shift in entertainment tastes. She's able to chat with her buddies as she searches out the best videos online. "You don't have to hold onto just one thing at a time," she says. "You can do multiple things at once."