July 7, 2006
Nobody's Watching? I Beg to Differ

A few days ago, I wrote about the development of a new Internet-only television show called Soup of the Day. This week, however, the television show only available online that's getting the most attention is Bill Lawrence's Nobody's Watching, the rejected WB show whose pilot surfaced on YouTube a few weeks ago and has currently received several hundred thousand downloads.

Wait a minute...a show with great artistic promise dumped by the WB Network at the last minute whose pilot later surfaces online and gains a grassroots cult following. Switch YouTube for BitTorrent and you've got a story similar to the tale of Global Frequency, the show based on the Warren Ellis comic book that was leaked online and gained support, only for the WB to send out letters denouncing watching and downloading WB intellectual property that was not supposed to be released.

But will there be a happier ending for Nobody's Watching? Lawrence, creator of Scrubs and Spin City, created the show as both a commentary on the deplorable state of most situation comedies on the networks today and as an attempt to return quality to the situation comedy genre. The show's meaning: two guys are unhappy with the current state of television and pitch writing their own sitcom to the networks. The WB accepts and decides to create a reality show based on these two guys who think they can write a show better than the WB airs. The sitcom we watch is the reality show of these two guys trying to write a sitcom. Something right out of the Larry David playbook...except these guys are aware of the camera, and the show is treated just as a reality show would be.

The premise--especially under Lawrence--has the potential to provide commentary on the current state of both situation comedy and reality television, be self-reflexive, poke fun at television creators and executives alike, and also really entertain its audience in the process, if the pilot is any indication. On the other hand, there was a fear among executives that the show was just too confusing for viewers--that this degree of self-reflexivity would be too much for the average Joe to handle.

Or at least that's the reason they claimed to pass on the show. NBC had passed it on to the WB, who passed on it for the lineup. But now, with its grassroots support, Lawrence claimed that it was being revisited by NBC and that he had had calls from both ABC and Comedy Central. And one has to wonder if the CW Network, after WB passed on the show, might now be interested in having a show with such a grassroots following built into its debut.

However, Lawrence sums up the reason why this experiment is successful and why the networks are stupid not to release their pilots more often when trying to decide how to formulate a future lineup. According to reporter Bill Carter in Monday's New York Times story, Lawrence "said he believed this was exactly the kind of development that television needed to break all kinds of hidebound traditions, including presumptions about what people will and won't watch as comedy, and decisions that are made based on small organized focus groups."

If the masses are willing to participate as a test audience, why not launch a legion of pilots on YouTube or allow people to BitTorrent them? Not only do you end up with shows developing strong grassroots potential before they ever hit the air, but you get a wider response to the show in a situation where viral marketing and word-of-mouth give the feedback as to which shows will generate the most popularity based on number of downloads.

Of course, the only shows that would be hurt with a system like this one are shows that are low in viewer interest, that are not appealing...but those are the shows that would hit the air and get cancelled soon, anyway. And, for more complicated concepts like the one in Nobody's Watching, releasing the show on YouTube ahead of time allows fans to become educated on the concept and prepared for the premise before the show is ever broadcast.

For those interested in watching the pilot episode of Nobody's Watching, it's available here.



It's an interesting concept. We're hosting the three separate parts of the pilot on Firejeffzucker.com and asking people ot use our comments as a petition area. Especially since NBC has first rights to the show.
Good post.

On July 8, 2006 at 11:49 AM, Sam Ford said:

Thanks for the comment, Dave, and for directing me to your site as well. For anyone who hasn't checked it out, it's a good source for reaction to the latest in television programming news.


"Exactly the kind of development that television needed to break all kinds of hidebound traditions, including presumptions about what people will and won't watch as comedy." Lawrence is spot on about that (but I'm afraid I hated the pilot).
There's just no need for networks to break their backs trying to second-guess the public anymore; we're here, we're interested and we know what we want to watch.
Now we just need someone put Arrested Development on Youtube.
Anyway, good post. It's an interesting story and it'll be fascinating to see how stuff like this and Soup Opera develops.

On July 10, 2006 at 1:33 PM, Sam Ford said:


Thanks for stopping by, and good points about the networks not needing to pretend to make decisions for the public anymore when a system can be in place for people to make those decisions directly.

Which networks do you think will be most innovative in coming forward and using YouTube and other online distribution forms to test all their pilots for some upcoming year?

It could transform the industry--imagine how anticipated the release of pilots could be for fans to have a certain window to go online and watch and vote for various shows...


Hi Sam,

Absolutely - and to top it off networks are going to be able to give advertisers a reliable indication of how popular a particular show will be before it goes to air.

Quite honestly I'm not sure which US networks I'd pick as I'm in the UK and don't get to watch them regularly. It's either going to be a ruthlessly commercial one or one that's prepared to take creative risks; probably one that's both. I also wonder whether we'll see networks try this out on their own sites or through vid podcasts first - every brand out there, media or otherwise, is still a bit jumpy about free-comment formats like YouTube.

For the record, over here I'd expect it to be Channel 4, which if nothing else captures exactly the kind of demographic that would respond well. The BBC do some great stuff online but in terms of programming and commissioning they're hamstrung by the government charter and public opinion - if they did this they'd be, rightly or wrongly, vilified for pandering to the lowest common denominator. (Now watch them do it before Channel 4.)

On July 11, 2006 at 6:18 AM, Sam Ford said:

It does seem that it would create a really handy guide for advertising rates, for scheduling, etc. The only programs that would be hurt are programs that don't connect with the audience. But those wouldn't be likely to do well once they made the air, anyway, so there doesn't seem to be a major difference.

I guess you could argue that the average person likely to watch video online may be different from the average television viewer, though, but as high-speed Internet and faster computers become more prevalent in our culture, that will become less and less of an issue.

Interesting thoughts on where it would air in Britain. In the U.S., I guess the first issue would be whether the CW Network and/or NBC had first rights. I am interested in seeing whether it stands a greater chance of landing on broadcast or on cable here.