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July 14, 2006

TV 2.0 in action

How do you launch a TV show based on an obscure cult comic which itself parodies a fairly obscure cult genre? Let it go viral.

In another example of the emerging trend C3 has been exploring in how online video is changing the nature of television production and distribution, Sci-Fi Channel has taken a cue from the online distribution of failed pilots like Global Frequency and Nobody's Watching by pre-empting failure: The Amazing Screw-On Head pilot has debuted on its online video site Sci-Fi Pulse before the channel has decided its televisual fate.

Head is quite a delight - based on a cult comic by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, the show parodies the steampunk genre of sci-fi set in the 19th Century. The hero works at the pleasure of President Lincoln fighting threats to America (and to quote the show, "and by America, I mean the world") from undead zombies and ancient demon technology; for some as-yet-unspecified reason, he is a screw-on head. The animation is vivid and unique in its visual style, and features strong voice acting by established stars like Paul Giamatti and David Hyde Pierce. It's a show that could easily gain a dedicated audience in sufficient numbers for a cable channel - it most reminds me of the classic 1990s cartoon The Tick, which is high praise in my animation canon.

But Sci-Fi recognizes that it will take some doing to build its audience. Fans of Mignola are vocal and passionate, but far too small in number to guarantee success. So they've put the pilot online two weeks before its TV debut. But more importantly, they have attached a viewer survey to the pilot to gauge reactions and help judge the potential for extending the pilot into a series. This design takes advantages of two great opportunities of online video - the video can go viral through blogging and reviews much more quickly and legitimately than other "official" online videos, and instant feedback gives frustrated fans a way to feel like their voices matter. I have no investment in steampunk or Mignola's comics, but reading an online review made me want to watch the show. I liked it, gave my feedback, and now am blogging about it. Someone reading this blog will probably do the same. Thus Sci-Fi has taken their market research out of the shadows, tracking reactions not only through the official survey but by mapping the blogosphere.

The power of TV 2.0 is that your voice matters if you opt-in to the viral stream, while TV 1.0 depends on a woefully inadequate ratings system to estimate viewership. It is especially gratifying that by embracing this model, a vision of the future seems to be coming from a likely suspect: Sci-Fi.

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