March 10, 2008
Misplacing Medium Specificity

At the Consortium, we tend to dig into long discussions regarding the validity and scope of concepts. I am now wondering about a question that has also been on our minds on more than one occasion, but that we haven't had a chance to tackle just yet: without looking for a inevitably incomplete formulaic answer, what are the aesthetic properties of a Web TV show? And in turn, what makes a TV show a TV show?

The past couple of weeks have made me think about these questions in light of two projects: Quarterlife and Squeggees.

Without spending one dollar in advertising, Quarterlife was first developed as a pilot for ABC and then was produced in a revenue share model with MySpace where the first couple of episodes were delivered in 36 webisodes. As Sam Ford already wrote about here, the show made a move towards prime time on NBC last February. But there wasn't much to celebrate as the show was pulled after only one night.

As Josh Catone argues 3.9 million viewers that the show received far outstrips the number of viewers it attracted on MySpace. The top-rated episode of Quarterlife on MySpace had 557,000 views over 3 months. That's an impressive number for a web-based series, but still a far cry from 3.9 million viewers. In fact, the total 4.3 million plays for the entire series on MySpace is only just above the number of viewers that the show pulled on TV (and that's plays, not unique viewers). The latest episode of the show, uploaded February 8, has just about 45,000 views.

I wonder what made NBC think that they would get any other result from the prime-time debut of this wondering show. A show that is now neither web nor tv, but something in between, unable to exploit the benefits of any of its media.

Over at ABC, things were also moving and shaking during February with the release of the online comedy Squeegees. Barry Josen, the show's producer explained that "while the new-media space is loaded with UGC, we feel the audience is missing the quality experience found in other forms of exhibition, and we are answering their need."

Last time I checked, people were pretty happy with what they were doing on YouTube. Nevertheless, it would've been exciting had the show actually been the 'quality' product ABC had promised, but it was not. For one disappointed reaction, check out Tech Crunch's Erick Schonfeld's reaction to the whole endeavor.

Mark Pedowitz, president of ABC Studios, said that though experiments like this they expect to "incubate franchises that might someday graduate to TV". I believe that setting media in this artificial hierarchy impedes it from developing its own expressive tools, and it's too bad that the people that actually have the resources to go out on the limb and really experiment have no understood this yet.

On a closing, yet totally unrelated note, Unni Brown, 'graphically recorded' Henry Jenkins and Steve Johnson's opening remarks at SXSW this last weekend. I've got to say that it is as close as I've seen to a visual representation of what our happy but overloaded brains probably look like while at CMS.