Friday, January 20, 2012

WHY WEBSERIES ARE NEVER GOING TO WORK: A WORD OF WARNING TO NETFLIX AND HULU, AND WHAT THEY SHOULD DO WITH THE ORIGINAL PROGRAMMING THEY'RE PRODUCING.



Let me ask a simple question first, how much TV do you watch? Alright, most of us probably said, "A lot," right? Okay, but how much of TV, do you actually watch? Totally different question isn't it? Now we may watch a lot of television, but it's pretty much impossible to watch everything on TV. I don't care how much you want to or intend to watch, or how much you Tivo, where just not gonna spend every weekend catching up on all "The Ellen DeGenerous Show," that we miss while were at work (Sorry, Ellen, you know I try), and even if you do, you're missing everything else that's on television and that's even if you only have basic, forget it, if you've got cable or satellite. You see, this is one of the reasons I take very little stock in anything that TV critics say. (Especially the weird ones that have been saying things like "Finally, 'Cougar Town,' is coming back!" I actually worry about those people some nights) For one things, a TV critic can't possibly watch every episode of a TV series while it airs. Even if we just limit it to Primetime Television on Basic channels, A, you're missing everything that you're not watching, B, we make a decision when we watch and pick one show over another and C. Sometimes you don't know how good/bad a show is actually gonna be until you're many show into a series, and most of the time, it's hard to judge a show based on one or a few episodes, and at worse, it's downright ignorant. You're going to pick the show you prefer personally, and not so much the show that might be better. The networks have long attempted to focus on targeting specific groups of viewers, demographics we call them. I don't blame them one bit, they're a business, and you have to focus your programming to make money. Shows like "Fringe," get a certain demographic, while a show like "30 Rock," gets a completely different demographic, and that demographic's far different than the one "Smallville," attracts and that's different than the ones that watch "The Real L Word," and so on and so forth. So even in the TV world, because there are just too many options, that, in order to keep any kind of sanity, we have to focus our TV viewing to our personal choices. This often means that we might miss a really good show, and when we try to get back to watch it, because it's often a random episode, we might miss a lot of the show's context. (One of the biggest drawbacks of modern television is that we often have to watch a show almost from the beginning just to follow everything that's going on.) Thank God for DVDs, but there's still lots of those. I haven't even gotten to "The Wire," yet, and based on what ahead of it in my Netflix queue, and the shows that are currently on that air that are more pressing for me to get to, it's gonna be a while before I can get to it, and a lot of other shows.

If that's how TV is right now, and that's not gonna change, imagine how much more difficult it is to do that with TV series that air online? Earlier this week, Hulu.com, a site that I admittedly don't use as much as I'd prefer 'cause of a lack of time and a sucky computer, announced that on top of some of the original programming it's already got, it's adding it's first scripted series, a mock-documentary show, similar to "The Office," called "Battleground" which is written and directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Richard Linklater. ("Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset," "Waking Life," "School of Rock"). This was after Netflix announced plans to produce its own original programming, which some very high-profile men behind those series, and won the highly coveted rights to air the new short season of "Arrested Development", which is to proceed a long-awaited, much-anticipated movie of the show that was a critical and Awards darling before being cancelled after just three seasons 'cause of lackluster ratings. I'm interested in some of these shows, (I'm definitely gonna watch "Arrested Development," when those episodes roll out) and some of the other 'webseries,' they call them that are out there have intrigued me over the years. I've been waiting for the next "Quarterlife," episode for, I don't know, five years now I think. That show, created by the producers of cult favorite "My So-Called Life," was the first show to air on TV after being a webseries, but it was a major flop when that happened. I personally watch "The Guild," occasionally, a webseries that's won much acclaims and Awards actually, also some of webseries connected to other broadcast shows, like the ones "The Office," produces for the NBC.com website for instance, and I've only seen a couple clips of Lisa Kudrow's "Web Therapy", (Which is now on Showtime, I believe, correct me if I'm wrong on that.) but of what I've seen, I like. I've ran into a few other webseries out there, and I knew a few people who've worked on others, and have tried, and some have succeeded at making their own. (One of my screenwriting ventures right now, is a show that I'm thinking might be a good webseries) That's the thing though, for every one or two of these I happen to make the time to watch, and that's exactly what it is, making the time, because it's not like you're flipping internet websites and just happen to watch one of these shows, for every one or two of these you watch, there's hundreds possibly, maybe more than that, that you're not going to watch, most of which, you'll never ever here of.

Now granted, Netflix and Hulu aren't your normal webseries distribution sites. They're far more popular, have been streaming content for years now. Netflix actually has movie production subcompanies, like Red Envelope Entertainment and Roadside Attractions, but a television series are a completely different ballgame, and requires a far larger commitment from it's audience. I might be the only one, but I believe this is a terrible idea, and Hulu and Netflix  are in for disaster with these webseries of theirs. Yes, they're gonna get some viewers, maybe even critical acclaim, but they've overplayed their hand severely here. I get why they're doing it, the internet is still very much an untapped television market and almost everybody seems to have a hand in it in some way, but this insular little world of a website, they don't really realize just how unconnected to the world wide web we actually are. I wouldn't be that surprised by that claim if I was you, there's still parts of this country where electricity hasn't each reached yet. I'm not only talking about those places though. Let me break it down another way, we're still in a recession, and not everybody has quality access to the internet at all times. What I mean by that, is that not everyone has a powerful enough computer with strong enough internet capability to watch TV at home. (When I say, computer, I mean every product in which the internet can be accessed on) A lot of people have limited access to such a computer, I go to my local library multiple times a week in fact for such access, but not everybody has that capability at home, and for those who do, like all computers, eventually they run out of memory, or slow down, or break down completely, but eventually, they're obsolute and you have to upgraded or replaced, something that fewer people are doing right now, 'cause they can't afford it. While I do believe a computer and internet access in today's modern world is a necessary expense, for many, its not. It's not for a lot more people than I believe people like Netflix, Hulu, and many others actually realize. You think unemployment lines are filled with people checking their Facebooks on ipads? They aren't. What Hulu and especially Netflix have shown is that there is a larger market out there for lesser-screened and aired movies/TV shows in those rural markets that traditionally only had access to the most basic TV/cable channels, and only had Hollywood blockbusters run at their local movie theatres. The movie stats alone from last year are startling as fewer people went to the box office, where Hollywood took a gigantic hit this year, but people watched more movies than ever because of places like Netflix, they had greater access to a far wider selection of films. They've shown that there's a bigger audience out there for a wider range of material than previously thought, but it's still a selective audience. They can only just pick and choose from the available options, and the fact that now there are more options available, actually means, that there's a far lesser chance of people making a helluva lot of money on webseries, which while a great tool for filmmakers of all kinds, endeavors like these, even under the best of circumstances, are essentially doomed from any financial standpoint. Sure, there are exceptions to this, but if your goal if to make money producing quality TV products that not only compete with other internet programming, but also with cable and networks programs, which is already such an overloaded and saturate marketplace that quality programming more easily gets ignored and falls by the wayside than ever before.... Listen, I may just be the only one out that's going to tell them this, but the more I analyze it, the more convinced I become that original webseries is the last thing that either Netflix or Hulu should involves themselves in. Particularly Netflix which is already surviving just barely by the skin of its teeth, despite many questionable business decisions they've made lately. They're spending money that they don't have to spend on a big risk, that I don't think they need to get themselves into.

Saying that however, I do understand why they're doing it, and from a standard of a progressive business strategy, it actually makes sense. They're already making money distributing movie and TV products, the next logical step is to start making your own. There's nothing much left to do in fact. Except for one thing, that I don't think either Netflix or Hulu have yet considered, that they really, really should, because if they do it, not only do I think that both their original programming will succeed, but I believe it could thrive, and in the case of Netflix, it can very likely pull them out of this continued downward spiral that they've been at. It would open a greater, even more accesible outlet to air not only their programming, but other programming as well, and it would make them a far more adequate and capable of competing with the already established networks. It's such a simple decision, that I cannot believe that, as far as I know, I am going to the first pundit to recommend this idea:

NETFLIX AND HULU, SHOULD BOTH START THEIR OWN TELEVISION NETWORK!

Why the hell not?! The one thing they already have, is the programming to put on a television network of their own, they're starting to produce their own television series, they basically already are channels of their own, why should they actually have a TV channel. Doesn't even matter particularly what kind of channel either. Be a UHF channel, be a basic TV channel, be twice as expensive to have than HBO, doesn't matter. (Although I believe Hulu should be on Basic Cable, and Netflix should be a pay cable channel) They've already got the rights to stream content over the internet, and which is more than enough content they need to start to broadcast on their own channel, I can't figure why that possibility has yet to even be brought up. I bet there under the fallacy that if people can watch their content on TV, that they're going to be less likely to use the content on their websites. Well, for one thing, Hulu itself is a website that has basically disproven that notion; they've proven that people are just as willing to go and find TV on the internet, even after it's already aired, and even still, all they'd really be showing is a sample of the programming, at best. It's a built-in advertisement for each of their websites, it's a place to air popular programming they already have, (or unpopular ones in an effort to gain more of an audience for it) plus their original series, that would also be available on the website, if people choose to screen it. Say they catch an episode of a series, after missing a few episodes, they can go bounce onto the website and catch up! Plus Hulu, and especially Netflix, has an entire movie catalog at their disposal at all times, and it's an everchanging one, at that. If I suddenly see that a movie I wanted to see is on the Netflix, but I'm watching something else at the time, I can know to go watch it on the website, or even better, keep an eye on the channel, watch things that are on my queue that are airing on the channel, make time for it, watch it, knock it off my queue, put something else I want to see on there, that might not be streaming. Yeah, there might be some contract negotiations and renegotiations, but they have to do those anyway. I don't know what the difference is between something streaming on the internet and somebody watching it on TV? If there is a different, I'm sure smarter minds in the Guilds will figure it out at some point, there's money to be made, in this endeavor, them and all of Hollywood would support it eventually.

I think the path they're taking right now, making their own programming that's exclusive to their own website(s) leads them straight into a fire. It's an inevitable fire that they were bound to cross, but a fire nonetheless. However, to doing that in conjunction with starting their own actual TV networks, has possibilities that I don't think they fully realize yet. The real hopeful opportunities of webseries to begin with is that they eventually become popular enough that a major network might take a chance and pick them up anyway, why are they insisting on being a middle man, when they're capable of being the man in charge. Netflix, Hulu, while I am naturally interested in your original programming, and I await curious the results and the overall audience reaction to these new products you're producing, you're missing a giant goldmine opportunity here, right under your noses. It's an inevitability to me, and it's a sure-fire guarantee that it will ensure both of your companies' will survive in the long run. Seriously, don't just consider it, hit the greenlight on it already. I don't know what the hold-up is.
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