Ed Driscoll

The Era Of Big Television Is Looking Shaky Too

This article in the Denver Post (H/T: OJ) sounds much like the piece I wrote for TCS Daily last week, except that the screen size is quite a bit smaller. But, then, just like the movie industry, so is the content, these days:

They’re not firing, they’re “rightsizing.” They’re not cost-cutting, they’re inventing fabulous user-generated programming.

In the euphemistic world of network TV, executives make cutbacks sound like boldly progressive new ventures. The fact is, nobody knows whether today’s cutback will yield tomorrow’s creative, fantastically successful breakthrough program.

Last week NBC slashed jobs and put an end to expensive early-evening dramas, alerting viewers that, in the future, we should expect “Deal or No Deal” rather than “Friday Night Lights” in the 7 p.m. time slot. Cheaper to produce and more reliable in the ratings, quiz shows are one economical answer to NBC’s current woes.

Wait – it gets cheaper.

The networks are launching do-it-yourself video sites, inviting amateur filmmakers to contribute content. They hail these new ventures as the wave of the techno-future.

Fox’s “On the Lot,” due early next year from Mark Burnett and Steven Spielberg (online at thelot.com), offers would-be filmmakers the chance to work with the master. NBC-bound “It’s Your Show,” backed by Carson Daly (itsyourshowtv.com), offers cash prizes for the best homemade videos.

CBS is inviting user submissions to its “channel” on YouTube, hoping that partnership will strike gold. Eventually this may go beyond audition tapes for the next “Amazing Race.”

Late-night host Daly recently talked about his online experiment, which eventually will be reshaped into a primetime show for NBC. Cashing in on the popularity of YouTube, Daly’s “It’s Your Show” is the viral video equivalent of “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” intended to entice amateur videomakers. Complete with a helpful production tool kit, it picks up where lonelygirl15 and lip-synching videos leave off.

“It’s a sharing portal, but it does come with some structure,” Daly said on a telephone conference call. The network provides a laugh track, for instance, sound effects, cartoon footage, music and a production framework. The tool kit can be applied to whatever mini-masterpiece contributors choose -from “Operation Grandma,” where contenders teach a senior how to use new technology, to faux magic tricks pulled off with video editing.

Most appealing to the NBC brass is the fact that the content is practically free (not counting the weekly $1,000 award and a $100,000 challenge), because it’s user-generated. The most expensive part of the whole enterprise must be the lawyers’ fees for vetting copyright and clearance issues.

Fox’s outlay is steeper: The winner gets a $1 million development deal at DreamWorks. Sixteen contestants will be split into teams and given resources to produce a short film. Each week they’ll focus on a different genre (comedy, drama, romance, sci-fi) with a studio executive and a film critic among the judges, “American Idol”- style. The result could be a TV show rather than a movie, in which case 20th Century Fox TV has the rights.

Daly’s gig is more modest. “The content will define the nature of the TV show,” he said. Judging by the submissions online, that means a range from dumb to dumber.

The most popular challenge Daly’s site has offered so far is called, “We shut up and you show us how it’s done.” Industry experts are convinced that air of turning over control to users is crucial. If you believe the hype, entertainment won’t flow from a top-down hierarchy anymore; in the future, it will be up for grabs. Let a thousand stu- pid-pet-tricks bloom.

Just wait until audiences figure out that it takes more than a cellphone and a cute idea to create entertainment that can be sustained beyond two minutes.

Previously in this vein, NBC staged a contest for promotional spots for “The Office.” The results were “genius,” Daly said. In the same way, “It’s Your Show” pushes tie-ins to various NBC Universal properties, to keep the corporate business in the forefront.

“Soon everybody’s going to be videomaking,” Daly predicted. He thinks viral video production will be a teenage rite of passage, like driving a car.

At least until Hollywood says, “You f***ed up–you trusted us”, as Universal’s lawyers recently said to viral fans of the cult series-turned-cult movie, Firefly.

But then that’s far from the first time that the software producers in Southern California have been at war with the products created via the hardware and software producers in Northern California, of course.