My younger brother and I recently had a very lively discussion about the future of television. I argued that viewers will continue to prefer watching shows like Desperate Housewives and Nip/Tuck through their established networks like ABC and FX, respectively, and on television screens. He believes that we’re in the midst of a revolution in which over a few short years the majority of consumers will be viewing content acquired via and generated for the Internet.
Sibling rivalries being what they are, we both held our ground throughout the lengthy debate. Among several points used to bolster my case, I said most of the content on broadband-video sites like YouTube.com and MySpace.com is poorly produced and could never replicate the quality images and writing seen on better-funded, critically acclaimed cable and broadcast shows. He said it was only a matter of time before user-generated video shorts become so popular with viewers that the networks will have no choice but to move them from the Web to television in order to remain competitive.
In the end, we finally agreed to disagree. And while I still believe that the current distribution pipeline will always be the first choice for serious writers and producers — as well as viewers — I have to admit that after a number of recent, high-profile developments reflecting the growing influence of the broadband video space, my quality-of-content argument is a bit more specious today.
First, NBC last month picked up the rights to a scripted comedy series called Nobody’s Watching, which was cancelled in 2005 by the soon-to-be former network The WB. What does that have to do with the Web? The Peacock Network picked up the series — developed by Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence, and revolving around two would-be TV writers trying to sell a sitcom — after the show drew a reported 600,000 viewers on YouTube.com. NBC will produce several Webisodes of the show on YouTube.com before the series joins the network’s schedule as a midseason replacement.
I later learned that an unknown, 20-year-old receptionist who posted several homemade videos on YouTube.com has signed a content-development deal with Carson Daly Productions. Brooke Brodack’s Brookers, a series of self-starred, offbeat home movie performances, impressed the former MTV VJ and current NBC late-night host enough to win her a TV production deal. Go figure.
On the cable front, Comedy Central two weeks ago premiered its first originally made-for-broadband series Live At Gotham on its TV network. The stand-up series, which averaged some 300,000 viewers since it began airing on Comedy’s Motherload broadband channel last March, has more than doubled that to 730,000 in its first two airings on Comedy. Now Comedy Central executives are looking amongst its current lineup of original Motherload series for its next TV channel hit.
Finally, last week Comcast Corp. and Turner Broadcasting System Inc. followed News Corp. into the world of community Web site ownership. They contributed to an overall $10.2 million investment in online video-distribution technology supplier Revver. It’s unclear whether we’ll soon see content from the viral video sight appearing on E! Entertainment Television or TBS Inc., but the two multimedia conglomerates’ investment in Revver certainly raised a few eyebrows.
None of these announcements individually signals a death knell for the television industry. One cancelled pilot and a quirky, Gen X-YouTuber migrating from the Web to television aren’t enough to force networks to pillage YouTube.com, MySpace.com, Bolt.com and other broadband video sites for the next South Park or Lost that will appeal to young viewers.
But it does say that despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, broadband video sites can’t be brushed off as just a wasteland for amateurishly produced shows and video close-ups from egotistical young adults.
And it’s also no longer a sure bet that television networks will forever remain the dominant medium in developing programming that will garner the lion’s share of viewer eyeballs, particularly those from today’s 18-34 year olds.
As a result, in any future, deeply philosophical discussions I may have with my brother on the subject of television, I will have to come up with a different strategy to make my point.
Here’s one thought: Halle Berry looks much better on a 60-inch high-definition television screen than on a laptop.