Still hoping TV will take the big bets
The NBC Universal Digital Studio made the big announcement today that it’s releasing its first slate of original productions, including series from Tom Fontana (HBO’s Oz), Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) and John August (Big Fish).
NBC is doing a sort of off-season digital upfront, showing the content to advertisers for product integration and sponsorship opportunities. Once the series have secured sponsors, they will be put into production and distributed across a wide array of platforms, including mobile, VOD, third-party online – I’m assuming sites such as Hulu, AOL Video, YouTube, Veoh and so forth – and electronic sell-through platforms, such as Amazon Unbox and iTunes.
To make this happen, NBC Universal Digital Studio partnered with 60Frames Entertainment, an online entertainment financing, production and syndication company that has some 50 series in production and airing on different platforms.
Once it becomes the norm to offer original programming across multiple platforms – and that day is not far away with sites like Hulu.com, TheWB.com and MySpaceTV already way into it – I wonder what that will mean for the increasingly challenged broadcast networks.
I suspect it will mean that studios and networks will be less and less willing to make the big bet on any one show. For example, ABC notoriously spent $10 million on the pilot for Lost (not dissimilar to what Warner Bros. is reported to have spent for the first episode of Fox’s Fringe, another J.J. Abrams’ project). Both those bets paid off, but that’s likely to be less and less so as audiences splinter.
Only the very strong of gut will be able to dump a huge pile of money into a show and hope the masses come. In a 500-channel universe + TiVo + the Internet + Netflix + video games – it’s amazing TV can aggregate any sort of audience at all. And the show that still gathers the most viewers is Fox’s American Idol, which is dirt cheap to produce, or at least it was when no one had heard of Simon Cowell or Ryan Seacrest.
My fear is that fractionalization will mean entertainment will degrade to the lowest common denominator, that every show will become a digital short and/or an unscripted reality program, and that no one will make the effort to shoot anywhere besides Vancouver, Toronto, Los Angeles and New York.
Even though ratings are incredibly challenged right now, much of TV still remains great. Mad Men is just dazzling me this season. I’ve enjoyed HBO’s True Blood, and I love how it’s shot in New Orleans, even though I agree with Alan Ball that the show is a fluffy bit of popcorn TV.
There’s also several cable gems that I’m sad to see wrap up their seasons, including A&E’s The Cleaner, starring Benjamin Bratt, TNT’s Saving Grace, starring Holly Hunter and USA’s Burn Notice, starring Jeffrey Donovan.
I hope studios can discover enough revenue streams through all of these multiplatform efforts to support projects big and small. Because while I am loving Tina Fey as Sarah Palin and I am enjoying watching her five-minute bits on Hulu, I still love to plunk down in front of the TV with a glass of wine and really sink my teeth into a show — even ones that don’t feature vampires.