Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Revolution Will Be Webcast
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Revolutions ferment for a while before they reach fruition. They’re seldom taken seriously at first, seen as they are by the powers that be as the rantings of malcontents and crackpots. It’s only when they build a groundswell of support that they’re taken seriously.

What I’m going to call the Media Revolution has been quietly brewing for years now, quietly infiltrating the once hallowed domains of the print, music and film industries. It’s only recently that the Old Guard of media have taken notice and have seriously begun to draw up their countermeasures. At one extreme of the spectrum is the music industry, particularly the RIAA, who insist on fighting tooth and nail against digital delivery of music. It’s a battle they will inevitably lose, bent as they are on anything less than a stranglehold on artists and consumers alike. At the other end is the print media, who have all but conceded the death of paper, and are increasingly making their product available online only. Economically (and environmentally, it makes sense, given that publications live or die by advertising dollars.

Somewhere between the contempt of the dying music industry and the outright concession of the print media lies a quiet alliance between the traditional and the digital. It’s a revolution within the revolution, and it may well herald the future of entertainment. The film industry, and the television industry in particular, recognize the simple fact that the Media Revolution has begun in earnest. And rather than wage futile warfare against an irresistible force, TV networks and studios have embraced the revolution with open arms—to an extent.

Television is the youngest of the old media, so it should come as no surprise that it’s allying itself more readily with upstarts carving niches for themselves via the internet, and through small independent films. Archer House, a short by writer/director Dina Gachman, is a prime example of the latter. It sounds like the perfect setup for the latest teen horror film: eighteen year old Sam Archer, an aspiring investigative journalist, goes undercover to unearth the secrets of an upscale college sorority. She soon finds herself embroiled in a strangely alluring world of teacups and sisterhood from which there is no escape. Fortunately, Gachman’s short film veers away from such clich├ęs, opting instead to tell a story about weighing the need to rebel against the desire to conform. It’s a wonderfully nuanced story, tightly told in just over fifteen minutes, that’s never preachy or maudlin. After airing at the AFI Film Festival in Dallas earlier this year, Archer House caught the attention of Slamdance Media Group, and as a result, is being pitched to NBC as a possible series.

This would have been unheard of in the old Hollywood system of catch 22’s (To sell a script, you need an agent. To acquire an agent, you need to sell a script.), but those were the days before the emergence of cable, and certainly the days before the Internet made it economically feasible for anybody with talent to circumvent the established rules. A case in point is the web-only comedy series Something to Be Desired, now wrapping its fourth season totally unencumbered by any traditional studio trappings. Sort of a cross between Friends and WKRP in Cincinnati (but updated for the 21st century), STBD follows a group of deejays and their various friends at the fictitious WANT FM in Pittsburgh, PA, chronicling the vignettes of their personal lives. Shot in mini-DV with a local cast and crew, STBD is guerilla broadcasting at its best. What the people involved in this ongoing series have done is step outside the recognized norms, and created a comedy series that is often on a par with network offerings in terms of character development and storytelling. And even though the typical episode is only ten minutes long, producer Justin Kownacki manages to integrate local indie sounds into the episodes, if only as incidental music.

While Archer House and STBD might appear to run parallel to the conventional mindset of Hollywood, they actually represent a shift in the thinking of mainstream TV. It’s not so much a matter of innovation among the studios—it’s more about a survival instinct. Cable programming from HBO and Showtime, among others, had already shorn ratings from the Big Three, and upstart networks like FOX proved that the old ways of doing business were no longer viable. Once broadband Internet became commonplace, and sites like YouTube sprang up, coupled with the explosion of HiDef TV’s popularity, it was obvious that change was in the air.

Unlike their counterparts in the record industry, the TV networks have embraced that change, if only superficially. They’re by no means surrendering to copyright piracy, nor should they. They are, however, utilizing the Internet to their advantage, rather than blindly approaching it as a barbarian horde at the gates. NBC, for instance, is aggressively pursuing the Internet as a means to springboard new programming possibilities with their DotComedy.com, as well as a means of effectively hyping existing programs like Heroes, with its online comic book serial. CBS offers exclusive online programming with Innertube, featuring impromptu mini-concerts, along with behind-the scenes looks at series. ABC does this also, as well updating series constantly for viewing anytime. Traveler has taken on a cult status online as a result, despite lackluster ratings in its conventional timeslot. FOX, for whatever reasons, is the only network not to offer anytime viewing for any of its series, opting instead to present promo clips of selected shows.

Intentionally or not, the networks are altering the way we view television as a medium. In the larger scope, they’re taking baby steps, but they are at least exhibiting a willingness to explore the evolving face of our cultural landscape. Other forms of traditional media would be well advised to follow television’s lead. The age of convergence is here, and it’s not about to retreat. The revolution is being webcast, and we’re only now getting a glimpse of the future of media.

Viva la revolucion!