Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Coming Convergence of Media

It’s another hot and muggy June night, and I’ve been working all day, dealing with what I’ll politely call “the public.” I get home, thumb through my mail, and discard the three no interest for six months credit card offers and the 75% discount magazine subscriptions, save the various bills, filing them in my mental rolodex with the idea I’ll pay them immediately, knowing I’ll wait for the “friendly reminder”, at which point I’ll overpay 20 cents, just to screw up their automated bookkeeping. After all, the most miniscule protests are the ones that fuel revolutions.

Anyway, it’s been a rough day, and all I want to do is kick back with a glass of red wine and the soothing tones of the television. Don’t misunderstand—I don’t want to be sedated by “unscripted” shows that feign reality by placing misfits together in a controlled environment, or so-called game shows that offer the promise of millions if the contestants make a lucky guess, or even formulaic sitcoms still retreading premises that were already shopworn by the early seventies. Even the news programs seem like they’re in reruns.

No—I need something else on nights like these, something to remind why I loved TV in the first place, why I rushed home from college classes so as not to miss the early anime Starblazers {known in Japan as Spaceship Yakamoto), why I fortified myself with copious amounts of caffeine to see those episodes of The Prisoner (which never aired before 3AM), why I left work early to make sure I didn’t miss an episode of 24, why I shuffled my schedule to recap Dexter.

Nights like these also remind me why broadband Internet is a wonderful invention (does anybody even remember dial-up?), and why I watch more and more TV on my computer. It’s not that it’s edging out TV As We Know It, but it is adding much-needed flavor to a broadcast soup that’s gone stale. Go to any of the Big Four’s websites—CBS, NBC, ABC, or FOX—and the homepage is decidedly more splashy than it was this time last year. They offer full episodes of their more popular series (as well as their struggling ones), and pepper their site with trivia, games and sundry items to entice viewers to watch their network, which, after all, is the most cutting edge of the four.

What it really means, though, is the Internet is making the traditional networks increasingly uncomfortable. As much as they like to say New Media is an unknown commodity (which was a large basis for the Writers’ Strike), they’re furiously circling their wagons for the invasion of a new way of watching TV. That new way is still climbing out of the primordial ooze, but it’s already evolved legs. And it’s learning, adapting the better TV of the past as it learns, inexorably carving a niche for itself in the evolutionary food chain. YouTube was arguably the first Internet network to capitalize on the cyberspace factor, and it remains entrenched in the Zeitgeist as the eminent force of New Media.

I certainly don’t want to diss YouTube. But its “citizen journalism” approach is sort of like a scattergun. There’s a lot of great content there, and it undeniably is a major force in our culture, influencing politics, entertainment, and even legal proceedings. It allows almost anyone to be a star, if even for the proverbial fifteen minutes. On the downside, it’s often a breeding ground for would-be paparazzi and tabloid gossip. All in all, though, it’s the perfect medium for our short attention span society. Whether a broadcast genius emerges from YouTube doesn’t matter. That it provides a possible platform from which that genus may rise is what makes YouTube important.

At the other end of the spectrum are sites like Hulu, which was gobbled up by Universal (NBC) and News Corporation (FOX) by the time it uttered its first cry. As such, it’s already become a promotional wing of the two behemoths, mirroring the content of the two parent sites, right down to full episodes being viewed “with limited commercial interruptions.” What bothers me most about Hulu at this point is that it’s full of promise, but it’s mostly a tease. You get full episodes of shows like Heroes and Arrested Development, but only enough to whet your appetite—they’re in random context, supplanted by clips. There’s a very small library of full-length movies, but there again, the movie collection consists mostly of promo clips. Hulu has potential, but right now, it exists as a marketing tool for NBC and FOX.

Somewhere between the two extremes of corporate self-promotion and citizen journalism are sites like Joost, bridging the chasm between Old and New Media. As I mentioned in an earlier article, Joost is a commercial venture, and it has inked deals with CBS, Sony, and Warner (among others) for content. A major difference, though, is that Joost shows its content with “limited commercial interruptions.” Sure, you occasionally get a little pop-up ad in the corner of the screen, but that’s not nearly as annoying as full-fledged commercials. In fact, I’d say the content far outweighs the minor annoyances.

Since I last wrote about the site, not even a month ago, Joost has added some impressive content, certainly not the least of which is the entire series of David Lynch’s cult classic Twin Peaks. The bizarre murder mystery serial was nothing short of a national phenomenon in the very early nineties, and it’s still ahead of its time, nearly eighteen years after it was cancelled. If you’ve never seen it, you’ll find yourself addicted to it. If you remember it, you’ll remember why America wanted to know “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” Unlike other mysteries, where clues unravel the mystery, each episode of Twin Peaks complicated the mystery even more.

As cool as it is that current viewers don’t have to wait an entire week to see what twists the next episode will bring, Twin Peaks isn’t the only retro series Joost has to offer. You can also, if you’re really a cultist, watch the entire run of Beverly Hills 90210, or view choice episodes of the highly stylized animated adventure Samurai Jack. In fact, you can a lot of TV here. More importantly, though, is that Joost offers European content, short indie films, global news, and music videos you won’t find on—say, MTV (as if you’re ever going to see videos on MTV these days.)

With the exception of YouTube—where anything goes—Internet television is wrestling with its own potential. At this point, it’s serving more as a promotional tool for the networks and studios. The networks are even airing original series on their websites, some of which are actually pretty good. While none of these series have actually made the television cut, it’s easy to imagine a time in the not too distant future when that may be how series are test marketed. It’s also not too difficult to see how the Internet, through actual viewing, and not silly save-the-show campaigns, might turn Nielsen on its ear, and set a new model for programming.

The Internet has already usurped the power of the once impenetrable fortresses of the studios. The upcoming 305, a Mad magazine send-up of 300 had its origins on YouTube, and is now the first viral video to be slated for a major studio production. Traditional television can’t be far behind, especially since it has a history of taking its cues from the movies. Now they’re faced with a new challenge—with the wealth of original programming on the Internet, anybody with any concept could be The Next Big Thing.

And that is going to force a rethinking of how business is done in La-La Land. It’s not that television is going to be swallowed up by the Internet. What will happen is that the Internet, with all its faceless minions, will become a major player in how the networks shape their programming. The computer and the television will meld into one entity, and it will be so painless, we won’t even realize it.

Let’s hope we don’t screw it up this time.

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