Or: A Brief Recent History of the Internet and Television (As I Understand It)
Ok, so you may have noticed I’m on a geek/nerd kick. The reason for this is that I had initially planned to write one blog. I got about three paragraphs in and realized that in order to get to the “Internet as Television” topic, I would have to write a freaking dissertation first – ‘cause that’s just how I roll. Instead of inundating you with a ton of information; I decided to break it down into (hopefully) yummy little bites.
Here’s the thing. Technology is and has been rapidly changing. It wasn’t that long ago that most people would have scoffed at the idea of having a functional pocket-sized device that could easily make phone calls, manage your schedule, store data, hold your entire music collection, take pictures, and answer all your bar-debates. That’s Star Trek-futuristic people and it’s here!
But like with anything, we have this human need to consolidate and profit from any power that exists. And make no mistake, the internet is powerful. Just ask the music industry, which was left in a state of shock after the creation of data-share sites such as Napster. The internet started as a series of computers linked together to share scientific data and rapidly morphed into something much larger and mostly unregulated. Governments and corporations have been looking for a way to control and profit from its existence ever since. The more control one entity exerts over it, the more money they will be able to extract. This is all complicated by the fact that once freedom of use was made available, people quickly grew entitled. Try to take that freedom of use away and there will be a major public outcry. (Google “SOPA” if you have questions.)
The decline in compact discs sales should have been a powerful lesson to people in other areas of our entertainment industry. Although some have taken note, there has been a real lag in network television and film. They have placed themselves in opposition with technology, instead of using it as a tool to connect with consumers. And execs seem to continue to struggle with how to capitalize on it without alienating viewers. A shift from DVD sales to the iTunes store and partnerships with Netflix and Hulu have helped shift this dynamic, but there is still a huge divide between traditional media outlets and what’s available.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Youtube phenomenon. There are millions of people out there creating their own content. Some of it is awesome. Like this:
Most of what is out there is not.
The original industry conceit was that none of it was good enough to be a threat. But that too has begun to shift. This was never made more clear than by the release of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Created by the Whedon brothers (Joss, Jed, and Zack) and produced during the Writer’s Guild Strike of 2007-2008, it was one of the first available high-quality programs of note to come out completely outside the confines of the corporate entertainment industry. It was 100% controlled and owned by its creators and it received millions of views and dozens of accolades.
Indeed, one of the reasons the writers were striking was in regard to the use of scripted television on the network’s websites and how content creators were being compensated for the use of their work. Although the strike was considered largely unsuccessful, the ironic twist to the narrative is that it provided Joss Whedon with the time to start a revolution for media on the internet; thereby beginning a new phase of television history where the studios were left completely out of the equation.
Interestingly, Joss Whedon originally sought out the help of Felicia Day as a consultant on how to effectively put together and promote web content. Her web series, The Guild, was just finishing its first season and had already begun to gain traction. Felicia eventually was brought on to play the role of Penny in Dr. Horrible and has become one of the leading forces in content creation on the internet.
While all of this was going on, something else was happening in the land of television: more and more quality original programming was becoming available on cable. TNT released The Closer (with critically acclaimed actor Kyra Sedgewick). HBO created shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Sex and the City. Showtime had Queer as Folk, Dexter, The Tudors, and Weeds. AMC created Mad Men. Starz made Party Down. All of a sudden there were amazing programs on channels that were not network. Network had become a wasteland of reality television and scripted programming was no longer their domain. NBC lost its long-running, coveted number one spot. Change had come, whether they were ready or not.
Stayed tuned for: Geek Revolution: Internet as Television, Part II