Byte-size TV: Television and the Internet are converging

[13 June 2007]

By Rachel Leibrock

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

My Life on the Z List: Jen's Vlog

My Life on the Z List: Jen’s Vlog

If the current offerings on television leave you cold (hello “Age of Love”), put down that remote and grab your mouse—the Web is the place to watch extensions of your favorite shows and to discover new ones.

There’s Web-only content spun off of network hits (NBC’s “Heroes: Character Profiles”). There are online-only programs (www.BravoTV.com’s “My Life on the Z List.”)

Some of the stuff is even pretty good—maybe even good enough for prime time.

But is anyone watching?

Yes, say industry observers. Still, your PC isn’t the new boob tube. Yet.

It’ll be a while before the quality and the technology have completely caught up, those experts say. In the meantime, think of these so-called webisodes as byte-sized samplers.

Or so says Vivi Zigler, NBC’s vice president of digital entertainment and new media.

“They’re like getting a free gift with purchase or an entertainment hors d’oeuvre,” Zigler says, on the phone from her Burbank, Calif., office.

“Online is a specialty medium (and) prime for that type (of programming).”

Last summer, Zigler adds, NBC learned just how prime after watching its cult fave but ratings-challenged sitcom, “The Office,” become iTunes’ most downloaded show (at $1.99 per episode).

Fans also flocked to NBC’s Web site to watch deleted scenes from the show, as well as a spinoff of sorts called “The Accountants: Webisodes,” in 10 mini-episodes.

While Zigler won’t go as far as to say that “The Office’s” online presence ensured its traditional prime-time survival, it was still “a very important factor.” Now, the network’s going to give “Heroes” the full Web treatment with “Heroes: Character Profiles.” Over the course of the summer, each episode (clocking in at under five minutes) will spotlight a “chapter” in the history of Peter, Hiro, Niki, et al.

It’s all about “marrying the on-air experience with the online,” Zigler says. “They are absolutely complementary. It allows a fan to engage with the show even when (the season is over).”

Of course, shows on the Web are often nuttier or edgier than their television counterparts.

Along those lines, NBC is also planning to roll out an original online soap, “Coastal Dreams.” Set to debut in September, it promises as much bikini-fueled drama as your DSL connection can handle.

Which leads us to the question: Exactly how much action can you and your DSL take? Or (the horror) your dial-up?

Do you really want to squint at a tiny video player or put up with annoying, heavily pixelated stop-and-start frames?

Because, except for perhaps the most hard-core Web geek, isn’t there a limit to how long the average person wants to sit in front of a computer?

That’s why Web TV is still “a pretty niche market,” says Kimra McPherson, associate editor of the entertainment blog BuzzSugar.

But, she says, speaking from her San Francisco office, some companies are attempting to solve that problem. Later this month, for example, Apple TV users will be able to transfer YouTube videos directly to their television sets.

Plus, avid fans are doing their part. She points to the Adam Sandler-produced comedy “Gay Robot.”

“`Gay Robot’ was completely rejected by the networks and then picked up a lot of steam online, and now (there are rumors) that it’s going back into TV production,” McPherson says.

“Web TV is like the minor leagues.”

Besides, availability will ultimately win out over any technological glitches, predicts BitTorrent co-founder Ashwin Navin, who has watched shows such as “Gay Robot” find new life via his company and other popular peer-to-peer distribution networks.

“Gone are the days when we hovered around a TV when a network decides to broadcast `Lost,’” he says, on the phone from San Francisco. “We can download shows when we want to see them.

“The huge win for the consumer is: I get to watch it when I want to,” he says. “People are willing to put up with choppy frame rates and slow download times to get that personalization.”

Quality is an issue, says Kent Rees, vice president of marketing for the Independent Film Channel.

In May, IFC.com launched a new webisode, “Getting Away With Murder.” However, IFC picked up the 13-episode comedy about a hit man precisely because the show was already TV-worthy.

“There’s a sense out there that the Web is second-rate when it comes to quality (programming),” Rees says, calling from Long Island, N.Y.

“The YouTubes of the world have done a great disservice. That distinction of quality has been blurred.”

Will Web TV ever really equal must-see TV?

Well, no, probably not anytime soon—but it is slowly changing how we view the traditional medium, McPherson says.

“That’s pretty far off in the future,” McPherson says. “But if we see more companies making deals like the Apple TV-YouTube one, then at some point, it’s going to stop being `online’ television and just become TV.”

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Forget Bruce Springsteen’s “56 channels”—the Web’s options are nearly endless. Here are five to watch:

“My Life on the Z List: Jen’s Vlog”
Vlogger “Jen”—a.k.a. comedian Billy Eichner—wants to become “an overnight Jensation” in this slyly funny series that’s being billed as an online companion to Bravo’s “Kathy Griffin: “My Life on the D List.”

“Getting Away With Murder”
While it’s not quite “The Sopranos,” IFC’s hitman comedy caper is nonetheless stylish and clever.

“The Tom Green Show”
Tom Green may have worn out his MTV welcome, but he’s mining new, albeit off-color—watch the swearing!—comedic ground with his online-only talk show that’s shot inside his living room. Really.

“Lonelygirl15”
Now that we’re all in on the joke that LonelyGirl15 isn’t a real teenage vlogger, it’s fun to watch this ongoing series starring New Zealand actress Jessica Rose.

“Clark and Michael”
Actors Clark Duke (“Greek”) and Michael Cera (“Arrested Development”) shine in this highly addicting TV industry “mockumentary.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/byte-size-tv-television-and-the-internet-are-converging/