Independent Television: Beyond YouTube

Producers of independent television gathered in Los Angeles over the weekend to attend what event organizers billed as the first independent television festival.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News this is DAY TO DAY. Today is the last day of the first ever Independent Television Festival here in Los Angeles. Independent meaning not created or broadcast by any TV networks, not yet at least. Nihar Patel has our report.

NIHAR PATEL reporting:

After moving to Los Angeles post-college, the festival's founder, A.J. Tesler, landed gigs as an actor in TV shows and commercials. He was living the dream. But when it came to the projects he and his friends were doing on the side, he was waking up to the nightmare reality of Hollywood.

Mr. A.J. TESLER (Founder, Independent Television Festival): It's not just that I wasn't having any success getting things anywhere. It was that I also didn't know how to. Because of the way the present system is run, it's really, really hard to get some of this great independent content up on television.

(Soundbite of TV show, Always Sunny)

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) Charlie has cancer.

PATEL: So Tesler decided opening night of his TV festival should begin with a success story, Always Sunny, made by a group of friends for only two hundred dollars.

(Soundbite of TV show, Always Sunny)

Unidentified Man: (As character) Charlie has cancer.

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As character) Charlie has such nice hair. Is he going to lose it?

Unidentified Man: Yes, he is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PATEL: A few years ago, this homemade sitcom caught the eye of TV executives and is now the FX show It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, co-starring Danny DeVito. Co-creator and star Glenn Howerton already got his big break, but hopes a festival like this will open doors for others.

Mr. GLENN HOWERTON (Co-Creator, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia): It's another gatekeeper, but it's not the regular gatekeepers of like the television network executives. It's a group of young, you know, ambitious artists who put this together that are saying, you know, we want to be the ones to decide what's good and what's - what people should be watching.

PATEL: One of those traditional gatekeepers who helped Always Sunny eventually make it onto television is Nick Grad, an executive from the cable network FX.

Mr. NICK GRAD (Executive, FX): There is a bit of a seat change, in that more and more people will shoot something and people will have the ability to look at it and say there's really something there. It's a diamond in the rough, let's polish this thing and see if we can make it. You know, it's not a script. It's something you can look at.

PATEL: Among the 26 potential diamonds that were being screened, some did not veer far from the standard TV norm. One that did starred Norm, or actor George Wendt from Cheers. Another show parodied classic television themes from '60s sitcoms, but instead of Dick Van Dyke tripping over an ottoman in the living room, the husband is now being tied up in the basement by his wife.

(Soundbite of show, The Perverts)

Unidentified Announcer: The Perverts!

(Soundbite of music playing)

PATEL: The Perverts was created by and stars husband and wife team John Gegenhuber and Marie Del Prete. They spent $10,000 to produce a show with period sets, costumes and music.

Ms. MARIE DEL PRETE (Co-creator, The Perverts): We think it's different, especially today, you know, where sitcoms are kind of dying off. It's - there's a real need to refresh them, to reboot them. And you know, we see this project really on, you know, cable, like HBO, Showtime. You know, because we'd like to give it more of an edge.

PATEL: What you don't actually see here are any representatives from HBO or Showtime, but there were people from NBC, ABC, Comedy Central and MTV. It's too soon to tell, though, whether the festival will do for independent television what the Sundance Festival did for independent films.

If network executives aren't interested in the shows screening here, more receptive audiences may be found on Internet video sites like YouTube and festival co-sponsor Google Video. Festival founder A.J. Tesler plans to do it all over again next year, because at the very least the quality of content online could stand some improvement.

Mr. TESLER: There's only so many times I can watch somebody singing alone into his webcam, you know? It's amusing, but it's not entertaining.

PATEL: Nihar Patel, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

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