On Web TV, Someone's Always Watching

This story is the fourth in a five-part series.

Paul Campbell (left) and Taran Killam

Nobody's Watching stars Paul Campbell (left) and Taran Killam as friends who get the chance to make their own sitcom. hide caption

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In the brave new world of television, what's going the way of the dodo bird? Read one expert's opinion.

Beth Comstock

Beth Comstock is in charge of finding the sweet spot between TV and Internet at NBC: "We're sort of redoing the way we develop television," she says. NBC hide caption

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The title of the show Nobody's Watching is not quite apt: More than one million people have viewed its pilot on YouTube.

Nobody's Watching is a sort of meta-sitcom, following two guys who get the chance to back up their claim that they could create a better sitcom than the networks have been.

The show has had a rocky trajectory that landed it on a new frontier of television: the Internet. Its pilot was picked up by the WB network, which ultimately decided not to air it.

But NBC saw potential in the fan base that emerged when episodes were leaked online. It decided to back production, not for broadcast, but for YouTube.

Beth Comstock, president of integrated media at NBC Universal, says, "We've spent a lot of time figuring out, how do we extend [the viewer experience] on to the Internet." In other words, how does a network combine viewers and Internet users to create an audience of, as we'll call them, viewsers?

The one-hour show Heroes is another example of how NBC is turning to the Web to attract eyeballs. The network's site for the show features an online companion novel.

NBC.com is reaching 10 million unique users each month, and is an integral part of the company's strategy. "That's the world we're planning for, is a world where it all converges," Comstock says.

So here's another best idea in television: Sow hundreds of seeds online and try to grow some real television show. Get the energy, get the intensity and believe you will get the audience.

TV's Brave New World: What's on the Way Out?

As new technologies and ideas promise to revolutionize television, which stalwarts of the medium stand to be edged out? We put the question to Jeff Cole, director of the Center for the Future at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School. Here's what was on his list:

Independent Producers: Companies such as Carsey-Werner, the team that produced hits such as The Cosby Show and That '70s Show, "are at their lowest point of power in the history of television," Cole says. He points out that since rules preventing broadcasters from owning their programming were lifted in the early 1990s, producers have suffered. "They are now dealing with networks that demand to own the programming, give favor to their own programming, and [produce] less scripted material," he says.

Affiliates: The increase in distribution channels for programmers is not good news for affiliates. With 90 percent of Americans getting their TV signals from satellite or cable, "networks don't need the affiliates as much," Cole notes. Still, he sees the potential for stations to reinvent themselves as local programming hubs: "I don't think they're going to go down quietly, but their role as being indispensable to a network is diminishing."

Loyalty to TV Schedules: With TiVo, Webisodes and DVD rentals, why worry about catching a show the first time it airs? "In another five years, teenagers won't understand the concept of watching TV on someone else's schedule," Cole says.

Commercial Breaks: Cole's research determined that only 10 percent of viewers actually stick around during breaks to watch the ads. "TV ads have been in danger for 30 years, starting with the remote control," he says. The trend will continue, with one exception, for now: must-watch-live events such as the Super Bowl, American Idol and parts of the Olympics. "On traditional television, the spectacle [will become] more important," he says. "The few programs that people want to watch live, and with other people... become more and more valuable on commercial TV."

The Over-50 Demographic: Could a new model of distribution for television mean an attempt to reach beyond the traditionally coveted 18-49 demographic? Don't look for an online-only Matlock: The Next Generation anytime soon. Advertisers have never tried very hard to connect with viewers over 50, and Cole doesn't expect that to change, citing the conventional advertiser wisdom that as people get older, they are less likely to try new products. Still, he says that some advertisers are learning to push the age boundary up to 54 years old. "The over-50s are the wealthiest people in the country right now," he says. "If you believe that you're set in your ways, then where does a Lexus car become popular?"

Cole acknowledges that technological developments in recent years are "causing chaos in the TV industry," but he gives networks credit for trying to stay ahead of their audience and avoid the same pitfalls that befell record labels with the advent of song-swapping. Television executives "don't want to be the music industry," Cole says. "They're not burying their heads in the sand."

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