Friday, December 28th, 2007...
the medium of stories
“We read to know we are not alone.”
- C.S. Lewis
in retrospect, it’s not so surprising that while i was studying film in college i was also producing art and music events as an extra-curricular activity. i joke that producing a movie and producing an event are pretty much exactly the same process, except with events you only get one take. in both cases what you’re producing is a story and an experience, so the transition, post-college, from film to festivals was, in a sense, really just the transition between one medium of story/experience creation to another.
whether written, filmed, experiential, or any other kind, i think stories in general appeal to us for the same reasons, yet we experience and appreciate them in different ways depending on the medium. just because the book might have been better than the movie, doesn’t mean it would make a better movie to film the pages of the book, dig?
which is the kind of analogy i think about as i read the NYTimes’ recent bit on Quarterlife, “Can NBC Do for ‘Quarterlife’ What YouTube Could Not?”:
Scripts by Marshall Herskovitz, the Emmy award-winning writer and producer, have drawn millions of viewers to movie theaters and television sets over the past two decades.
But on the Internet, where his 36-part series “Quarterlife” is unfolding on social networking sites like MySpace, the audience metrics are starkly different.
Some episodes of “Quarterlife,” a drama about a group of good-looking people in their 20s, have yet to attract 100,000 video views, according to combined view counts from MySpace’s video site and YouTube.
The low traffic numbers are significant because the series has been touted as the first television-quality production for the Web, as well as the first to be introduced online as a warm-up for its network debut. NBC will broadcast “Quarterlife” in one-hour increments beginning in February, and the Web-to-broadcast process is being closely watched as a potential business model for television on the Internet.
i wrote about quarterlife a few months back, before any of the episodes had come out. the prospect of what an “online series” could mean in terms of a new format for creating stories was really exciting to me. i even thought it was pretty neat that the show came with an accompanying online social network app aimed at being a resource for those going through their quarterlife crisis. (at least in theory. i’m not a member on quarterlife.com so i don’t really know for sure, but the impression i got is that the site seeks to facilitate collaborations among the nascent members of the creative class, and if that goal is actually being fulfilled then i sincerely applaud the effort.) that there was no indication at the time about the online series simply being a “warm-up” to a network debut is an interesting aspect unto itself, but there are more interesting things i’d like to talk about, in particular:
The Folly of a “Web-To-Broadcast” Model,
and the Tragically Misguided Concept of “Television on the Internet”
according to the NYTimes article, quarterlife’s sponsors, which include toyota, paid well above standard rates to appear with the series on the web. and perhaps the folks involved with quarterlife may want to consider why it is that they might have been willing to do that.
the same day as the NYTimes asked, “Can Web ventures like “Quarterlife” turn a profit? The answer is unclear,” online media daily reported:
CONSUMERS ARE 47% MORE ENGAGED in ads that run with television programs that they view online than those watched on a TV set, according to new research findings. A cross-media study by Simmons, a unit of Experian Research Services, also found that viewers are 25% more engaged in the content of TV shows that they watch online than on a TV.
what are the chances that toyota, what with their experience with integrating the scion brand into whyville’s online tween world, would have some understanding of the benefits of being on a medium with a much more elevated engagement rate?
as a marketer, one of my favorite things about quarterlife is that the brand integration is so seamless it makes the traditional concept of “product placement” look like cave drawings in comparison. two of the characters on quarterlife, aspiring filmmakers–the pragmatic producer and the visionary director, of course–pitch a local toyota dealership to shoot a commercial for the business. of course when they deliver the ad to the client, the owner of the dealership, says he can’t see his cars enough in the ad. how are people supposed to buy his cars if they can’t see them? so the duo then has to recut the ad to make it less high concept and more car-y, they screen the revised version for their friends, after which one of the other characters–the typically self-righteous activist stereotype who’s being positioned to become the lead character’s love interest–gives them shit for selling out and making a commercial in the first place, and bashes the “corporate hegemony” in the second. after which they deliver the revised ad only to be told it’s STILL not car-y enough, and then get scolded by the dealership owner for not being serious about their business–which is supposed to be helping HIS business sell cars. oh he also tells them that they don’t know what they’re talking about when they insist that the ad is supposed to be selling “the experience” of the car, which i thought was a particularly interesting touch. then after that other things happen, but my point is that this whole time that you’re watching several key plot points and delving into various bits of character and theme development–and this stretches out over several episodes–you’re watching toyota in the show.
it may not be subtle, but then neither was carrie bradshaw’s love for manolo blahniks. that’s the thing about authentic character development now, you and i express ourselves through the brands we buy, so why should it be different for the characters on our favorite shows? in fact, can we even identify with a completely brandless persona in a character-driven series enough to keep watching week after week?
well, to be honest, i don’t know. i haven’t really watched TV since i started college, (except for netflixing the whole run of sex and the city, and going on a 24 bender last year, and 2005 when i lived with some roommates who had a TV set, and i got all into the sopranos) but, i HAVE watched all 14 episodes of quarterlife out as of now. and if i was watching this on TV (well, if i owned a TV and was watching this on it) i think i would love it. i’d be telling my friends to watch it too, it would be significant that a television network had had the vision (or nerve) to create a show about our generation–a generation which is watching less and less TV though, and hence less and less incentive to make content for it, but regardless–if this was on TV, it’d be great!
except it’s not on TV, is it? while we allow a certain suspension of disbelief for the contrived nature of scripted programming on TV we have a dramatically different relationship with online content. we may not expect it to be TRUE, but we don’t expect it to feel artificial either. here TV’s forced quality feels almost…invasive, like getting a friend request from your mom or dad on facebook (or if you prefer: walking into your room to discover your mom or dad already in it). like, TV! what are you DOING in here?
the whole time i was watching those 14 episodes i felt like i was waiting for something to happen. some subtle yet hugely important aspect in the very nature of the show to change. i mean, great, it’s “television-quality” production for the web, but who exactly was lamenting its lack here in the first place? i’ve seen ipod billboards that felt more real and compelling than quarterlife. (and that’s coming from someone who really wanted to like the show!)
to be fair, i think the internet community too is just barely scratching the surface of the possibilities for online video content, but writing a TV script for the web is about as powerful a use of these possibilities as writing a TV script for a feature film, and given the results of that Simmons report, a “web-to-broadcast” strategy seems rather pointless considering that consumers are practically 50% more engaged with content the medium you’re starting out on. we’re by no means all looking for the same kind of content on the web, but we are not looking for the same old same old, either. i can’t wait for something to really take advantage of all the medium’s potential and uncover whole new ways of creating stories.
what do i think looks like it could be one such possibility?