Articles have reported that quarterlife, the online episodic that NBC licensed for television broadcast, was deemed unsuccessful when it attracted something like three million viewers on Tuesday night. In terms of broadcast television economics, that’s considered a failure, but there are a number of factors here, not the least is that it was set it up for failure from the start. But failure in broadcast does not mean the show itself is a failure, which by internet standards is quite successful in terms of the vibrancy of its online community which is evolving nicely.
NBC did not put their usual marketing campaign behind it, and without this, it’s hard to build a large audience, viewers are starved for attention, there’s little reason to watch yet another show unless the network promotes the hell out of it. In addition, they probably over-estimated potential audience for the broadcast. You don’t need fancy focus groups and analysis to see what is going on, you just have to look at the world around you. Sean Fitzroy, who teaches twentysomething students at the New England Institute of Art, was telling me on Wednesday that only 50% of his students own televisions, and this is the quarterlife demographic. And last but not least, quarterlife is not a broadcast show to begin with. Putting quarterlife on television is akin to entering a cat in a dog show. Very different species. Quarterlife co-creator Marshall Herskovitz put it best on a panel at the 2008 Media & Entertainment Conference at the Harvard Business School on Wednesday (and I quote):
When we started out to do [quarterlife], and people heard it was going to go to NBC, we were sort of damned if we did and damned if we didn’t, because a lot of people said “oh, it’s just a television show in disguise, and these are old television guys, and they are just doing television,” in fact, the difference for me was I went back to my early days, I just recently looked at the pilot of thirtysomething, and I was not so brainwashed in those days in the world of television, and the pilot of thirtysomething is so raw, and so real, it doesn’t look anything like a television show, it’s not lit like a television show, they don’t sound like a television show, and that’s what I went back to, in other words, I didn’t say, “what is the internet, I have to do an internet thing,” I said, “let me let go of the shit that I’ve been doing that I’ve taken on over the years without knowing it,” these voices in my head saying, “oh, will they like this character, you know, will people understand when you say this, will they stick around,” all these kind of things that network executives are scared of I just said, “forget it, I’m just going to do my thing for this, that”s how I did it differently, and low and behold you know what? It ain’t a television show, and it was proven last night it was not a television show (laughter in the room), it’s too specific for a big network, and that’s fine, cause we’re going to find a home for it, that will work for what we do. But that’s the difference, is I went back to my own voice.
It’s ridiculous to call quarterlife a failure, it’s simply a proof point that crossover is not always a good idea, that the audience for broadcast television and internet episodics is different, and twenty-somethings are growing up in a vastly different media world. They are not going to watch broadcast television the way my generation did. And why are we even talking about online shows making the jump to television? As if this was somehow the holy grail? Why look at new media through the lens of old media? As Herskovitz said, quarterlife is not television, it’s something different. It does not belong on prime time, which is about mass audience and lowest common denominator, it belongs on a niche cable station if on broadcast at all. Why do so many broadcast industry people talk about the internet as a new breeding ground for television shows? They sure would like to outsource creative development. But the internet is not a new old thing, it’s a new new thing, and internet entertainment properties should be judged on their own terms as their own thing. The new media revolution will not be broadcast, nor will it be rebroadcast. It will be streamed, downloaded, and shared as part of a community experience as you see happening right now on the quarterlife site. When quarterlife first launched I did an interview with Marshall Herskovitz that you might find interesting.
Personally, I find quarterlife to be one of the more interesting pieces of entertainment to come out in 2007, and part of what I like about it is its rawness, the feeling that it’s a work in progress, something evolving, and that there’s a community around it. It’s in a very different “voice” as Herskovitz said. And that’s part of the appeal for me, and probably not right for mass audience appeal. But in the world of long tail media distribution, it’s about finding a niche, not the mass audience. What is being done with quarterlife may not translate to the model for the future of television, but it’s sure working by many metrics of success. Without spending time watching all of the episodes and spending time observing and/or participating in the community, you can’t really grok what quarterlife is. Innovators in entertainment have created some flops that have made cinema/television/new media history, but at the same time where would we be without the innovative projects that showed us that there are other forms that entertainment can take, and new ways of interacting with an audience? It’s too soon to call for a verdict on the quarterlife experiment and premature to make claims of it’s demise.