With the TV writers strike forcing dozens of sitcoms and dramas -- not to mention Letterman and Leno -- into reruns, there's talk that viewers will permanently abandon prime time even after the walkout is settled. At the same time, the writers strike is seen as a big opportunity for Web content creators to prove that their medium has really arrived. But has it?The pleasures of the Web will replace couch-bound dates with CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox, according to this thinking. People will spend (waste?) even more time on Facebook and YouTube. Oh, please! Here's why this isn't gonna happen.
YouTube is the video equivalent of a fast-food emporium. You go there frequently, for short periods of time, but there's nothing memorable about the experience. I don't really have to argue this one too strenuously, do I? It's pretty self-evident.
Also, clips from Jon Stewart's Daily Show, which is one of the prime reasons people go to YouTube, are supposed to be blocked from the site. (Comedy Central is part of MTV Networks, which is owned by Viacom, which is in a bitter dispute with Google, which owns YouTube.)
Like I just said, YouTube is a great time-waster, but, like light beer -- no, I'm not about to launch into the praises of Linux -- it's not very filling. Which is why you've got to wonder what kind of original thinking has resulting in all the most prominent Web video efforts aping YouTube.
I'm not even talking about AOL videos, which is a whole site ripping of YouTube's idea. I'm referring to Hulu, which is a site set up by Fox and NBC to post the clips it has asked YouTube to stop infringing. Nice site, but its point is simply to repurpose programs made for television. Without TV, and the writers for same, there isn't any Hulu content.
Interestingly, one of the sticking points in the TV writers strike is that the writers get no money for video streamed over the Web, because the networks say it's "promotional." Seeing a site like Hulu, where the whole purpose is to get you to watch the stuff online, the networks' argument isn't really credible, is it?
How do you do a "show" on the Web? The earliest efforts, and even some notable ones today, haven't been much different from traditional television fare, except that they are visibly lower in cost to produce. (Supposedly an early online show called "The Spot" has relaunched, though its Web site was down when I tried it.)
Most don't remember, but actually the finest Web video effort was the circa-1995 MSN Network from Microsoft. MSN at that time had a proprietary interface through which you could access almost a dozen separate online shows. The effort was so far ahead of its time, and so ambitious and expensive to produce, that it was destined to fail. I'm mystified that this honorable failure is never mentioned.
My admiration for MSN notwithstanding, it was still a bunch of shortened TV shows shrunk down to Web size. It turns out that the Web viewing paradigm can't escape that model.
TV-like shows aren't what people think they're talking about when they point to shows that'll replace TV viewing. In theory, they're pointing to cutting-edge efforts like Quarterlife. This is the online community and, now, Internet show, launched by "My So-Called Life" creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. ("Quarterlife" is a coinage referring to early adulthood years of 21 to 29. Hey, maybe someone should start an online show called "Three-Quarterslife," and see if 50-somethings are surfing in the evenings.)
However, despite its pedigree and Web sincerity, "Quaterlife" is still a little bitty Web-sized TV show, with yet another social-networking angle thrown in for good measure.
Will Ferrell seems like a nice enough guy, though the comedic appeal he's built up in such big-screen fart jokes as "Talladega Nights" and "Blades of Glory" escapes me. On the other hand, one has to give Ferrell props as a true online innovator. He co-founded Funny or Die, a comedy clips destination which posts original content created by Ferrell and his friends, along with less professional user-generated material.
OK, so maybe I'm wrong on this point. Maybe the future of Web content will be driven by Will Ferrell. Now I'm hoping that the TV writers strike is settled real soon.
Sites like Hulu will be a serious viewing option once people have computers stationed in their living- and bedrooms in the locations traditionally occupied by the TV set. I don't know about you, but if I want to watch video on my PC, I have to sit at a desk in an upright chair. I'd much rather recline on the couch or lie down on my bed and surf with a remote control. I don't want to keyboard my way to postage-stamped sized clips.
Upshot: More AIMing
I sure hope the writers settle, both because I enjoy "Family Guy" and because I think mediocre video shouldn't be the exclusive province of the Web.
I think the critics who are predicting more Web viewing in the strike's wake are missing something that's right at their fingertips. More chatting via AIM is going to take up much of the TV-watching slack. (I get this by universalizing from my own personal experience, which is what all time-challenged bloggers do. My teenage daughter AIMs constantly in the evening, ergo everyone else does, too.)
However, predicting that people will spend more time texting isn't as sexy as hyping the imminent dominance of Web content. That'll happen, but it'll take another decade.