This is just the latest example of the weird media moment we're at. Everyone can sort of sense that it's all about to become some kind of nebulous blur between web content and broadcast TV, that the pie is going to shrink and separate into niche interests even more, somehow, and there will cease to be a meaningful difference between video content mediums created for separate, single-use devices. Scheduled events will probably continue, but will only be meaningful for marking the first moment when something is let loose, and everyone can choose to watch it, discuss it, rip it apart if they like. That more chaotic, more personal media moment feels like it'll happen in five minutes (if it didn't start five minutes ago). Right now, though, TV is still a structured thing that needs new ideas to fill holes, sell ads, and increasingly it's going to readymade Internet concepts to find that new programming.
So far, it's doing this in a couple easily identifiable, sorta timid ways:
Buying Full Shows They Should Have Just Made, For People Who Can't Use the Internet
The most obvious strategy is finding some pre-existing, broadcastable thing that should already be on television, and just putting it up there. I spent a recent weekend gorging on the second season of Yahoo! Screen's original series Burning Love. For those not familiar, it's a pitch-perfect parody of The Bachelor/Bachelorette, which you'd think has lived long enough to be it's own parody, but somehow, no. The first season was centered around Veronica Mars/Party Down/The State character actor Ken Marino, as a single fireman who gave the show it's dumb-on-purpose name. E! bought the broadcast rights, and now plays "new" year-old episodes on Monday nights. They'll probably get around to airing its superior second season as well. Built around a knockout comedic performance by June Diane Raphael, and featuring well-known comic actors (like Michael Cera, Adam Brody, Martin Starr, and Adam Scott) almost exclusively, it might be the funniest sitcom I've seen this year.
The concept is so instantly gettable and the cast so filled with bankable talent, that it's baffling for it to have started life as an online property to begin with. Airing it would have been a ballsy move of self-deprication by ABC, and it makes no sense that other broadcast networks wouldn't want to take aim at an inert, but profitable franchise. They'd rather emulate the success than skewer it, I guess? But Burning Love apes the crummy look and feel of those shows to such a precise degree that they probably could have sucked in some unaware Bachelor fans who would have ended up finding it really funny. As ad rates for online video content grows, there'll be more broadcast-quality content. Not a bubbling up of new voices so much as a fun time outlet for established creators, though, plus a secondary paycheck once some network finally catches on. What might be really exciting is the moment when either TV audiences shrink or web audiences grow to the point that a move between forms is wholly unnecessary. Again, we're not there yet.
Searching for Gold in the Podcast Mines
In the stand-up comedy boom of the late 80s, the big dream, Jerry Seinfeld success story was a strong stand-up act that culminated in a traditional network sitcom, and all the money. But as comedians keep migrating to their own podcasts, it's conceivable that the whole touring the country and learning to succeed on stage part might become an unnecessary step towards becoming a TV star. IFC, whose whole brand sort of relies on being the cable home for alt-comedy at this point, has wisely been most active in tapping into the oversaturated comedy podcast universe. Even shrewder, they've been more ambitious than just slapping a radio broadcast on TV like those old Howard Stern shows. Their first attempt was Comedy Bang! Bang!, hosted by superconnected LA comedy dude Scott Aukerman. In streaming audio form I tend to find CBB a little too self-amused, to the point that it flirts with being smug (though I get that famous pals riffing is sort of the point for people who like it). The star-studded IFC version, which adds Reggie Watts as one man "band-leader," is something pretty special though. It takes the undying formalism of late-night talk shows, which has survived attempted drowning by irony over decades of Letterman, Conan, etc., and turns its confines into a Dada explosion of awkward pauses, puns taken seriously, and genre demands turned completely absurd.
Maron, their forthcoming sitcom based around Marc Maron's wildly popular WTF podcast also seeks to expand outward from its online format, yet seems somehow riskier. Maron's long-form interviewing is so good that pushing him into a more jokey half-hour sitcom almost seems like wasting demonstrated talent. He's basically the alt-comedy Dick Cavett, so why not set him up on an intimate set with guests, and just let them talk? Why reinvent the what finally made him truly famous? But who knows, it could be great, and then we'll have both things?
The takeaway again seems like TV execs capitalizing on hard-fought web popularity, rather than deep-diving into the Internet for truly unknown talent. You gotta hit a certain level and bring an audience with you to move up. Which is fair, if less than revolutionary. (As we saw with the Kickstarter Vero Mars thing, TV is its own level down from movies, but that's another topic...)
Focusing the Unfocusable?
What really remains to be seen is if the actual sensibility of rando Internet culture can or even should be translated to regular TV. HBO did try to keep the scattershot randomness of Funny or Die intact when developing their late-night sketch show, but I don't know anyone that was passionate about the result. (A few truly inspired short films by Tim and Eric aside.) The problem with boiling a Darwinian get clicks or go home mission statement into a producer-curated sketch show is that you miss the surprising popularity of things no one thought would work in the first place. Of course, the original problem with that, was that popularity eventually skewed overwhelmingly towards goofy shorts from well-known actors. In attempting to remove gatekeepers, we end up gatekeeping ourselves just fine.
No one is accusing the wild, freeform sprawl that is Reddit of having that problem. It's maybe the purest form out there of human interest dictating its own featured content, for good or ill. The announcement earlier this year that the site would start generating its own original web videos, based on the widely viewed forum topic "Explain Like I'm Five" probably had a few network execs dreaming about tapping into that teeming online readership, fleshing it out into a broadcast-able vehicle. But there'd be no way to ape the feel of Reddit for reals on television, at least until a TV really becomes a simultaneous user-directed web device.
The Vice HBO project seems like a case where focus could be a good thing, letting only the best of their news/stunt/prank/gonzo video content reach a bigger audience who haven't been beat over the head with what they do for almost 10 years now. But is making these guys our 60 Minutes an answer to stagnant TV formats, or just new voices getting gradually co-opted by old structures? To answer that, I suppose we'll have to tune in.