I WANT MY GEEK TV!
The Cast of Global Frequency
Many of us who study fan cultures have marveled at how quickly fan communities mobilize around new television series. Fan websites such as Ain’t It Cool News get early information about new series, especially those which are prone to develop cult followings. Many fans start registering domain names and forming web circles based on the first news of a fan-friendly series. And producers are becoming more adept at tapping into fan networks from the get-go. By the time the first episode airs, fans start generating fan fiction and commentary if they like what they see. We will see this scenario play out several times as the new shows hit the airwaves in the coming weeks.
Pushing this trend to its logical extreme, an active, committed fandom has now emerged around an unaired pilot. The series in question is Global Frequency. From a fan’s perspective, Global Frequency was too good to be true. Based on a successful comic book series by the wicked and wonderful Warren Ellis, adapted for television by a creative team which at various points in the process included Mark Burnett (Survivor), Bed Edlund (Angel, The Tick), Nelson McCormick (Alias), and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5), the science fiction/action/adventure series dealt with a secret transnational organization of ordinary people who agree to pool their resources and respond as needed to a series of crises caused by the collapse of the nation states and the emergence of global capitalism. The original comic series had tapped growing interests in adhocracies, flash mobs, and collective intelligence among the most wired segments of the television viewing public.
The show created industry buzz when the pilot was being developed; the WB Network grabbed the rights to what many thought was a really hot property, considered it for Fall 2004, before announcing it would hit the air in Spring 2005. The network was ready to make an initial 13 episode commitment when there was a shift in the network management and as so often happens, the new execs were reluctant to risk their careers on properties generated by their predecessors. Global Frequency got dumped.
Then, somehow, an unauthorized copy of series pilot began circulating on Bittorrent, where it became the focus of a grassroots effort to get the series back into production. John Rogers, the show’s head writer and producer, said that the massive response to the never-aired series was giving the producers leverage to push for the pilot’s distribution on DVD and potentially to sell the series to another network. Rogers wrote about his encounters with the Global Frequency fans in his blog, “It changes the way I’ll do my next project…. I would put my pilot out on the internet in a heartbeat. Want five more? Come buy the boxed set.”
Already we can see a bunch of ways that the new media landscape is altering how traditional broadcasting operates. For starters, we can see the walls breaking down between program producers and consumers, as they make common cause against the networks. After all, the only way that pilot could have made it onto Bittorrent was that someone involved in the production leaked it and Rogers certainly was encouraging fans to rally behind his pet project.
Second, we can see large scale fan communities operating as collective bargaining units trying to make the networks more responsive to their demands. To be sure, there’s a long history of letter-writing campaigns going back at least to the original effort to save Star Trek, and most of them have failed. Yet, as the internet has enabled more rapid and widespread mobilization, fans are starting to win more and more battles. Consider, for example, the ways that the so-called “Brown-Coats,” fans of Joss Whedon’s short-lived Firefly, rallied behind the franchise, resulting in a new feature film extension, Serenity, which is due to hit the multiplexes later this month. Or take the case of The Family Guy, a series put back in production because of unexpectedly high DVD sales.
All of this leads to Rogers’s fantasy of media producers selling cult tv
shows directly to their niche publics, leaving the networks out of the
picture altogether. From a producer’s perspective, such a scheme would
be attractive since television series are made at a loss for the first
several seasons until the production company accumulates enough
episodes to sell a syndication package. DVD lowers that risk by
allowing producers to sell the series one season at a time and even to
package and sell unaired episodes (as occurred with Firefly). Selling directly to the consumer would allow producers to recoup their costs even earlier in the production cycle. If you sell access to each episode at roughly $2 a pop and assume that the average television episode costs 1 million to produce and half a million to distribute (a ballpark figure), then you could recoup your costs and make a profit with a few million viewers, far short of the Nielsen numbers you would need to stay on network television. Of course, such numbers would not allow you the revenue of a hit network show, but they might be much closer to a sure thing — especially in the case of a series like Global Frequency which had “cult” written all over it. After all, most network shows get canceled before the end of their first season and thus never make money for their producers.
People in the entertainment industry are talking a lot these days about what Wired reporter Chris Anderson calls “The Long Tail.” Anderson argues that as distribution costs lower, as companies can keep more and more backlist titles in circulation, and as niche communities can use the web to mobilize around titles which satisfy their particular interests, then the greatest profit will be made by those companies which generate the most diverse content and keep it available at the most reasonable prices. If Anderson is right, then niche-content stands a much better chance of turning a profit than ever before. If you were offered a package of episodes of a televison series with an interesting concept by a reliable group of creators, would you take a chance on including it on your next Netflix order? I know I would.
Imagine a subscription based model where viewers commit to pay a monthly fee to watch a season of episodes delivered into their homes via broadband. A pilot could be produced to test the waters and if the response looks positive, they could sell subscription which company had gotten enough subscribers to defer the initial production costs. Early subscribers would get a package price, others would pay more on a pay per view would cover the next phase of production. Others could buy access to individual episodes once the basis. Distribution could be on a dvd mailed directly to your home or via streaming media.
Keep in mind that when you use the web as your distribution channel, your market goes global. How many Americans would have paid to see the latest episodes of the new Doctor Who series, for example? And how many fans in Asia or Australia might pay to see episodes of American series as they aired rather than waiting for them in syndication?? Anime fans world wide already go through contorted means to get access to the latest Japanese series.
The first signs of such a system emerging will come when networks offer reruns on demand, a plan which would be relatively low cost and high yield in today’s media markets. Indeed, BBC Director General Mark Thompson announced a few weeks ago that starting next year, all BBC-aired programs (150 hours worth) will be available for download off the web for up to a week after their broadcast date. What they are calling MyBBCPlayer, is part of a larger vision for the future of British television announced by Ashley Highfield, Director of BBC New Media & Technology, in October 2003: “Future TV may be unrecognizable from today, defined not just by linear TV channels, packaged and scheduled by television executives, but instead will resemble more of a kaleidoscope, thousands of streams of content, some indistinguishable as actual channels. These streams will mix together broadcasters’ content and programs, and our viewer’s contributions. At the simplest level — audiences will want to organize and re-organize content the way they want it. They’ll add comments to our programs, vote on them, and generally mess about with them. But at another level, audiences will want to create these streams of video themselves from scratch, with or without our help.”
BBC Director Mark Thompson
The BBC as a state-sponsored broadcaster is obviously in a good position to take some risks here. Yet, one can imagine similar services supporting distribution of media content from many other parts of the world or from independent and alternative media producers. Web-based services like Netflix are already broadening the circulation of foreign films, independent movies, and documentaries. As this system takes shape, one can imagine original content start to emerge until in the end, the primary reason that a producer would need a network would be to initially publicize the pilot. And here’s where fans might enter the picture.
In such a world, the fans will play an important role as niche marketers, helping to spread word about compelling new content, indexing and meta-tagging key moments in the series so that new viewers can get up to speed to central plot developments. The BBC has already announced a contest to encourage consumers and interest groups to develop their own alternative program guides using BBC programme meta-data. As they move more content on line, one can imagine bloggers making links directly to relevant segments in BBC programs. People are already experimenting with using closed captions as a means to index television content and Yahoo has recently opened a lab focused on making streaming media more searchable. All of that will make it easier for fan communities to share the love.
In fact, if such programs were successful, producers could begin offering funds back to active fans if they direct sufficient traffic to their sites, much the way Amazon’s Associates program rewards webmasters who promote specific books through their sites and link to the online retailer. There would be even greater incentives for producers to actively court key opinion leaders within the fan community since they could make or break a new series.
Ok, I can hear some of the other columnists reminding us of the blue sky promises of diversity and plentitude which surrounded other technological innovations. Technological innovations may hold potentials for change but social, cultural, economic, and legal factors also help determine what kinds of media change actually occur.
It’s time to wake back up and see what has happened to Global Frequency. Was the WB delighted to discover that they still had the right of first refusal on a series which was already generating a cult following before it even reached the air? Were they willing to take some baby steps towards the viewer-supported model I have outlined above?
Of course not! They did the same saber-rattling they have been doing ever since they woke up one morning and found Napster on their kids’s computers. As one network executive told Hotwired, “Whether the pilot was picked up or not, it is still the property of Warner Bros. Entertainment and we take the protection of all of our intellectual property seriously…. While Warner Bros. Entertainment values feedback from consumers, copyright infringement is not a productive way to try to influence a corporate decision.” A few weeks later, Warren Ellis announced via his blog, “It’s my current understanding that the bittorrenting of Global Frequency has rendered it as dead as dead can get as a TV series. It seems that people in high places did not take kindly to the leak.” For the moment, the WB is more interested in policing its intellectual property than finding out what people want to watch.
Oh well — It was a nice dream while it lasted.
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