Originally posted in November 2007 as “Internet TV Won’t Make Money If It Sucks” over at TV With MeeVee.
Everybody’s been talking about the possibility of new shows getting started online instead of on TV, but few shows produced specifically for online delivery have had much success. That’s mostly because they suck. In general, online shows tend to be under 10 minutes per episode, but offer way less than half the entertainment of a 22-minute "full-length" show.
The MySpace TV show "Quarterlife" is a perfect example. It’s produced by the team behind successes like "Thirtysomething," "My So-Called Life" and "Once And Again," so you know there’s actual talent back there. But they don’t seem to be trying. I’m not the only one who thinks so- the New York Times agrees with me.
The show follows six artists in their twenties as they try to cope with the fact that earning a living involves compromise and hard work, that their talents are not immediately recognized and celebrated, and that employers aren’t as willing to give them a break as their college professors were. Above all, it’s about blogging and all the different ways it can get you into trouble.
The problem isn’t just that "Quarterlife" is based on the concept of the "quarterlife crisis," which just might be the most irritating solipsism since the "quirkyalones" decided to start hanging out together. It’s not just that the show spends a lot of time pondering the way the characters have no privacy, as though "everybody is up in everyone else’s business" hadn’t been a sitcom setting for the past 50 years. Note to TV producers: The wacky neighbor doesn’t get funnier if he has a webcam. It’s that the characters aren’t fundamentally interesting people. JenniCam was a cool concept, but it wasn’t interesting when Jenni wasn’t doing something worth watching.
A good show is good no matter what the format, but "Quarterlife" is basically a second-rate show trying to claim that being online is some kind of an advantage. It’s not. It’s a sign of weakness.
The Hollywood Reporter points out that "Quarterlife" was originally developed three years ago as a pilot for ABC but got rejected, so the creators took it online as a backup. Now the word is that if the WGA strike drags on into February, we might be seeing "Quarterlife" hauled up from the bench. In other words, it’s a second-rate show and it’ll get on TV if the networks are desperate. Why would anyone, online or off, want to watch that?
The reason online shows are almost never as good or as popular as televised shows is the same reason straight-to-video movies and print-on-demand books tend to suck. The things most likely to grab the audience get put into the big leagues pretty quickly. Of course, there are exceptions for niche audiences: The best new animators end up online first, just like skateboard and horror films go straight to DVD and technical publications with small runs do print on demand.
But if you’re a well-known producer making a TV show aimed at a mainstream TV audience and you can’t get it on TV, don’t go online. Go back to the drawing board.