Zucker is wrong to be so smug

Predictably enough, NBC head honcho Jeff Zucker — the guy who previously ranted about how he’d rather have TV dollars than a few measly “digital pennies” — is crowing about how the massive viewership numbers for the Phelps… er, Olympic Games illustrate the dominance of network television and the relative irrelevance of the Interweb when it comes to video. After all, don’t the numbers show that 97 per cent of all Olympic content-watching took place on the tube? (Let’s leave aside the fact that watching anything online at NBC requires you to use Microsoft’s Silverlight, which only works on Windows). So the Internet, in other words, is nothing but a rounding error.

It’s natural enough that Zucker would put things in that perspective. After all, his salary comes from network television advertising, of which he just finished pulling in a billion dollars worth, so it’s understandable that he would be a little smug. But I think Jeff would be wise to remember one thing: the Olympics aren’t like regular television. They come along once every four years, and they are a massive social phenomenon unlike almost anything else that you can think of when it comes to TV viewing, as Cory Bergman at Lost Remote also points out.

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Is the Xbox the living-room winner?

Netflix and Microsoft announced a deal earlier today that allows Xbox 360 owners to download movies through their game consoles, which appears to be another step in the software company’s Trojan Horse approach to winning the living room/media-server wars. Will this give it an edge over Apple TV? MG Siegler seems to think so — he’s dropped his earlier championing of Roku’s media server box and is now calling Microsoft the winner. I’m not so sure just yet, however. Apple TV has its flaws, but so does the Xbox, as more than one person has pointed out (Chris Albrecht of NewTeeVee still likes the Roku server, and so does Webomatica).

I’ve been looking for a media-server solution for some time now. I’ve used a repurposed desktop PC that I hooked up to the TV, and I bought a MediaGate audio/video server (essentially an external hard drive with audio and video output jacks) which unfortunately isn’t working at the moment, and I’ve thought about buying an Apple TV or an Xbox or a Mac Mini — the latter being what my friend Rob Hyndman uses as a media player for all his movies, music, photos and so on.

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Filmaka: Like American Idol, but for TV

After more than a year, an independent Web-based movie venture called Filmaka is finally out of “beta.” The project has a couple of high-profile backers: indie film producer Deepak Nayar (responsible for movies such as Bend It Like Beckham and Buena Vista Social Club) and former Fox TV network honcho Sandy Grushow, who gave the world shows such as The OC, 24, The X-Files and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Grushow was also one of the network executives behind American Idol, and says Filmaka is based on a similar premise.

The founders say they want to find young or up-and-coming TV producers and filmmakers and in some cases to help them get major studio or network deals. The site already has a stable of more than 40 Web-based shows that it plans to run on networks such as YouTube, and has been conducting a kind of Web-based talent search with a contest that ends on April 28 — the winner, who will be chosen by a jury including David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Neil LaBute, will get as much as $3-million in financing to produce a movie for theatrical release.

That’s not the only contest Filmaka has been sponsoring either: the venture has also been running a sitcom competition with the cable channel FX, which will see the winner get $40,000 to shoot a 15 to 20-minute pilot for a potential FX television show, and the site has a documentary competition and a “branded entertainment” competition. Fox ran a similar kind of contest with MySpace, but didn’t turn either of the winners into a pilot. Jerry Zucker of NBC has spoken in the past about how expensive — and in many cases, ultimately futile — the current pilot-oriented TV production process can be.

More than 3,000 submissions have been received from aspiring filmmakers in more than 90 countries, and all of the submissions can be streamed from the Filmaka.com website. Visitors can choose to see entries by category (documentary, TV, feature etc.) or only the ones that have advanced to the jury level. Submissions include everything from animated shorts featuring “claymation”-style characters to sitcom-style comedies, and at least one Canadian filmmaker has several entries in different levels of the competition: Terry Miles has submitted a feature film called Lost and Found and also has an entry in the TV-pilot contest called The Secret Life of Amanda Jones, about a twentysomething college student who is also a vampire.

In an interview with Wired magazine, Grushow said that after 20 years in the network business, he wasn’t sure that any independent or unsigned filmmakers could produce content that he might be interested in, but he says his eyes were opened after Filmaka started the competition: “I was astonished at the quality level people were capable of creating … at such a low cost. To me, that represented a game-changer.” In Filmaka, he said, the partners hope create what amounts to “a studio with essentially no overhead.” And there’s already Canadian content.

The Internet? What channel is that on?

It’s hard to imagine an example that sums up the conflicting ambitions and tensions within the TV business better than the latest announcement about Gossip Girl, the show that appears on the CW network (co-owned by CBS and Warner Brothers). The news from the network is that fans will no longer be able to watch episodes online, as they have been since it started airing last fall. Instead, CW would like viewers of the show — which is all about a girl and her blog, and was effectively created in part to piggyback on the online habits of its target audience — to watch it only on television.

That’s ironic enough, of course — a show that’s all about how young people are turning to the Web and social media, but you can’t watch it online. The reasoning behind the decision is even more illuminating, however: in effect, the network is saying that the show has become too popular with fans online, and they would like to shift some of those eyeballs to the tube instead. Why? Because that’s where the advertisers are. Advertising on TV still brings in far more revenue per viewer than online, and CW needs to build up the former at the expense of the latter.

In reality, of course, the network may end up irritating the core group of viewers — many of whom enjoy the freedom of watching a stream online whenever they want — and the show could go down the drain regardless.

Jeff Zucker: All of our TV pilots suck

Jeff Zucker, CEO of NBC Universal, did the opening keynote at the National Association of Television Program Executives in Las Vegas and talked about how — surprise, surprise — the industry is “under pressure.” I’ll bet that got some big laughs. It’s probably also not that surprising that he didn’t spend much time talking about the writers’ strike and its effect on the industry, although he did drop in that old line about “trading analog dollars for digital pennies,” just for good measure.

The part that I found really striking, though, was near the end, where Zucker starts talking about how he thinks the system of making dozens of expensive — and ultimately futile — TV pilots is a dumb way to do things. And when you listen to the numbers involved, it’s hard not to agree: The big five networks spent $500-million last year on about 80 pilots, he says, of which only eight were brought back for a second season. And even among those, “none could be considered a big success.”

What kind of crazy business spends a half a billion dollars on 80 prototypes, and gets less than 10 per cent that actually work? That might make sense if you’re an experimental research lab — preferably government funded, so that your success rate doesn’t actually matter — but shouldn’t the mass-market TV business have a bit better idea of what it’s doing than that? I assume that every one of those was greenlighted by someone who hoped they would get a monster hit like CSI or Law & Order, and then they could afford to write off all the other losers.

If I were a TV executive, I would put down the crack pipe or whatever they’re smoking over there and put some small amounts of money into a few Webisodes, or maybe look around at what’s catching the eye of my target market at FunnyorDie.com or Break.com or places like that. Finance some things on the cheap and then turn them into something when they take off — flushing billions of dollars down the drain on pilots in hope that you’ll magically hit the CSI jackpot is insane.