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.
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.
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 â€œclaymationâ€-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.
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.
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.