TV 101: Let's Make TV Like a Soccer League (Or: How To Make Trololo A Network Show!)
It's not that I don't love my friends and relatives, I'm just tired of being burned by subpar 'AFV' clips masquerading as the new hotness of internet memes. As I get older and my time becomes more precious, I really don't want suggestions from friends - what I want is qualified editors making decisions for me.
The problem is that as media further fractures and democratizes, it gets harder and harder to find the good stuff. Thus, the more a company helps me find the good stuff, the more I'm inclined to stay with that company.
To that end, I've got an idea that'll be win all around for everybody: the Big Four Networks should adopt a league system, just like soccer.
In the old days, there were two kinds of TV shows: Network and Local. On Network you had the biggest and best stars in the world, gigantic budgets, and actual writers. On Local you had Booberella and Ron Burgundy - fine for what they were, but decidedly not big time.
It was boring and stale, but it was also nice and neat. Two things came along and muddied the water:
1. Hundred of cable channels that all looked alike. All cable networks start with a definition in mind - Food or Comedy or Science Fiction or whatever - but as we've seen, they almost always channel drift away from their original stated purpose. As they chase the same ratings as the networks, they abandon any idea of maintaining a brand. What we wind up with are hundreds of cable channels with no real definition except that they exist and want you to pay attention to them.
2. Video on the internet. There are many problems with the internet, mostly involving pornography from Japan (and if you found this column by Googling "pornography from Japan", it's time for you to seek help, Kirk Cameron in 'Fireproof' style). The biggest problem for TV on the internet isn't piracy, like the networks believe, it's that there's no top-down editorial control that allows network-produced content to differentiate itself from the 25 kabillion other people pushing out videos every day.
When you add in the hundreds of cable networks and the infinite numbers of the internet to the traditional Network and Local designations, what you're left with is a giant soup of content. Now, you could argue that the lack of network control is a good thing. In fact, I believe it's required every bad blogger to write at least one column saying that - all you have to do is write: "Blah blah blah, Long Tail, blah blah blah, Paradigm Shift" and you've got yourself an easy thousand words.
There's a negative way to look at all this content, however - as noise. Loud, annoying noise. How the hell are you supposed to find good stuff when there's several lifetimes of content being created every few weeks?
Like it or not, editorial consent is still our best way of promoting the best content. And though the luster has been tarnished in recent years, the Big Four are still the gold standard - in the minds of most people, if you make it to Prime Time, you've made it.
So, here's what the Big Four can do to help retain (or even regain!) their luster and help content consumers like you and me in the process: create a league system.
Wait, don't stop reading. I'm absolutely serious. Not only could this work, it would solve a lot of the problems mentioned above.
Imagine if NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX took all of their cable and internet holdings and turned them into a four-tiered league system, not unlike the English Football League. It would like something like this:
The bottom rung. Internet only. The networks would use Hulu, CBS.com, YouTube, Crackle, MySpace, etc. to premier cheaply-produced new shows. This would be the dumping ground for every crazy idea that never got made at the network level. It's here where the Long Tail and word of mouth would bless or condemn a show - it's also here that viewership numbers are the easiest to collect and process. If a show gets a bunch of hits every week, it's time for promotion to...
Minor cable channels. Think also-rans and never-weres like Fox Reality or TruTV. They are renamed "CBS Division One" (except, you know, snappier) and their goal isn't to compete with the majors or to try to hew to a narrow network vision, they just exist to see if internet shows can make it to a wider audience. If they do, it's on...
Major cable channels. The Comedy Centrals or TNTs of the world. They already kind of look like AAA baseball anyway. If a show can succeed here, they get promoted to...
CBS, FOX, ABC, and (I guess) NBC. The majors. 8 PM to 11 PM (or 10 PM in the case of FOX) - 77 hours of television reserved for the cream of the crop.
You can't tell me you wouldn't love a system like this!
Imagine stumbling into fanhood for some minor internet show on Hulu.com. You tell all your friends about it and a few weeks later, you hear that it's being moved to Fox's minor league cable affiliate. Not only can you enjoy the show, you can root for it like your favorite player! Will it find a bigger audience and make it all the way to the big leagues? Or will it be a perpetual minor leaguer like Crash Davis?
Or how about this: DEMOTION. A show is good, but it just can't quite cut it in the majors. Instead of being canceled, it just gets sent down a division. It has a smaller budget, which means some changes to the show, but the lesser rating demands of a Division Two show means that it gets to continue existing. (Side benefit: Clay Aiken wouldn't have to organize anymore stupid stunts to save shows from cancellation).
Think about what this would have meant for 'Arrested Development' or 'Firefly' or 'The Sarah Connor Chronicles' or any number of the 516 quality shows that Fox killed before their time.
What I love about this idea is that we get the best of both worlds - we get the fire hose of content promised to us by cheap cameras and free distribution, but we also get to feel secure that when we turn on our TVs at 8 PM that what we're seeing is the absolute best TV the networks have to offer.
On top of that, we get a whole new way to talk about our favorite shows. Admit it, you would spend approximately 9,000 hours a month talking about shows being moved up or down the system.
And you know what? If this system existed, I might actually open those YouTube links I keep getting. The next network hit might be in there! Next on CBS, a new episode of 'Bulldog Humps Gus Johnson Announcing.'
Hey, it's better than 'Two and a Half Men'.
(Jay Black is a writer and comedian who really hopes you like this column. For more information about Jay or to catch one of his live shows, check out his website: www.jayblackcomedy.net).