After Hours

Ransom TV - A new hope, or the death of the new?


Five months ago, I wrote that sci-fi tech will kill science fiction TV, basically arguing that since you can't put a product plug for Pepsi in an episode of Battlestar Galactica,

combined with the fact that TiVo is going to kill the notion of

commercials, mainstream science fiction TV will be dead in 20 years. I

should probably amend that to new

science fiction TV will be dead, because video on demand will keep

existing copies of every kind of TV show--sci-fi or

otherwise--available for consumption from here to eternity. Some future

amalgamation of the video iPod and TV.com will see to that.


What I didn't forsee--and what makes me a poor futurist--is the death of the network television studio. Adam Sternbergh wrote this piece for New York

magazine, which suggests that on-demand services are going to cut out

the middle-man between TV consumers and producers. Imagine ransom TV,

wherein a writer/director/producer commits to create a movie or

television season based on a minimum order commitment from fans.


With enough preorders in place, the producer could create the show or

film without ever shopping it to a network or movie studio--the

underwriters who approve pilots and movies "on spec" in the hopes

they'll make their money back--sidestepping all the idiotic executive

interference Hollywood is known for and creating a true audience-centered

product. In the ransom scenario, the producer could just borrow against

his contracted preorders, create the show with a built-in profit

margin, and distribute it via DVD or download without ever involving a

network or studio.


The downside? The producer has to create buzz for a product that

doesn't exist (Sternbergh uses the example of a second season of Joss

Whedon's Firefly,

but that's a product continuation, not a

product launch), which could lead to some rather perverse

audience-courting tactics, and would tend to be a high bar to cross for

rookie creators. Moreover, an ever-dwindling cult of fanatical fans

could keep an icnreasingly cheapskate version of a show on the air long

after it's lost its mainstream appeal and artisitic integrity--imagine

a 17th season of The X-Files--so

long as as the reflexive preorders keep rolling in. Essentially, the

only people who could make ransom TV

work are already a part of the studio system, so it won't exactly

democratize the medium in the near term, and almost certainly won't

come to pass for aesthetic purposes. Still, if it brings me a

second season of Firefly, I'm not sure I care.

About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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