Forget The Apprentice. A ‘reality TV’ show where you have no say, and where you can only watch as Sir Alan Sugar does all the hiring and firing? That is so last decade. Forget, too, quaint programmes such as The X Factor, where you pick the contestants you like and the ones you don’t — a format that’s been kicking around since Eurovision.
No, imagine if your power as a viewer extended way beyond deciding which participant stays and which goes: instead, you get to choose whether an entire TV series deserves to be born. ‘Out!’ you can say after watching a single episode of a wannabe series, and finding it wanting. ‘Cut! Next!’ Or, if you like a particular pilot episode, you could decree: ‘Fabulous. Now make a season’s worth and air it on the network. And make it snappy.’
OK, I exaggerate. In reality your role won’t be that glamorous. But something very much like that is happening in the world of TV. LoveFilm, the online rental service, has put up 14 pilot episodes on its website: viewers can watch these for free (you need to log in, but don’t have to subscribe) and say whether any of them deserves life as a fully fledged series.
There's another twist: these episodes were directly uploaded by their screenwriters on to the website of Amazon Studios, the film unit of Amazon, which owns LoveFilm. Amazon Studios buys the screenplays it finds promising, then fleshes them out into half-hour episodes. This does away with the traditional role of Hollywood suits choosing which projects to invest in. It’s also LoveFilm’s riposte to Netflix’s House of Cards extravaganza, which saw the rival film service plonk 13 episodes of its critically acclaimed series online, all at once.
Are LoveFilm’s pilots any good? Of the 14, eight are sitcoms and six are children’s series. Many are mediocre, several are dire, but one or two could have a longish destiny. Let’s put it this way — even the worst of them aren’t any worse than BBC2’s appalling new ‘comedy’ The Wright Way, of which the British public will have to endure six episodes, plus the knowledge they’ve paid for the torture through their TV licence fee.
LoveFilm’s trial sitcoms include Onion News Empire, about four interns at a ‘desperate CNN-like’ broadcaster (pretty good); Alpha House, featuring a group of loser US senators who share a home, starring John Goodman with a cameo by Bill Murray (serviceable); Beta, about Silicon Valley geeks (not bad) and Browsers, a ‘musical comedy’ set in a Huffington Post-type magazine (yuks).
One drawback with this kind of grassroots, groupthink creativity is that certain TV series — Seinfeld, for instance — can bubble away in relative anonymity before they become hugely popular. Cutting off potential shows before they’ve had time to blossom is pretty harsh. Another downside is that TV ideas harvested from the internet tend to focus — surprise, surprise — on the internet. Beta, Browsers, Onion News Empire — all are set in the nerdy-trendy world of IT. For a venture meant to cast its net as wide as possible, LoveFilm’s trial TV has a claustrophobic air. It’s the internet being self-regarding in every sense of the word.
The benefits are clear: if you’re an aspiring screenwriter, you can put your work online and see what feedback it gets. You stand to make good money — Amazon Studios will pay $55,000 for rights to a TV script, $200,000 for a movie screenplay. Amazon in turn saves cash by bypassing the Hollywood suits and also by avoiding producingserial stinkers (Netflix took a $100 million gamble with 26 episodes of House of Cards).
The try-out telly concept raises all sorts of questions. The transfer to a Web platform puts in perspective the conventions of TV-land — why, for example, need a programme be either 30 minutes or an hour? How come we still have ‘seasons’ — why can’t episodes run through the year — or fortnightly, or just whenever they’re ready? Will we see the birth of new genres (zombie sci-fi, situation tragedies) or perhaps the blurring of genre distinctions altogether? If viewers’ comments are eventually welcomed from all over the world, TV shows may morph, becoming less location- or culture-specific.
It’ll be interesting to see if any ‘crowd-sourced’ LoveFilm series becomes a hit. One thing that may put the public off is precisely the fact that the public was so involved in the first place. People prefer some distance from any show they’re watching. They don’t want to know all the nuts and bolts of its making; that destroys the magic.
Ten years ago, people were lamenting TV’s demise. But it could be that what was regarded as its biggest threat — the internet — becomes its saviour. Perhaps TV isn’t dying, but just switching channels.