By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 8, 2007
Here's a lovely irony of the Hollywood writers' strike: In the name of winning a bigger share of revenue from the sale of TV shows over the Internet, TV writers could wind up driving viewers to the Web in search of original online video.
After a mere three days, the strike against producers is already having an impact in living rooms and dens. With no writers to supply topical jokes, late-night talk shows were the first to go into reruns. Comedy Central says the audience for repeats of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" is down a predictable 30 percent from the ratings for original episodes.
TV's most popular programs -- prime-time, scripted dramas and sitcoms such as "Desperate Housewives," "House" and "Two and a Half Men" -- remain safe for the near future, thanks to stockpiled scripts and episodes in the production pipeline. But if the strike extends into January and beyond, viewers might end up looking elsewhere for original entertainment, potentially giving Internet video producers the biggest traffic boost in their relatively short history.
Hundreds of short and cheaply produced video series populate the Web on sites that might not quite rank as household names -- Blip.TV, Heavy.com, Metacafe, FunnyOrDie.com, among others. A few better-known names, such as the satirical Onion.com, have extended their text franchises into original video productions as well; the Onion produces a "Daily Show"-like TV news satire.
A sure sign of the field's potential might be the recent entry of TV giants such as NBC, CBS, Microsoft and Turner Broadcasting, which have brought near-network quality to some of the Web series.
Turner's Super-Deluxe.com, for example, which offers dozens of original clips, features an original series called "Derek and Simon" that includes cameos by such familiar actors as former "Saturday Night Live" player Chris Kattan. MSN.com's comedic "Mr. Robinson's Driving School," meanwhile, stars Craig Robinson, who plays the warehouse employee on NBC's "The Office."
MySpace, the popular social networking site owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., recently debuted "Roommates," a reality series about four hot-but-not-too-bright young women sharing a beach house. In its first four days, the series, which consists of three-minute "webisodes," racked up 300,000 views. That's the kind of number that gets a show an instant cancellation notice on a TV network, but it's enough to sustain the series (which is sponsored by Ford) on the Internet.
MySpace next week will also beginning carrying "quarterlife," a new Web series about a group of young people dealing with their careers and relationships after college. The series has drawn considerable attention because it might be the most professionally polished project ever to appear as a Web-only series. Its creators are Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick -- the team that produced "thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life" for ABC -- and it will have network-caliber writers, directors and production crews. The show's pilot is based on a script that ABC turned down for a conventional broadcast series.
The most popular video clips on the Web, of course, tend to be those that have already aired on TV. NBC and Fox recently launched Hulu.com, a joint venture that will stream full-length repeats of such series as "Bones," "American Dad," "The Office" and "Friday Night Lights."
A prolonged strike, however, could handicap Hulu and other network-affiliated sites because new shows won't be coming onto the site.
The last writers' strike, which lasted for five months in 1988, cost the networks an estimated $500 million in revenue. When it was over, viewing never returned to pre-strike levels -- although it's difficult to determine whether those viewers disappeared because of the strike. That work stoppage came at a time when cable was starting to make significant inroads in urban and suburban households, and just after Nielsen Media Research had introduced its "people meters," which radically altered how TV audiences were measured.
And this time around? "There's really no way of telling how viewers will react" after the strike is settled, said Sherry Goldman, a spokeswoman for the Writers Guild of America, East, whose members help create some 30 network TV series, most based in New York.
During the strike, however, she has no doubts that fans will turn off network reruns: "I don't think the programs they're using to replace us will draw a very loyal fan base. Reality shows with C-list celebrities don't work that well at 11:30 at night."