Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Independent TV: A model

Since Blogspot ATE "Here it comes; here comes indie TV; it's a demon on wheels," I'm going to attempt to do a better post on the same subject.

In general, when we look at the history of an art form, we're viewing it in two different evolutions: the evolution in regards to narrative and the evolution in regards to how many people can practice that art form at any given time. True, the two original art forms, painting and music, were probably born out of ancient tribal experiences where anybody who could pound was given a drum, but when I talk about art, I'm talking about modern ideas of it. (And I'll talk more about how art forms evolve along with narrative and eventually evolve away from that at a later date.)

Look, for example, at literature. Literature was "born," for lack of a better word, around ancient campfires where storytellers (often roving storytellers) told their stories to rapt audiences. Some of these stories were written down, but because of how few people could read and write, the number of stories that were written down was limited.

Gradually, however, more and more people became literate, and literature spread from religious texts and other essays into realms like journalism, novels, short-form poems, etc. The Gutenberg press opened up literature to more people, as did requiring education for children. And the more people become literate, the more they will try their hand at writing more literature.

Now, if you know how to read, you could probably try your hand at writing a novel. Since the publishing houses still control the means of distribution, there's no guarantee that your novel will be seen by anyone other than your mom, but you can create your own personal work of art (and the advent of the Internet makes it easier for you to share your work if the corporate world has no interest in it). We're living, in essence, in a country where 95% of the people could try their hand at writing a novel.

This evolution, of course, took several thousand years. But as new art forms are introduced, these evolutions are speeding up. With the digital filmmaking revolution (cheap cameras and hard drive space will soon make it possible for anyone to make a film) coming soon, the world of film is going to become just as vibrant. It's going to be a lot easier to make your magnum opus. Where education held back the evolution of literature, money has always held back the evolution of filmmaking. In short, it's always been expensive to make a movie. In ten years or so, that will no longer be the case (especially if you've already got the camera).

It took American filmmaking 70-some years to reach its phase where voices outside of the established channels were able to produce work (for sake of argument, I'm saying the American indie film movement began in earnest with John Cassavetes, which is a simplification, but there you have it). Our youngest art form, interactive entertainment, is in the early years of independent work just 30 years after Pong. Clearly, things are speeding up.

What does this mean for television?

Television is unique in that it hasn't really HIT on that indie concept yet, even though it's long overdue. To be sure, things like The Simpsons have operated with little to no network control, but they're still funded by networks. In the history of television, I can think of very few true indies (FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is an exception -- the pilot was filmed for $200, then bought by FX, which spruced it up).

And yet, television is going to hit the digital filmmaking revolution right when film does because the tools of delivery are roughly the same. Indeed, it might be EASIER to make a 22-episode season of a sitcom as opposed to a 2-hour film, what with the limited number of sets, etc. And with the Internet becoming MORE prevalent in everyday life, there's going to be less of a need for a network to get you the show you want to watch. If you create a reasonably popular sitcom that you can film for $10,000 per episode (which is chump change) and you can get 25,000 people to download it for $1/episode, you're going to make a healthy profit.

But first we'll have to get USED to the idea of independent television.

As of right now, there's one independent TV festival (sponsored by TV Guide) and AOL is said to be interested in starting another, but neither of those festivals has garnered much attention. Cartoon Network's Adult Swim seems interested in scooping up programming from non-traditional sources, but never seems quite sure what to do with it.

And yet, the indie TV Pulp Fiction is probably out there. To discover it, we'll need to work within the existing constructs to create a new distribution system.

This is where the rich investor with a couple hundred million dollars comes in.

With a channel devoted to airing independently produced series (and series from other countries that American don't have access to), we could begin the long march to having a gamut of independent television. This arthouse channel, like the arthouse theaters and indie film companies in the 1980s, would nurture talent. The talent would then go on to the big time. Or something like that.

The current television model isn't broken, but it also doesn't exactly encourage innovation. Shows like Lost, 24 and The Sopranos are certainly not the norm. But opening up a traditionally difficult to break into format to new voices could be a way to subvert that system.

Since I am hoping to produce an independent pilot, I will talk some about my thoughts behind my project the next time we discuss this.

In the meantime, I invite you, once again, to read about the Axeman of New Orleans.

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