NEARLY A DECADE AGO I lamented ABC’s cancellation of “My So-Called Life,” a brilliant family drama starring a young actress named Claire Danes. What would happen, I wondered, if the network could entice a couple million of the show’s fiercely loyal fans to pay just $1 a week to keep it around?
Last week, CBS presented research regarding the viability of video-on-demand, suggesting it’s an idea whose time just might have come. A twinge of deja vu, in fact, went along with hearing CBS exec veepee of research and planning David Poltrack discuss people’s stated openness to part with a buck to see favorite programs, realizing the treasure trove of possibilities that might yield.
Resistance to video-on-demand — and the whole notion of paying for television — has slowly eroded with each innovation. Cable eliminated the concept of TV being free. Then VCRs and digital video recorders such as TiVo established and improved upon the time-shifting model, allowing viewers to watch what they want when they want it, provided that they’ll pay for the privilege.
A more recent wave has involved surprisingly vigorous DVD sales of television shows. Busy, commitment-phobic types bypass Fox’s “24” on the network and ante up for the DVD, finishing a day in the program’s life in roughly 17 hours minus commercials. Similarly, non-HBO subscribers can get their fix of “The Sopranos” and copies of Comedy Central’s “Chappelle’s Show” fly off video shelves.
Still, the true power of this phenomenon has yet to be fully harnessed, either in its ability to shake existing financing and scheduling models or its potential to sustain programs with niche audiences. Enough buyers could help underwrite a modern teen drama such as ABC’s low-rated “Life As We Know It,” for example, or a cult confection such as “Farscape,” assuming enough sci-fi fanatics have their wallets set on “pay.”
For years, the most pressing issue facing television was summed up by a past NATPE convention panel titled, “Who’s Going to Pay for This?” As the number of channels received by an average home climbed to 100, declining ratings for any one network have made it increasingly difficult to support expensive productions.
This harsh equation has fostered all sorts of bothersome trends, beginning with cramming advertising into every nook and cranny of some programs. The depths of this practice were illustrated by a Wall Street Journal piece documenting how the daytime soap “All My Children” shoehorned Wal-Mart into the dialogue to plug the retailer’s perfume.
VOD, by contrast, offers a cleaner method of manufacturing revenue by asking viewers to contribute directly. It also has the advantage of being a less insidious (or, at the very least, less awkward) method of wringing extra money out of a show than letting advertisers influence content through “product integration.”
The greatest promise of VOD from a creative perspective, however, isn’t in padding the coffers of such hits as “CSI” or “Desperate Housewives” as much as providing succor to fragile gems otherwise destined to wind up as ratings roadkill.
Inevitably, each year finds programmers dumping series that enjoy small but obsessive audiences. Networks reel these people in, get them hooked and then, in essence, disappoint them by withdrawing their product because the few million people tuning in can’t generate enough ad dollars.
But charge those people $1 each, and suddenly the formula begins to change.
“The networks are the only ones that can build the kind of demand for the programming people will pay for,” Poltrack said in presenting his data — self-servingly, perhaps, but accurately.
“My So-Called Life” managed to produce just 19 episodes before ABC pulled the plug in 1995, and those hours continue to play, currently repeating on cable’s Noggin. Ironically, “Life As We Know It” occupies the same timeslot as that show faces its own Nielsen mortality.
True VOD is still more theory than reality, and what people tell researchers doesn’t always translate to actual behavior. Nevertheless, there’s reason to hope that once the industry and public embrace this technology, brilliant and canceled won’t necessarily go hand in hand, and maybe the next “Life” won’t be extinguished prematurely.