Here is our first installment of “TV Is Dead, Long Live TV,” an ongoing series on the life and death of linear television.
What is “linear television” you ask? Read on . . .
At 10 a.m. on September 1, I joined a room of about 100 for the start of “Jane Espenson and her ‘Husbands‘” panel at DragonCon in Atlanta. As the panel went on, more fans of the web series filtered in, bringing the final seat count for this unadvertised web show to 150 cheering, clapping, laughing, and blushing fans.
For those not familiar with the online comic soap opera, Husbands originated with a script written by Brad Bell, who co-stars in the series with Sean Hemeon. Centered around a classic situation comedy premise—the accidental drunk Las Vegas wedding—the two main characters exploit the new comic twists presented to the Vegas wedding trope by being a same sex couple. The first season of Husbands achieved enough fan popularity that the second season was funded in part by fan funding through Kickstarter. A few in the DragonCon audience had with them special DVDs that were Kickstarter exclusives, ready for autographing.
Although the fan squee was infectious, and I did enjoy the sneak preview episode, I was not at the panel to celebrate Husbands fandom. I was there to ask Jane Espenson, who has brought fans of Buffy, Torchwood, Battlestar Galactica, and so many more hours of pure television enjoyment, what she thought about the life and death of linear TV.
“What’s linear TV?” she asked me back during the panel Q&A.
Linear TV is old-style appointment television, television that only moves forward in time, I explained. “Could you tell us how you feel about the life and death of linear television, now that you’re writing and helping to produce a web-only show?”
Espenson was excited, and talked for about three minutes, and her stars chimed in. “I think you’re missing something when you take out the commercial breaks,” she said. “That experience of knowing you have only four minutes to run to the bathroom, run to the refrigerator, and get back in front of the TV before Mork and Mindy starts again. There was also that community experience, of going to school the next day and talking to your friends about what you had just watched. If you missed the TV, you would miss out on conversation.”
“I don’t always like watching TV alone,” said Sean Hemeon. “Did anyone see the last episode of Breaking Bad? I needed someone to hold me after that!”
Brad Bell pointed out that with Twitter, in some ways fans were even more communal on first-watch dates of linear TV such as Breaking Bad or Doctor Who because they are able to live-tweet reactions to each other, connecting instantly on emotional reaction points rather than waiting the next day to discuss as Jane had mentioned. “Television now is both more connected for some fans and less for others. I have to stay off social media altogether if I miss my important shows. So I would say linear TV still works for really compelling shows like Breaking Bad or True Blood.”
Bell’s comment rings true: For the moment, content is still king in television land. Web series such as Husbands and The Guild are successful because they elicit a strong fan response, just like Breaking Bad or True Blood, if on a smaller scale. Strong fan response for Husbands has resulted in strong fan service: Espenson and Bell announced that Dark Horse would be soon offering a line of Husbands comic books, where the characters would experience a different universe in each issue, including an issue with an Archie-like premise. The second season of the show will include guest appearances by Felicia Day, Amber Benson, Tricia Helfer, Jon Cryer, John Hodgman, and many more—not to mention a regular recurring role by Joss Whedon.
That television stars such as Tricia Helfer would appear on a web series at all is one of the reasons I’ve started asking about the life and death of linear television at every conference I attend. I work in a new and obscure field called Digital Asset Management (DAM), one of the many tools that makes non-linear TV possible. Although one could argue that non-linear television watching started the minute soap fans began recording their favorite shows on VHS during the day to watch at night instead of prime-time TV, the real revolution in non-linear television—the one affecting how all the TV you’re watching now is made and marketed—occurred not in an executive’s board room, or in a writer’s room, or even with advertisers who pay for most of our beloved programming. The real non-linear television revolution started with fans, and I plan to write here on Popshifter once a month on how that revolution is now playing out. Now more than ever, the fans are in charge of television content, for better or worse.
There are, of course, growing pains in this shift to fan-ruled content; a recurring joke between Bell and Espenson at the DragonCon panel involved setting piles of money on fire. At the same time, fans in the audience wanted to know if there would be another Kickstarter drive to which they could contribute, and the cost difference between Husbands and network TV. Bell guessed that one episode of some network TV shows would eat an entire season of Husbands‘ budget. Still, it was evident by the enthusiasm in the room that web-based television has found its audience, and that funding will follow. If fans were allowed to vote via Kickstarter which network TV shows were continued and which were cancelled, how many situation comedies would have a fan base as passionate as Husbands? How many cable series?
To find out more about Husbands, check out the series website.