TV Is Dead, Long Live TV: November 2, 2012

Published on November 2nd, 2012 in: Cartoons, The Internets, TV, TV Is Dead Long Live TV |

By Elizabeth Keathley

The latest in our ongoing series on the life and death of linear television, a.k.a. old-style appointment television, TV that only moves forward in time. For previous installments, go here.

space ghost at table
You always end up working for “the man” one way or the other.

The first article in this series highlighted how today’s fans are able to finance production of television content they would like to watch, bypassing traditional network executive control of programming. This article will show examples of how traditional television networks are capitalizing on fan-funded television, and embracing (or sometimes co-opting) content driven by audience rather than business.

This 1957 promo for The Adventures of Superman was made after ABC picked up the independent series. I can’t believe George Reeves wasn’t more injured in the making of this show.

Going outside traditional television channels to meet fan needs is as old as first-run syndicated shows. The Adventures of Superman, which catered to legions of comic book readers, was originally produced independently, then sold to local television stations starting in 1952. The show became so popular that ABC picked it up as part of their regular programming. History repeated itself this year when the web only series Annoying Orange made the jump to Cartoon Network, and signed on with Henson Independent Properties to help with business matters. Since The Jim Henson Company handled the most successful independent show of the 1970s, The Muppet Show, taking part in the distribution of web series is a natural extension of their brand.

Annoying Orange had merchandise, a video game, and an Emmy before it ever aired on traditional linear television.

This model of independently produced shows finding success in syndication and then being bought by the networks has previously been unusual due to the cost of production. With frequent technological innovation and expensive equipment, the technical expertise needed to produce watchable television was once much more rare than it is today. Until the late 1980s, the majority of shows successful outside of the regular network system tended to be single-set, low-cost affairs such as interview/talk shows, game shows, and dance/music shows. This type of television depended on unpaid talent—interview subjects, contestants, and dancing teens—to fill the screen.

Every city had a station that carried the syndicated Soul Train, but in select cities you might also have been lucky enough to catch James Brown’s Future Shock.

The big break for fandom-driven television came in 1987, when Star Trek rebooted outside network bounds and Friday the 13th: The Series came on the syndication market. Gene Roddenberry had his first Star Trek series cancelled by NBC, and didn’t want to deal with cancellation threats again. Frank Mancuso Jr., who had produced all the Friday the 13th film sequels, wanted to get into television, and both Star Trek and Friday the 13th were financed by Paramount Studios. Fans were happy to have science fiction and horror programming available in the era of Miami Vice and family sitcoms. The success of both programs lead to a golden age of genre shows in syndication.

“They were wise enough to know that Star Trek had an enormous fan base and market, but that going the traditional market route just wasn’t wise. I mean, you could argue that the original series failed at the network level.”
—Ron Moore, “Warping Through Star Trek: The Next Generation’s 25 Years With Ronald Moore,” Wired

The sad result of syndication success for fans was that it directly led to Paramount and other syndication producers underwriting their own network channels. Early Fox affiliates filled out their schedules with Paramount and Warner Brothers shows. Paramount and Warner Brothers got angry that they were essentially bankrolling a rival studio; and now, somehow, all those producers of genre and fan favorite programming look just like every other network.

Enter the web series, where everything old is new again. The Collective, producers of Annoying Orange, are now airing their content on Cartoon Network. In the next decade it may not be so; when the economic conditions are right, creators of popular web series will be able to launch their own network platform, or skip out on traditional TV forever. Here’s hoping that the round of new studios and networks remain true to their fandom roots, and don’t age into new versions of the same old thing.

Consider this: Hanna-Barbera once mass-produced cartoons for syndication. Turner networks bought the Hanna-Barbera company in 1991, both to fill out their network schedule with back catalog shows and to use the H-B studio to create new Cartoon Network content. So the syndicated cartoons begat a network that then must buy new syndicated cartoons in order to survive. It’s a beautiful circle of life in television.

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