The future of television
Last week, two “nobodies” released their own TV series. Backed by the world’s biggest peer-to-peer file-sharing conglomerate, the pilot is expected to be viewed by over a million people – more than network TV pilots can hope for. Is this the future of television?
Called Pioneer One, the double meaning in the title cannot be missed. The series is about a forgotten Soviet space mission that returns to Earth, bringing back more than just the past. According to the site, “It’s part political drama, part procedural drama, with a tinge of sci-fi,” and is based on factual events. The other thing it is, of course, is a pioneer into a new age of television distribution.
“One of the main challenges that independent content producers face today is not piracy, but finding ways to get their work noticed,” says P2P news site TorrentFreak.
“There’s only so much of that TV pie to go around, there’s only so much real estate on the networks,” co-creator Josh Bernard explains. “We would have to storm the gate just to get a meeting with somebody. Why would they pick a show from two nobodies outside their industry?”
So he and partner Bracey Smith created their pilot relying on donations and dedication from a cast and crew that believed in the dream. The dream is not only to produce a TV show, but also to create something that does not rely on the taste of bigwigs in an office around a conference table, but on the passion of the show’s fans, on its popularity.
This is a dream that the distribution channel, VODO, shares. VODO is a platform powered by BitTorrent, which uses peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing to release independent films and music, funded by donations. Founder Jamie King says he hopes to develop “an independent creation culture on P2P infrastructure”.
Pioneer One is distributed for free, but if you donate towards the creation of the next episode, you receive additional bonus features such as deleted scenes and commentary (features vary depending on how much you donate).
Pioneer to this level of P2P distribution it might be, but the series is certainly not the first to use the “pay what you think the show deserves” model.
The model was first used for music. The Smashing Pumpkins and Radioheadboth released albums online and encouraged fans to donate what they thought the tracks were worth. Radiohead’s manager, Brian Message, explained: “We realised that, by using the internet for the delivery of the album, we could reach 173 countries and it would cost us less than three cents a copy for distribution.”
It makes logical sense.
More recently, Joss Whedon, the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, came to similar conclusions to Bernard and Smith. During the writer’s strike in 2008, he decided to challenge the industry by creating a three-part movie release specifically for online.
“The idea was to make it on the fly, on the cheap – but to make it; to turn out a really thrilling, professionalish piece of entertainment specifically for the internet; to show how much could be done with very little, and show the world there is another way,” he said.
The movie, called Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,was a superhero spoof musical, and it became an instant success. The online episodes were available for free for a certain period and then DVDs were released with commentary for those who wished to support the initiative.
While others have created “webisodes” – series broadcast online – Dr Horrible proved that online does not necessarily mean amateur and was a giant step towards improving the reputation of series that are released for free.
End to what we know?
So does the future hold an end to television as we know it?
Yes and no. The big networks aren’t going to die any time soon. As with traditional publishers of books and editors of titles like the New York Times, people rely on the quality control of the television networks. They know what they see is probably going to be good.
There is, however, space for both. The television networks don’t need to compete with people like Bernard and Smith, and they don’t need to treat P2P networks like enemies. The technology exists for them to cut down their distribution costs radically, if they are only more open to the idea of free sharing. There is also the opportunity for them to tap into talent, have their shows reviewed before they accept them by putting pilots online, and to bring in public opinion and crowd-sourcing. Perhaps, one day, we will see this happening. Perhaps soon.