What’s the frequency, Warners?

Following up on my previous post about the internet and the future of television, there have been some interesting developments over the last couple of weeks, which may be the first birth pangs of a new direction in television distribution. Then again, it might just be the internet’s latest nine days wonder.

As anyone who’s watched Pulp Fiction knows, every year the US TV studios produce several pilot episodes of new shows. Some, like Fox Force Five, are deemed to be not good enough for TV and get quietly shelved and forgotten. Others make it as far as being broadcast and having further episodes commissioned, until the network realises that no one is watching it and kills it off. A few, a very few, get lucky, pick up an audience and go on to become regular features on your TV.

Last year, one of the pilots produced for the WB (Warner Brothers) network was called Global Frequency, based on the comic series by Warren Ellis (probably best known to some of you as the author of the Die Puny Humans blog) about a secretive organisation who clean up the mess the 20th Century left behind. Many observers felt it had a better than average chance of getting to be a series than others – it had an experienced team behind it, an attractive concept (in Hollwood terms, think of it as The X-Files meets Mission: Impossible) and already had the fans of the comic as the core of an audience.

However, the network passed on it and there the story would normally end, leaving Ellis fans to either speculate on the prospect of a TV series coming from his comic Planetary or note the references to Stormwatch and The Authority in the Justice League animated series. Global Frequency was dead, left to foster in the archive vaults of what-might-have-been. The pilot episode would remain unbroadcast, gradually drifting out of memory.

Until a few weeks ago when someone – and anyone who knows who that someone is isn’t telling – got hold of a copy of the pilot and placed it on the BitTorrent peer-to-peer file sharing network. Suddenly, people all over the world could see it, and they saw that it was good. Naturally, they had questions, chief amongst them being ‘So, why didn’t this get to be a series?’ to which Warner Brothers responded with a hearty chorus of umms, ahhs and ‘we’ll get back to you.’

The trouble is that this is completely uncharted territory for everyone – networks are used to campaigns to keep shows alive, and even to bring them back after they’re cancelled, but a groundswell of support for a programme that’s never been officially broadcast isn’t something they cover in Studio Mogul 101. Even the show’s producer, John Rogers, has been floored by the reaction, though after pulling his jaw up from the floor and making a few token admonitions of those bad, nasty, lawbreaking file sharers, he’s seen a chance to take the overwhelmingly positive response to the leak and use it to try and get the Global Frequency reactivated.

These are strange times for television networks. While the major networks in all countries, not just the US, are facing the threat of more competition from cable and satellite channels producing original programming of an increasingly higher quality, they’re also discovering many more ways to make money from their programmes. For instance, in the US, the Fox network recently recommissioned the cancelled animated series Family Guy because of the profit they were making from DVD sales of the series. While making money from selling advertising during broadcasts of shows will likely remain a network’s main source of income for the foreseeable future (though there are already exceptions to that rule, such as subscription channels and the BBC) the ability of programmes to generate income from other media and forms of transmission will change the nature of television.

Which brings us back to the point where the story of Global Frequency took off and a prediction. I’m confident that at some point within the next couple of years, a major TV production company (not just some independent producer trying to replicate the Global Frequency word-of-mouth buzz) will officially sanction the release of a programme onto a peer-to-peer distribution network. It’ll likely be a special episode of something, probably consisting of scenes that’d otherwise end up on the cutting-room floor, but it will be officially sanctioned, contain advertising (either in commercial breaks, product placement or on-screen graphics during the programme itself) and a large part of the global TV industry will eagerly anticipate the consequences.

Who knows? In ten years time when we’re told a programme starts on Thursday at 9pm, that may just mean the time when we can start downloading and sharing it.

  1. Katie said:

    Where I can see this revolutionising can be summed up in two words: Long. Tail. You can make more money from a lot of misses than from a few hits. Read the blog. Buy the book. Love it. Long. Tail.

  2. Justin said:

    In the meantime get out and buy the Global Frequency trade paperbacks.

    I’ve always thought of Ellis as a cultural magpie – content to strip popular culture of its goodies for his own ends but paying little back. Witness the insultingly tossed-off spin-offs from his Planetary series, the wildly hyped yet ultimately pretty-but-empty Ministry of Space, and his willfully adolescent and gratuitous Giger-eque Strange Kisses – he must have laughed himself sick the day the royalty cheques for those turkeys came in.

    And yet. Global Frequency and Planetary are emotionally engaging, intelligent and literate stories. GF is high concept and probably lends itself to translation on TV more than Planetary but the latter, I hope, will be remembered as the crown on Ellis’ somewhat patchy career. It’s his Catch-22.

  3. Monjo said:

    The future of TV in some regards is that everyone will have their own channel if they want one. But only a few channels will get a lot of viewers – and therefore the advertising and revenue.
    A bit like blogging.

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