How do we value television?
It depends who you ask. Ask advertisers, and they’ll talk CPMs and ROI. Ask network executives, they’ll talk ratings. Ask fans, they’ll rave about their favorite shows or genres. Ask producers, they’ll assess the craft of storytelling.
What connects these stakeholders? Over the past year I’ve come to think distribution is key to understanding how stakeholders value television and its series. Distributors — networks, on cable or the Internet — organize productions, their stories, sponsors and audiences. Broadcast networks have the most value: they release the most shows and still get the biggest (Nielsen-measured) audiences. Cable networks raise their cachet by releasing fewer programs with higher production value, either in art (Louie) or cost (Game of Thrones).
What critics and scholars have been missing about TV value is the independent market, which, today, is largely on the more open distribution system of the Internet. In developing my book on the indie TV market, I’ve been trying to assess the value of web series in the expanding television marketplace.
How does an open distribution system affect the value of television? Most people think it degrades it: web series are cheap and mostly bad, they might say. But of course, most TV shows are bad. Broadcast networks order full seasons from only a few pilots, and most of those get cancelled anyway. Not every cable show is Treme or Breaking Bad. And I’m not even talking about the torrent of reality television filling up most network schedules these days.
In a series of articles for Flow and Indiewire, I’ve spent the past year arguing the indie TV market produces just as much value, and, in some cases, more, than legacy television.
I started this journey by evaluating the strength of the indie TV market through the series I enjoyed watching. For Indiwire I listed the series I found most inspiring TV fans might have missed. I was struck by the diversity of those stories, and the range of approaches to character and narrative within them.
As Netflix’s House of Cards and Arrested Development premiered, I thought it was important to question the value of post-network television: are users in control of the new television environment when distributors only green light series from a small pool of producers? In an innovative move, Netflix is integrating users into series development, but as data, not patrons and fans. Was Netflix listening to fans when it gave Marvel/Disney four series based on characters the studio feels aren’t valuable enough for film (unsurprising, one of those characters is a woman, another is black)? Even as Marissa Tancharoen and Joss Whedon’s Marvel series for ABC is slipping in the ratings (it finally hit the floor last week)?
Once I started asking, I started to notice the limits of the post-network TV market. Even though we have more channels — from ABC to FX to Netflix — more of the same kinds of people are supplying original series. In my first column for Flow this summer, “Zombies Beat Humans on Television,” I argue the tightening of the labor market in TV is limiting the narrative range of high-value series like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. At a time when TV stories are supposed to support complex serial storytelling, the leaders of this trend — cable dramas — are only occasionally able to broaden their narratives to include diverse perspectives from characters of color.
In my next column, “The Black TV Crisis and the Next Generation,” I tackled why the labor market is so tight. Conglomerates own more networks today than they used to, in order to capture fragmenting audiences. This means network executives are laser-focused on capturing the largest, most profitable niches, as opposed to telling the most interesting stories to attract diverse audiences. This has had a disastrous affect on black producers, who are increasingly lost among conglomerates. Very few have benefitted from the shift. In fact, only Tyler Perry, Mara Brock and Salim Akil have multiple shows on television, and, in my opinion, they pale in comparison — both in art and audience size — to first generation of black programming in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A new generation of storytellers, many of whom, like Issa Rae and Lena Waithe, gained notoriety through web series, could buck the trend, but will network executives give them a chance?
Concentration among TV distributors limits choices for fans and brands, the power of producers and the range of stories they can tell. In my last Flow column ”Open TV: Rescue Pilots from Development Hell” I break down why the programs developed by networks tend to be so mediocre and unsatisfying, despite audience’s seeming willingness to try out new kinds of programs and advertisers looking for niche markets. The problem lies in how networks develop new shows. ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. exemplifies the problem: Disney owns Marvel (and its vast character library) and ABC. Developing in-house focuses value on conglomerate bottom-lines, lowering Disney’s costs, raising the value of its intellectual property, but also decreasing risk-taking. Lost are viewers (consumers), brands (financiers) and producers (labor). On broadcast and cable television, development cannot fully account for what the market wants. The TV market is open, but too much power is in too few hands.
Does indie TV make up for the innovation deficit in storytelling and production? Throughout the year I’ve been arguing it does, in Indiewire and on this site in the Indie TV Innovation series featuring essays from groundbreaking and Emmy-winning producers. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (Emmy approved) proved again how fans will finance stories that engage them across media platforms. Web series production also gives creators a foothold into the broader industry, and independent producers have used the first seasons of their shows to acquire investors for first features and crowdfund first seasons of new shows, all of which are quitebold in narrative: I profiled Adam Goldman, whose new show, Whatever this is, is a sharp drama about media workers, and Desiree Akhavan, whose comedy, Appropriate Behavior, follows the foibles of a queer Iranian reeling from break-up.
Like Whatever this is, many web series show perspectives on TV and film production we rarely see: from the bottom-up. Several great shows explore how not to make in Hollywood, because that’s what most indie TV creators are doing. Series like The Actress and My Gimpy Life effectively dramatize how our creative economy affects those who don’t look like the industry’s power players.
It’s no surprise many of these shows are by and about women. Years after Felicia Day proved with The Guild that geeks would watch a gamer sitcom, the indie market continues to show how rich our TV landscape could be if more women were creating and running shows. In Indiewire I took a look at a dozen terrific series led by women.
But, you might say, Netflix has a ground-breaking show by and about women, Orange Is The New Black, one of the most diverse TV series ever created. True, but this summer saw a host of strong indie series by and about lesbians, including F t0 7th and Little Horribles, which, unlike the sensational Orange, probe everyday comedic situations of their protagonists. And if you crave sensationalism, check out The 3 Bits, a high-concept indie — with three separate story lines, in three separate genres, one of which is a thriller featuring a fabulous queer woman — currently raising $50,000 on Kickstarter for an ambitious first season.
“There’s a big pile of homogenous crap. We don’t want to add to it. We’re trying to do something totally different,” Max Freeman says in their campaign video.