"Don't pitch inside. Audiences don't care about the industry." So one screenwriter recently cautioned me about proposing a network series. With police procedurals, franchises and reality contests dominating prime time, this wisdom makes some sense.
Yet program schedules are loaded with shows-about-the-business. This genre includes prestige serials like HBO's "Entourage" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Aaron Sorkin's upcoming "Studio 60" and Steven Spielberg's auteurs-in-the-making "On the Lot."
Unlike less Emmy-worthy fare ("Next Action Star," for example), "Entourage" rolls through its third season as a critical hit, in part, because HBO engineered the series as fan-driven and spun it as "cult TV." But why does "Entourage" work on HBO, when so many reality shows about the biz have tanked on broadcast or basic cable networks? One of the keys to the cult TV kingdom lies in lots of opportunities for audience involvement. Cult TV cannot be made; it must be discovered. Only fans who feel they have discovered a trend can produce the word of mouth necessary to build cult status. Hard-sell advertising has the opposite effect, showing corporations desperate to hype programming duds.
HBO strikes a different pose when it grants fans an interactive job "interview" with "Entourage's" manic agent. Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) taunts website "applicants": "What makes you so special? What can you do for me?" His contempt pulls fans into the fiction's arc, even as it lays bare the show's tech-savvy marketing scheme.
Finding an out-of-the-way hit-in-the-making allows fans to buy into a new phenomenon. Forwarding this find to friends and their friends, through a cascade of e-mails and blogs, creates buzz. Marketers claim this "viral" process works only if the "discovery" spotlights the finder's identity more than the show itself. This kind of personal investment, or "under-the-radar" marketing, works especially well in premium cable. There, viewers prepay for production costs regardless of a show's initial popularity. As a result, HBO can patiently allow costly "quality" series to find their audiences over two or three years. Broadcast networks typically hit the kill switch in a matter of weeks and months.
"Entourage" creators Doug Ellin and Mark Wahlberg pitched the series as a realistic look "inside" the biz, yet the show also depicts fans trying to contact and navigate it. By collapsing traditional distinctions between audiences and Hollywood, "Entourage" functions as a user's guide to making it in showbiz and a Cliffs Notes manual for fan communities.
The show underscores the outsider, working-class origins of Turtle, Eric, Vince and Drama. They alternately stand gaga-eyed or jaded in the face of celebrities, as fans would. They learn the ropes and traps of public relations, from inside and outside. They continually venture into and out of the fame bubble. Each episode shows the posse pressing the flesh with fans, gawkers, the unemployed and sundry wannabes.
In these ways, "Entourage" dramatizes the porous borderlands of the business, not its inaccessible centers. More than dramatic premise, teaching fans to travel to and from those centers is good business. The many multimedia sites where fans interface with "Entourage" show how fan activities drive it. As a cultural road map, "Entourage" front-loads useful information for fans and aspirants alike on managing, agenting, pitching, packaging, casting, marketing and distribution. It also provides a handy lexicon of employee rhetoric needed to work a room and survive inside or outside of the business: acting out, hooking up, networking, negotiating, intimidating, and conspicuous faking-it-until-you-make-it consumption. Celebrity cameos -- James Cameron, Jessica Alba, Val Kilmer, Gary Busey -- gives "Entourage" a self-consciousness that's familiar to readers of Entertainment Weekly or viewers of "Access Hollywood." Mirroring "Entourage's" "Celebrity-Sighting" fan chat-forum on HBO's website, the real "work" of the underemployed posse making it in Hollywood depends, apparently, on the ability to decipher the celebrity code (who matters, who doesn't).
The series' big reveal? The posse likes viewers; viewers like the posse; viewers are the posse. "Entourage's" fiction lays out these lessons. HBO's website drives home the same points explicitly. If these road maps are too vague, HBO provides material assistance to help fans become the series. HBO's MyEntourage contest on MySpace. com invites users to round-up their own Web-based "posses" and persuade others to link to it. HBO plans to strip mine MySpace to select finalists, and MySpace members will vote in the best new entourage. By bringing the winning gang to Hollywood for "Entourage"-like "paparazzi treatment," HBO further blurs distinctions between star and fan. See "Entourage." Be "Entourage."
By creating buzz about a series depicting the creation of buzz, HBO's self-portrait shows that Hollywood's real work is not production, but rather spin and personal branding. Such things now arguably rule the overlapping worlds of both Hollywood and fans. "Pitching inside" may not impress network broadcasters. But it works exceptionally well in HBO's fan-driven "Entourage," where the show's form mirrors its marketing.
John T. Caldwell is a professor of film and television at UCLA, and the author of "Televisuality" and the forthcoming "Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity in Film and Television."\o7