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THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Network fear: the Net as a copilot

March 27, 2007|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

THE Internet is giving Hollywood a nervous breakdown.

Way, way back in prehistory -- let's say, 2004 -- if you made a TV pilot and the network didn't pick it up, the judge's decision was final.

But now you have a savior, an ally, a friend with millions of other friends. You have YouTube.

Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck are smart young TV writers with an impeccable resume, their credits including "King of the Hill," "Frasier" and "The Larry Sanders Show." (Gregory is also a cartoonist for the New Yorker.) With the influential backing of Jon Stewart's production company, they sold a pilot to Comedy Central called "Three Strikes." It's about a bunch of vagabond baseball players who, having been kicked out of the majors for various offenses -- from steroid use on up -- are trying to keep their dream alive playing for a backwater minor-league team in Fresno.

The pilot seems right in Comedy Central's strike zone, combining affectionate satire with raunchy escapades -- one highlight is a sequence in which the players humor their do-gooder team owner by taking a group of blind kids on a boat trip, all the while engaging in shenanigans with some prostitutes stashed below deck. But the network gave the show a thumbs down in February.

Did Comedy Central blow the call? See for yourself. The entire pilot, in three segments, was posted on YouTube several weeks ago. (To watch, go to YouTube and type in "Three Strikes.") Whether it is still there after this column appears is another issue, since Viacom, which owns Comedy Central, is suing YouTube's parent company and has pulled all its shows from the site.

If I were a network programmer today, I'd be popping Nexium left and right. Thanks to the Web, TV fans can now make their own judgments about whether a network chief's decision to ax a show was a smart move or sheer idiocy. Gregory and Huyck have no harsh words for Comedy Central -- "The whole process was absolutely great," says Huyck, "until the show got killed." But they are fascinated by the game-changing nature of the Internet, which can provide a second hearing for pilots that would have previously been consigned to the video graveyard.

"You can see why people find YouTube subversive," says Gregory. "If you were to put all the failed pilots up there and some of them became popular at a time when the shows the networks put on as series were failures, it would make them look terrible. In fact, it would make their jobs look superfluous. If you prove their taste wrong or incorrect, that's a pretty dangerous scenario."

This isn't the first time Web denizens have been able to second-guess network judgments. Last year, not long after a failed WB network pilot called "Nobody's Watching" from "Scrubs" creator Bill Lawrence became a YouTube sensation, NBC agreed to take a new look at the show -- though the network never put the show on the air. In 2005, "Global Frequency," also a failed WB pilot, ended up on BitTorrent, sparking a flurry of fan interest in the show, though not a network pickup. "Aquaman," a pilot ditched by the CW network last year, also briefly made it up on YouTube -- and is actually being sold through iTunes.

So far, none of this Internet buzz has saved a pilot from extinction -- and most of the pilots have been pulled off YouTube by hysterical network lawyers. Nor has the Web buzz toppled television's business model, as file-sharing has done to the music business. But the subversive power is there. In fact, it's only a matter of time before an entrepreneurial producer finds a fan-based financing mechanism for a show that will allow it to avoid the creative bottleneck of a major TV network.

"If there's a large enough community who wants to see a piece of content -- and spend their own money for it -- someone will find a way to reach that market," says Jordan Levin, the WB production chief who commissioned the pilot for "Global Frequency." Now a partner in Generate, a production and management firm active in Internet projects, Levin believes that as long as audiences are disenfranchised, someone will create a new business to serve them, in much the same way that MTV, Fox and the WB themselves were created to cater to younger viewers not being served by more traditional networks.

Unfortunately, most media conglomerates view these flurries of support for a failed pilot as a threat, not as a sign of fan enthusiasm. "What's really amazing is that TV had the perfect test case, seeing the music business practically destroying itself and totally alienating their core fans for the past six or so years -- and they look at that and say, 'Yeah, that's the way to go,' " says John Rogers, "Global Frequency's" writer-producer. "When our pilot surfaced, [Warners] didn't go, 'Wow, people in Finland are forming fan groups and it's being shown in gaming cafes in Korea.' Instead, they kept going, 'No, no, no. Shut it down.' "

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