IT was a surreal moment when I learned of the "demise" of my online series "quarterlife" on the front page of Tuesday's L.A. Times. Mark Twain notwithstanding, reports of said demise are not only premature but laughable. To be fair, the paper printed a correction the next day, but the error didn't happen by accident. The headline referred to the Big Picture column by Patrick Goldstein in that day's Calendar section, and while Patrick didn't write that headline or the one on latimes.com [" 'Quarterlife' Gets a Web Smackdown"], both reflect the sentiments in Patrick's piece.
Goldstein -- whom I like, by the way, and think is a very smart writer -- put forth the thesis that "quarterlife" represents a "culture clash" between old and new media, wherein two old media types -- Ed Zwick and myself -- had "arrogantly" blundered into the new media world with the message that we could do it better, and as a result had received an astonishingly negative response online. He described charts Podcasting News published about our performance on YouTube as looking "like a graph of Ron Paul's delegate count" and quoted PN's claim that we were getting fewer views than "sleeping kitties, graffiti videos or even a clip of Sims in labor." With no other performance figures cited in the article, one was left to assume that "quarterlife" had in fact tanked on the Internet.
Uh, not exactly.
"Quarterlife" has actually been a hit on the Internet, the third most successful scripted show ever (after "Roommates" and "Prom Queen"). We've racked up almost 7 million views in less than four months, with higher per-episode averages than either "Roommates" or "Prom Queen." The Podcasting quote refers to YouTube, which is not our distribution platform. That's like going to San Francisco, looking for copies of the Los Angeles Times, and when not finding any declaring the Times a failure.
Our warm reception on the Internet goes beyond numbers. Read the thousands of overwhelmingly positive comments and forum threads on MySpace and quarterlife.com -- our own, fast-growing social network -- to see how viewers feel the show has touched their lives. So where would you get the idea that we got a "smackdown" on the Internet? My guess is that he confused "Internet" with "blogosphere," the blogosphere being a very small subset of the life, opinions and trends that take place online. But even in the blogosphere, reactions to "quarterlife" have been much more varied than Goldstein implies. We have had critics, yes, some of them savage, but some of the most important critics, like Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times and Liz Gannes of NewTeeVee.com, changed their minds as they learned more about what we're doing. Another guess is that he was seeing the hothouse world of bloggers as bigger than it actually is. This is an occupational hazard for old media journalists, many of whom fear the new power wielded by the restraint-less, credential-less Wild West world of the blogosphere, and spend an inordinate amount of time pinging back and forth betwixt online conversations to make sure they haven't missed anything.
He mentions, for example, an article I wrote on Slate.com some weeks ago, where my arrogance evoked a "fusillade of ridicule." As an experiment, I went on Slate today and counted the number of comments posted about the article. There were 22, of which 16 were indeed negative (which I felt bad about, and admitted to Goldstein that my tone had been misunderstood). But how many total views were there of this firestorm of criticism, this fusillade? Twenty-eight.
So we're doing just fine on the Internet, thank you very much. The irony is that Goldstein missed the real story here: two old media guys succeed on the Internet, then fail with the same project in their old stomping grounds. "Quarterlife" premiered on NBC last week and performed so poorly it was yanked after one episode. And the reviews by old media television critics -- unlike the generally positive reviews for the online broadcast -- were the worst we've ever received.
I spoke with Goldstein twice for his article, and was candid about my pain over the NBC situation as well as the exhilaration of finding myself at my age more comfortable in the new media world than the old. I never knew he had another subject in mind. Because I respect him I find it all the more frustrating that the slant of his article prevented him from posing the most interesting question to emerge from the whole "quarterlife" experiment: How do we define success in a media world so fragmented that the same project can be a triumph in one arena and a failure in another?
Greater minds than mine will have to answer it, but for the moment, smackdown or not, I'll take the Internet.
Marshall Herskovitz, along with Ed Zwick, co-created "quarterlife," as well as TV series ("thirtysomething," "My So-Called Life"), and have produced films including "Blood Diamond" and "Legends of the Fall."