Friday, August 21, 2009

Net-Based Entertainment

A Glimpse of the Future, Today?

Sure, the Internet gives us hours of flash-based games, scads of pictures of cats in compromising positions, and at least one cat that can sort of play the piano, but so far it’s been a bit light on original entertainment of the sort we’re used to from TV and movies. Granted, both Shane Ackerman’s 9 and Neil Blomenkamp’s District 9, two new movies hitting theatres this summer, began as short films available on YouTube, but they’re the exception to the rule. There’s just not a lot of “traditional” entertainment available on the web. It really makes you wonder what the future holds for entertainment that’s blended with, distributed through or enhanced by the web.

Well there’s one other exception to the rule and it’s worth mentioning. Felicia Day, an actress best known for her work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is the writer, producer and lead actor in an online-only series titled “The Guild.” What makes me think that this series of short shows is a look into the future is that it blends two Internet-based concepts – that of short videos like you’d see on YouTube, plus the world of Multiplayer Online Gaming. By putting these two together, Day has achieved quite a following for her show, which is due to launch its third season on Tuesday (August 25th).

The premise of the show is that a group of players of an online game have formed a “guild” where they work together to succeed in the game. When one of the guild members begins to essentially stalk another member of their team in real life, all of the players are forced out of their comfortable online reality and into the bright light of day. Reality has a hard time living up to fantasy, and the personalities and foibles of the actual people are far different from the confident, heroic characters they play in the game. The shows have now been viewed over 25 million times. In Neilson terms, that’s every prime-time show in all time slots on every network for an entire evening (or thereabouts). And much like the network shows, The Guild is free if you want to watch it on its original network (in this case, the Internet), or you can buy previous seasons on DVD if you’re so inclined.

Not content to stop there, Day has initiated yet another Internet crossover, this time through a music video based on the series, with the MP3 of the song available on and iTunes. A testament to the power of viral marketing, when the video and song, titled Do You Wanna Date My Avatar, were released on Tuesday of this week, they immediately rocketed to the top of the “charts” everywhere from references on Twitter to downloads at the music sites. Visitors to Virtual Vellum may not be familiar with The Guild, but there’s a world of geeks out there for whom Felicia Day is their uncrowned queen.

Now, granted, the production values on The Guild are pretty low – you don’t tend to get a variety of camera angles, location shots, extras, elaborate props, special effects or the other technical rigmarole we’re used to on network TV shows – but if studios were to embrace this method (and find a way to make it profitable while still making it widely available to the masses), they could be just as high-end as any prime-time series. And that’s why I think The Guild is a glimpse of the future of Internet entertainment. Shows tailored to a certain audience that will live if people go crazy for them and possibly die if nobody cares. I don’t know if I’d say that’s an improvement over the way we do things now, but I think the capacity will exist for talented newcomers to get into the action in a way that’s simply impossible with broadcast television as we’re used to it today. Somebody’s going to figure this out for real and the final straw will be a way of monetizing the product so that there’s a profit to be made above and beyond the cost of the show. That plus a convenient way of delivering the content to the TV because, really, however big your LCD monitor is, who wants to sit and watch TV on it? Watching TV is as much a social endeavor as it is simple entertainment, and people are still going to want to gather on the living room couch to watch a show. But once that bridge between the Internet and TV is conveniently crossed, I suspect there will be a lot more shows out there like Day’s, and I think they’ll take what they’ve learned from her and run with it to as-yet unseen heights. That will be revolutionary.

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