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Brave New World of Indentured Surf-itude

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The hype surrounding our burgeoning video culture already exceeds the level of scrutiny applied to its consequences. The promise is that we’re creating a participatory culture where every consumer is a producer. The danger is that we’re all just a big focus group.

Thus my suspicion of, which yesterday debuted a series of videos for a proposed TV show and started asking users to provide feedback. The show is “Outer Space Astronauts,” and viewers are encouraged to complete a short survey on their opinions of the concept and asked whether they’d recommend green-lighting the series for the Sci Fi Channel. Sci Fi says it’s offering audiences a chance to play television executive-for-a-day and to be heard in the early stages of the creative process.

Sounds to me like a fancy way of saying “Arbitron.”

Television networks like Sci Fi, as with the radio groups who use Arbitron, are in the business of selling advertising. The more viewers watching, the higher price the advertising sold. The less money spent testing the pilot, the higher the margin. And while I agree that a web audience is likely to be more diverse than any focus group a marketing firm could yoke together, I also believe that Sci Fi (or any network) is still looking for broadcast fare that will appeal to the lowest-common-denominator audience. The economics of production and consumption are different, but the result is the same. Especially if that result is destined for TV.

So while I’m a fan of SciFi’s Web efforts so far — I gave a positive review to the Battlestar Galactica Videomaker Toolkit, and I enjoyed their previous online viewership test with The Amazing Screw-On Head — I’m becoming disenchanted with professional publishers who use the Web as a focus group to offset production costs. We’ve getting to the point where audience interaction is less novelty and more exploitation.

But the danger isn’t limited to viewers who are conscripted as reviewers. We should also worry that television networks — already enamored with the low budgets of reality TV shows — will begin to rely less on in-house production than they will on Web auteurs to finance new content.

That’s not good news for professional storytellers. Over lunch this weekend I spoke with an accomplished actress here in New York. She told me that a television network had recently expressed interest in producing a show based on her life. The actress put together a video reel of her work, the network liked it, and asked her for a second meeting to discuss a pilot. At the end of that meeting the network, still effusive in their praise, changed the negotiation.

“Why don’t you put that reel on the web and see how it does,” they said. “If it does well, we’ll make a pilot.”

In other words, the networks are outsourcing their production costs on both ends of the value chain. Welcome to the brave new world of indentured surf-itude.