In anticipation of the web show quarterlife‘s debut on NBC (premiere episode on Tuesday, Feb. 26 10/9c; Sundays 9/8c from March 2) and MTV (premiere on the afternoon of the 26th), we interviewed series creator Marshall Herskovitz and star Bitsie Tulloch.
NewTeeVee writers have been critical of quarterlife in the past for its shallow interactions and its irregular ability to attract an audience, but it does seem to be settling into a healthy 100,000 viewers per online episode. (By the way, Herskovitz — who also produced My So-Called Life — hasn’t been very happy with us, either.) But the show is at the forefront of what we cover, especially with its move from the Internet to TV. As we told Herskovitz, we’re hard on him ’cause we care.
What follows is the lightly edited transcript of a phone interview with Herskovitz.
NewTeeVee: Can we get a progress check on the show?
Herskovitz: We’re really happy with how it’s performing online — there is a huge difference just in scale in terms of how things perform online and how things perform on television, and that’s just a fact. We have 6 million views total — almost 4 million views on MySpace and almost 1 million views on our site.
NewTeeVee: It seems like you’ve ramped up characters’ off-show material on quarterlife.com lately.
Herskovitz: The extras have been important for us to do from the beginning, so I wouldn’t say we’ve ramped them up. There’s this interesting bifurcation in an audience, which is to say some people are really interested in following the suspended disbelief of these characters, and then other members of the audience want to know about the actors and the process of making the show and behind the scenes.
NewTeeVee: How do you see that manifested?
Herskovitz: It’s just the comments on our site, as well as on MySpace, of people basically yelling at the characters, “Don’t do that, you’re going to ruin everything!” They take it very seriously.
NewTeeVee: How is it to get that instant feedback from your audience?
Herskovitz: Having lived all these years on television where there was a remove from the audience — the first 10 years there wasn’t even email — I never really dealt with the fans at that level. Because I built the [quarterlife.com] site, I’m on the site literally 15 times a day and I’m reading every comment.
NewTeeVee: Couldn’t you have gotten that feedback in the past if you had trolled through online forums and fan sites?
Herskovitz: Yes, but not so tightly integrated with a show. When we were doing Once and Again, I would go to the fan sites maybe once a week at most. It was not a daily relationship the way it is now. And John O’Shaughnessy, the cinematographer, does it too.
NewTeeVee: How do you feel about giving MySpace an exclusive window on quarterlife, given you have to give up so much for it, such as the first run of the show on your own site?
Herskovitz: I feel that it was the right decision because [without MySpace] we could not have raised money to make more episodes. We were on YouTube for three weeks with no promotion and I couldn’t even find us when I searched. People tend to think that somehow you will just be found on the Internet. In fact, it’s real easy not to be found on the Internet. MySpace is giving us more than 5 million impressions, otherwise people would not of known about us. We still get comments literally every day: “I just stumbled on you.”
NewTeeVee: You’ve said before that promotion has been very important for the show.
Herskovitz: I thought they were going to promote us before we premiered on MySpace and as the weeks and days counted down I was getting more and more furious, so I wrote to the guy from MySpace and he wrote back saying, “You don’t get it, this is the Internet. When people see the promotion that’s when they want to see it, and it’s not up yet.” So they started at midnight when they put it up and we got 150,000 viewers.
NewTeeVee: What about MySpace helping you raise money? Don’t they just share ad revenue?
Herskovitz: When we started to negotiate a deal with MySpace, CAA, our agency, went to advertisers and made deals with Pepsi and Toyota, and the commitment of money that they made enabled us to go into production. If we weren’t going to be on MySpace they wouldn’t have committed any dollars.
NewTeeVee: I’ve heard varying figures about your budget, but none confirmed. Can you tell me what the cost per episode was?
Herskovitz: I’m not allowed to talk about the budget — we still have to negotiate. It’s still way less than any television show and way more than anyone has spent on the Internet.
NewTeeVee: Can you at least say if you’re making a profit?
Herskovitz: We haven’t broken even yet, we’re definitely running at a deficit, but the thing is we own this, and that’s something you can’t do on television anymore. Because this is an online show we’re delivering episodes to NBC without ever showing them the script. That has literally never happened on TV. I’m really proud of that.
NewTeeVee: Have you had to change the show at all to adapt it for television?
Herskovitz: We have to make them shorter. I’ve been making the episodes longer and longer because the community asked for it. When the show premiered on Nov. 11 there was about two weeks left of shooting and a hell of a lot of post-production left to us. There wasn’t anything I could do in writing or casting, but I could change the post-production. We also have to comply with FCC rules for language and a couple of sexual situations that I think we have to tone down.
NewTeeVee: Would you ever consider including viewer feedback in the development of a show, in figuring out plot and characters and such?
Herskovitz: No, that’s still scary to me — I wouldn’t do that. What I’ve promised to my web site is that I’m going to be influenced by the community. I can’t write by committee — I’ve never even had a writers’ room on my shows. I can’t be creative with 100,000 people looking over my shoulder. One thing I would love to do is to have somebody else’s vision put up on my site. We’re already having the sort of fits and starts of that thing.
NewTeeVee: So what have you learned about attracting an audience on the Internet?
Herskovitz: Honestly the truthful answer to that is I feel more ignorant now than I did three months ago because I know more about what I don’t know. Six million views in three months is really good so far — I know one or two people have beaten us. But a good night on NBC will get that in an hour.
NewTeeVee: I’ve noticed your thumbnails are getting more and more provocative — is that giving views a boost?
Herskovitz: I was thinking that was true but we got much more when we were promoted on the MySpace.com homepage. What we’re seeing is that there’s not an effective promotional engine on the internet like there is on television and films; however the promotional method on television and film is extremely expensive. I’d like to see what would happen if someone spent $15 million on promotion on the Internet.
NewTeeVee: So what’s next? What are you going to do when the episodes run out?
Herskovitz: We will finish sometime in the middle of March. We’re going to go on NBC starting Feb. 26, and it will be six weeks in a row. We are now trying to raise the money to do more episodes.
NewTeeVee: Where are you looking for funding? Have you talked to private equity?
Herskovitz: Yeah, a lot of private equity stuff — but it’s about the web site and not the show. The show is very expensive and private equity is not interested in putting up the money right off the bat. It’s going to be some combination of advertising and licensing; it doesn’t have to be NBC. If under some very painful circumstance we don’t get enough viewers on NBC we could go on cable — A&E, Bravo. Within our economic model we’re more versatile in that way. [This interview was conducted before the MTV deal was announced.]
NewTeeVee: What about the Internet?
Herskovitz: If for some reason we don’t succeed on television at all we could still go on the Internet. We love the television component — we want it but we don’t need it. I don’t need anyone on TV to keep me alive and that’s a wonderful feeling.