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When I said that pilots were quickly becoming a thing of the past, I admit that I was a bit categorical. A new “reality” show about the lives of NYU students, Under the Arch, offers a prime example of a new show development model — the “backdoor pilot.”
The show began life about a year ago as a short video put together by undergraduate Sean Patrick Murray and friends as a New York-centric take on The Hills and similar teens-behaving-badly fare. Murray posted it to his Facebook profile and YouTube, where it was eventually discovered by Gawker’s Maggie Shnayerson — and playfully excoriated.
The YouTube version has since been taken down, and now that Murray has changed his privacy settings on Facebook, it’s no longer available to the public via that channel, either. But not before it was spotted by an intern working at Madwood Entertainment, which was looking to develop a show around just such a concept. Filming is now complete on a new, 22-minute version slated to be released online in three 8-minute installments.
What struck me is how the show’s development has been fueled by feedback from the public — as opposed to network executives armed with focus groups. In a phone conversation last week, Executive Producer Patrick Corcoran described the show’s casting as “organic.” He and Murray repeated the term in comments to the Washington Square News, NYU’s student paper.
For instance, after Shnayerson pointed out the all-white makeup of the original cast and played up the drug references, Latina Ana-Marie Hernandez was added to the lineup and the racier themes were toned down (even though drug use is a considerable part of life at the school). And Murray, who was rather rudely outed in the comments to the Gawker post, won’t be playing it straight this time around.
The company CV that Corcoran sent plays up Madwood’s relationships with Madison avenue PR firms and ad agencies, and focuses on lightly scripted programming featuring product placement and brand integration. The plan is to launch a video destination site that will stream ad-supported shows for free, according to Amit Ziv, who manages development and business affairs. Episodes would then by “hyper-distributed” to other video sharing-sites and social networks.
“People are open to watching their favorite series online,” Corcoran suggested. “It’s not like television is the be all and end all anymore.” Meaning that even if a network doesn’t pick up the show based on the first episode, the series can still survive thanks to serving a demographic sweet spot that’s wired for web video. After all, if there’s one thing even more endemic on NYU’s campus than drug use, it’s advertising.
NewTeeVee writer Jackson West is an New York University alumnus.