Weekend Read: Clay Shirky on Why Big TV Will Fail


If you’re going to read one thing this long holiday weekend, don’t waste your time on yet another iPad story. Head over to Clay Shirky’s blog instead and read his great new piece titled The Collapse of Complex Business Models. It’s all about the transformation of media in the age of Everybody, and it’s focusing on a subject very dear to our heart – oldteevee vs. newteevee.

Here’s a quick excerpt:

“In the future, at least some methods of producing video for the web will become as complex, with as many details to attend to, as television has today, and people will doubtless make pots of money on those forms of production. It’s tempting, at least for the people benefitting from the old complexity, to imagine that if things used to be complex, and they’re going to be complex, then everything can just stay complex in the meantime. That’s not how it works, however.

The most watched minute of video made in the last five years shows baby Charlie biting his brother’s finger. (Twice!) That minute has been watched by more people than the viewership of American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, and the Superbowl combined. (174 million views and counting.)”

Shirky’s blog sadly doesn’t allow comments, so feel free to come back here after reading the whole thing to let us know what you think about his take on this industry.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Joi Ito.

Related content on GigaOm Pro: Why Viacom’s Fight With YouTube Threatens Web Innovation (subscription required)


Scott Jensen


Then how does a show creator protect against the bad and keep the good? Again, I’m not against suggestions and do realize that TV production is a collaborative act, but someone gets final say. My concern is if I move my web-series to a TV network, that final say is some network executive’s and not mine.

And there is also the issue of being canceled. As a web-series, as long as my production sponsor keeps paying, my show cannot be canceled. On a TV network, my show could be getting good ratings and still be canceled, moved around in the schedule like a hockey puck in the NHL, and/or deposited in a timeslot where shows are sent to die.



You’ve hit on the primary dichotomy of most artistic endeavors. Do I make an art film that satisfies my vision and only have it seen by a handful of people at a festival? Or do I make a blockbuster that compromises my artistry but is seen by the masses? The same choices face artists in all fields. The most successful (and lucky) get to a point where their personal project is seen by the masses or their hollywood tentpole has artistic integrity. The ones who get there often made compromises along the way.

In terms of your position, being on TV will absolutely require you to give up control of your project, but if successful it pays well and might mean your next project could afford you more control. Staying on the web will allow you to follow your vision. But will you have the resources to make the show you want? Will you be able to support yourself making it? Will your sponsor exert the same sort of control that you wish to avoid with TV execs?

I’m not sure that anyone can give rock solid advice on this sort of choice, as there is a lack of data. In 10 years when the early successes have worn wheel-ruts along the path of success, maybe someone like me could point to them as a standard. Until then, opinions will diverge wildly.

Again, best of luck, and hopefully you will get excellent advice going forward.

(PS There are several examples of indy projects that have gone on to TV with their vision intact–South Park, Food Party on IFC, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are just a few. Though in the last case, the network was able to add Danny Devito to the cast, something which only a networks resources could enable. Another positive example of network interference?)

Scott Jensen

I understand the dichotomy. What I’m wondering … asking is if anyone knows what kind of realistic numbers (a.k.a. ratings) are possible with web-series. What have other web-series accomplished/achieved?

And, yes, I know those numbers will vary according to show premise, amount of promotion done, etc., but I’m wondering what the best have been able to get. Due to the nature of my show, it will get a lot of promotion so I think it will at least be able to match the top tier of web-series (if not a lot more), but I don’t know what that top tier currently amounts to.

As for creative control, I don’t really put myself into the position of an artist. The show isn’t that sort of show. It is a reality show that has a political agenda (a cause) and there’s only so much you can do with it. But just like anything, you can do things that can screw things up and that’s what I’m trying to avoid. As for my sponsor, if I can get him (its CEO is a cousin of mine), I know he will give me complete control and will stick with me to the end. But when talking to him, I feel I need to have an idea where I’m wanting to go with the show. I think I can sell it either way to him, but I’m want what will get the most ratings thus my quandary.


Scott- If I am correct, the decision to replace wookies with ewoks was not made by clueless execs but by Lucas himself. In fact, his auteur style control over every aspect of his ouvre is not only legendary, but the subject of a recent doc, “The People Vs. George Lucas”.

I don’t say this just to be the correction police, but to point out that bad artistic decisions can be made by a single artist with a high level of control, just as good ones can be made by a collaborative process involving many people. I would be willing to bet that if you listed ten shows you consider exceptional, there would be a healthy mix of shows driven by a single “visionary” and shows developed through a collaborative process. Both can succeed and both can go wrong.

I wish you the best of luck with your project, and hope your plan succeeds.

Scott Jensen

Point taken. As for Lucas, I remember an interview with him where he said that the Ewoks were a marketing decision. He did make it, but it was under advisement of the marketing department as something that would appeal to the kiddies and something new (a.k.a. tie-in merchandise) they could sell to the public. But, originally, it was to be the Wookies’ home planet where the Empire was breeding them as slaves. But this is too much geek talk for me so I’d like to let this go. lol

As for my show, I would like to know of successful TV shows that were created or even improved by committee. My concern is running my show on a TV network (broadcast or cable) will require me to give up creative control and I don’t think anyone understands my show’s concept better than me. I have long read how network executives damage a show by messing with it and many times just to show they have “contributed” to the show. Now this doesn’t mean that I am not open to suggestions. I am. But the difference, as far as I’m concerned, is being able to say “no” to such. As a web-series, I can. As a network show, I have my doubts.

But ratings is what I seek most of all. It is the sole reason why I’m considering trying to get my show on a broadcast or cable TV network. If I can get just as good (or better) ratings as a web-series, I’ll just be a web-series. If anyone knows the answer to this question, I’d greatly appreciate hearing it.


If you want just one:

This is the one that I remembered most recently–Matt Nix talking about Bonnie Hammer changing the setting of “Burn Notice”.

As for others, I would argue that given the massive nature of making a season of any show, the work is primarily collaborative. Look at the number of writers and EPs on a show like The Office, for instance. Many people working hard to maintain a consistent voice and tone.

I think what happens is that the stories of bad decisions get so much press and attention, especially when they happen with cult shows (Firefly, anyone?) that the normative, and much quieter process of making good tv gets short shrift.

Again, I am not arguing that bad decisions never get made, just that the narrative always seems to tilt towards the “bumbling, interfering execs” ruining the artistic vision. I think it is often more nuanced than that.


The post assumes that watching a few secs of a kid biting a finger or whatever is actually valuable to anyone. The success of these Same old ugc style videos just shows how people have lost their senses, their attention spans due to the web. It’s like bubble gum it looks great but never lasts. I just rewatched band if brothers, expensive tv, unmatchable by handicam videomakers, elitist yes, but it’s value to society is millions more than a trivial YouTube clip. give me complexity over farting zoo animals anyday!


Kyle I agree – the term “web series” is already on its way to being antiquated ala “film serial”. There’s just going to be content and shows – some long form and some short form.


Couldn’t help thinking when he referenced Tainter’s book that we could be living through the collapse of the U.S. society? That’s what I got out of his post more than anything….

Regarding the actual topic, however, I believe that eventually media will be agnostic to the medium. So to Shirky’s statement, “In the future, at least some methods of producing video for the web will become as complex….” I don’t think that content will produced specifically for the web years from now, it’ll just be produced for consumption, maybe optimized for some mediums, like mobile, but that’s it. “Web video” will become less relevant that it is today, especially as the TV and PC continue to converge.

Scott Jensen

That was a great blog by Clay. I wonder how many of those TV executives heard his message. My guess is they simply discounted it as impractical or even impossible.

For myself, his blog has a lot of relevance. I’ve written a book upon which I am looking to have a reality TV show be based upon. The book is going through its last reviewer before I go and talk to a cousin who is the CEO of a major corporation and whom I plan to pitch the show. If I succeed, his company will become the production sponsor for the show.

My tentative plan is to initially have the show be freely released as a web-series with the idea of getting it later picked up by a broadcast or cable TV network. But I wonder if I can make it a ratings success as just a web-series. Taking it to a broadcast or cable TV network will VERY likely mean that they will demand their say in everything about the show. Shaping it to how they want it to be. Starting it off as a web-series can enable me to essentially do a proof-of-concept for the show. Here’s how I would do it. Here’s the following it is getting. But as Clay points out, bureaucracies demand control and complexity. I doubt TV executives will feel they can just accept the show as it is given. How can they justify their jobs then? Not to mention their egos. I am sure they will demand I sign away all my control over it to them. They will think they know best. That Ewoks are better than Wookies as they’ll more appeal to the kiddies … while ignoring how then implausible them then taking on Storm Troopers would then be perceived.

Now starting off a web-series and having a production sponsor will put me in a better negotiating position with TV networks. I don’t need their money to produce the show. I’ve developed it on my own and the public is already seeing the finished product. However, as Clay points out, my production will likely not be as professional as what the TV networks could do with their larger budgets. Talking to people in the TV industry, this is a point they stressed to me. BUT I wonder. I wonder if that will be a good thing for the show. Might it not homogenize it? Wouldn’t it lose some of its unique character?

But the biggest thing I wonder about is if I can get impressive ratings as solely a web-series. If I can, I think my cousin won’t push for me to move it to a broadcast or cable TV network.

I’ve thought of one way of doing this might be for viewers to sign up for an email list that alerts them to the newest episode when it is released and contains a link that will download it to their computers. That and tweet alerts. As for promotion of the show, part of the show will be essentially it appearing on TV and radio talk shows so that will help promote the show, but, needless to say, it doesn’t have a TV network promoting it to their viewers on their other programs.

Needless to say, I have been sitting and pondering all of this. Clay’s blog pokes at that fire. Kicking up some sparks. Making me even more contemplative. Wondering what move will be best for the show.

Thanks for making me aware of Clay’s blog post, Janko. It doesn’t solve my quandary but it does get me to view it from another angle.

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