Charlie Sheen On Ustream: A Wasted Opportunity

“The future of television is happening right now,” tweeted someone sitting pretty in the medium’s present, Survivor host Jeff Probst. But from the looks of the video to which he linked, a live stream of the ubiquitous Charlie Sheen, the future is going to have to wait.

Last Saturday had the makings of a media eruption when Sheen communicated to his record Twitter following that he would be hosting Sheen’s Korner via the Ustream platform later that night.

No doubt Sheen looked at the elevated ratings he generated all week by appearing on umpteen different news programs and wondered why he was helping other companies make money. In the case of TMZ, which is owned by Time Warner (NYSE: TWX), he was adding value to the owner of one of the very companies he’s vowed to battle, Warner Bros.

From the looks of Sheen on Ustream, he figured he’s just so fascinating that his mere presence would guarantee TV-sized audiences. But his Ustream broadcast was an utter bore. He sat behind a desk from what looked like a study in his own home aimlessly gabbing with a few friends and one so-called “goddess,” a pornstar girlfriend. Sheen only made things worse Sunday night when he returned sans hangers-on for an unannounced 12-minute broadcast in which he rambled incoherently.

The viewership numbers Saturday on Ustream reflected both the tremendous curiosity and wasted opportunity. By Ustream’s count, 333,050 unique viewers tuned in. They generated 666,512 live streams, which when combined with the number of recorded streams afterward, translates to 1.6 million total streams, a number that is still growing.

But the numbers on a counter sitting on the Ustream page tell a different story. Within minutes of Sheen’s Korner’s 10 p.m. ET starting time, he garnered 100,000 viewers. But after topping off at about 115,000, Sheen’s audience steadily eroded over the ensuing 45 minutes, to the point where only about 85,000 remained when the transmission abruptly ended before the actor even signed off. No wonder Sheen himself referred to his Ustream premiere as a “shameful train wreck” on Sunday.

Now Ustream’s official count may sound like a lot, but relative to television, it is a drop in the bucket. That may seem like an unfair comparison but let’s not forget Sheen is Topic A in the USA right now. It would have been perfectly reasonable to expect an audience that cracked a seven-figure mark.

What a shame. Sheen had a golden opportunity to show CBS (NYSE: CBS), Warner Bros. and maybe the entire media industry that their sacred business models weren’t required to accomplish what at the end of the day is their simple goal: aggregate and monetize eyeballs.

After all, isn’t that the promise of the internet, the ability to leapfrog the traditional barriers of entry to mass distribution? This is the future Probst speaks of, when people like him can use cheap production tools and the web to go direct to consumers without conglomerates hogging the levers of power.

And who better to prove that than someone with a serious ax to grind like Sheen, whose beef with CBS and Warner Bros. boils down to control: he has the talent to draw a crowd on TV, and they have taken the opportunity to exercise that talent away from him because they don’t like the way he conducts himself. What better way to show up The Man than render them unnecessary middlemen and doing their kind of business on his own terms?

Were it only that simple. What we learned from Sheen’s UStream experiment is that even when you’ve already demonstrated you are a huge draw, there are certain fundamentals that the establishment media has mastered regarding production and promotion that are required to make mass entertainment.

Just imagine the size of the audience Sheen could have driven online had he done a few less TV interviews, built up a little more demand for himself rather than dived headlong into overexposure, tweeted something compelling about some kind of special announcement and then actually did something on camera that instead of putting people to sleep, spawned a viral sensation?

Had he gone that route, he could have conceivably driven tens of millions of viewers, something only billion-dollar franchises like the Olympics or World Cup have managed online.

If anything, Sheen didn’t so much bring TV to its knees or raise the internet to a new level as he did point the direction of another medium where he could actually succeed: radio. This guy has the gift of gab. He’s smart, articulate, likes to coin catchphrases, has a very specific worldview and best of all, is kinda crazy. That works on radio.

But his act wouldn’t even be that original on radio. Whether he intends it or not, the whole unapologetic libertine shtick is highly reminiscent of Tom Leykis, a veteran radio host who was a giant in syndication.

The unanswered question–one Sheen may figure out should he stick with his online adventures–is that if he brings some sophistication to programming, could he actually create a meaningful audience. It’s probably already too late to find out. As rabidly curious as viewers seem to be about him right now, he’ll be yesterday’s news sooner than later. It won’t matter if he’s mastered the art of online audience-building by the time no one wants to rubberneck by this train wreck anymore.

UPDATE: Warner Bros. announced Monday that Sheen has been “terminated” from Two and a Half Men, which prompted a statement from the actor in which he suggested the studio was “in breach” of his contract. While Sheen has been fired, the fate of the sitcom itself has yet to be determined. More legal maneuvering is likely to come.