One of the biggest events of the new fall season takes place next week—and, no, it’s not the return of “Deal or No Deal.”
On Aug. 27, Warner Bros. will flip the switch on TheWB.com, the online resurrection of its generation-defining broadcast network. Old Frog favorites such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Gilmore Girls” will rub digital elbows with sexy-sounding shows such as “Sorority Forever” and “Blue Water High.” Also on offer are episodes of retired series that have nothing to do with the old WB, including “Friends,” “In Living Color,” “Firefly” and “Bablyon 5.”
By itself, the launch of yet another Web site serving up streaming video of old TV shows is hardly earth-shattering. Warner Bros. isn’t even the first major studio to get into original programming for the Internet in a big way; Sony owns Crackle.com, for example.
What’s so intriguing about TheWB.com is what it represents behind the scenes.
First, it may be the biggest attempt yet by an old-school TV studio to use the Internet as a direct pipeline to give viewers access to its product.
As important as iTunes downloads and DVD boxed sets are to studio profit sheets these days, those platforms generally require a middleman. Steve Jobs and Wal-Mart play a big role in determining how Warners sells its wares. TheWB.com will give Warners complete control over a show’s fate, from its creation to its premiere.
TheWB.com also might change the way Web surfers view content providers.
NBC Universal and News Corp. have had some early success with their Hulu service (which, by the way, includes several shows owned by Warners). But Hulu is a giant aggregator of video content with limited personality—an all-you-can-eat video buffet that satisfies hunger but doesn’t offer a particularly memorable dining experience.
TheWB.com, if it works, could be something different.
At its zenith, The WB—like Fox before it—was more than just another TV network, or even a brand. For viewers of a certain age, it was a destination. I don’t want to overstate the network’s cultural impact, but for a brief, shining moment in the 1990s, many teens and twentysomethings thought of the Frog as their TV home base.
Consider the roster of successes spawned by the network, most within its first decade:
“Buffy.” “Dawson’s Creek.” “Felicity.” “Angel.” “Gilmore Girls.” “Charmed.” “Seventh Heaven.” “Roswell.” “Popular.” “Smallville.” “Everwood.” “Reba.” “One Tree Hill.” “The Surreal Life.” “Beauty and the Geek.”
The WB launched the careers of some of today’s most important showrunners, including J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon and Greg Berlanti. If the early success of Fox proved the power of crass, in-your-face programming, The WB showed the strength of shows aimed largely at young women.
Now, with TheWB.com, Warners once again has the ability to create something unique. It can build an online home for audiences hungry for a certain kind of Internet programming: quality fare that emphasizes drama over comedy, plotlines over product placements.
It’s easy to find well-done Web shows that make you laugh; finding shows that make you care is another thing altogether.
So far, it’s hard to tell if that’s the direction in which TheWB.com is headed. Its first big original program is a show called “Sorority Forever,” a sudsy murder-mystery concoction from McG. The title doesn’t scream quality—but, then again, the original WB started out with confections such as “Muscle” and “Savannah.”
Hopefully, the caretakers of TheWB.com will realize what, sadly, the upper management of The CW seems to have forgotten: One of the keys to the Frog network’s early success was its lack of cynicism. Most of its mojo came from creators who had stories they were passionate to tell. It did not emerge from focus groups that determined that ass-kicking vampire hunters or painfully self-absorbed college freshmen were what women 12 to 34 wanted to watch.
The beauty of the Internet is that its low production costs and high profit potential offer the right environment in which to foster such creative whims. There’s no reason TheWB.com shouldn’t establish itself as the place where Warner Bros. Television’s deep pool of talent goes a little wild and takes the chances that commercial broadcast networks won’t.
This summer, Mr. Whedon has demonstrated what can happen when the only agenda is following the passion of an idea. His Internet musical “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” became one of the summer’s cultural touchstones—all on a shoestring budget and word of mouth marketing.
If the custodians of TheWB.com respect the legacy of their namesake, there’s no reason their new venture can’t be every bit as successful.