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Is There an Afterlife for ‘Quarterlife’?

Mar 2, 2008  •  Post A Comment

“Quarterlife,” the first Internet series to leap to broadcast television prime time, cratered—but it won’t be the end of Web-to-TV programming experiments.
The show flopped in its Feb. 27 network debut, pulling in the worst ratings NBC had generated in almost 17 years for the Tuesday-at-10 time slot. The network promptly dropped the show and NBC Universal moved it to Bravo. Consider it an object lesson in television marketing and the convergence of entertainment technologies.
The show launched originally as part of an ambitious project by Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, the successful TV producers behind hits such as “thirtysomething.”
“Quarterlife” was distributed on MySpace and Quarterlife.com, a social network the show creators had built from scratch to attract a community of creative types.
“I’ve always had concerns about whether ‘Quarterlife’ was the kind of show that could pull in the big numbers necessary to succeed on a major broadcast network,” Mr. Herskovitz said last week in a statement. “It is important to remember that ‘Quarterlife’ has already proved itself as a successful online series and social network with millions of enthusiastic fans.”
Mr. Herskovitz and NBC declined to comment further.
As a prime-time show, “Quarterlife” was a Band-Aid for NBC because it gave the network a show to add to its lineup during the writers strike and afforded endless press coverage as the first series to make the Web-to-TV transition.
Cutting Costs
Mr. Herskovitz in November told WebVideoReport.com that producing one hour of the show cost about $1.25 million, half the amount studios spend on a TV drama series. He shot in high definition, but saved money by using about half the staff that would be needed on a television production. Everyone in the cast and crew was paid $100 a day.
During the shoot, scenes were lighted only once, whereas in TV, different camera angles would call for relighting the set multiple times. Every aspect of the shoot, from transportation to wardrobe to locations, was scrutinized for ways to save money, Mr. Herskovitz said.
At the time, “Quarterlife” was the most expensive Web production to date; Mr. Herskovitz and Mr. Zwick financed the pilot themselves.
“I broke the cardinal rule of the film business, which is don’t spend your own money on your own project,” Mr. Herskovitz said in November.
With the pilot in hand, the producers attracted sponsors including Pepsi and Target. On MySpace, where “Quarterlife” premiered, Toyota attached its brand to the series.
The costs associated with producing the show in part motivated the producers to accept NBC Universal’s deal.
The show, which focuses on a group of twentysomethings as they navigate early adulthood, was originally scripted like an hourlong drama and then doled out in eight-minute slices for the Web. For television, the network stitched those parts back together with minimal editing to make one full hourlong show.
The show’s failure on TV won’t go unnoticed by the scores of Web studios and one-man production shops that are churning out Internet series. While many of those creators say they prefer the artistic freedom of the Web, a successful leap to TV would put them in another dimension economically.
And “Quarterlife” won’t be the genre’s epitaph because the networks are unlikely to give up on the Web as a farm team. Advertising money is pouring into Web video, stoking the dreams of would-be Internet moguls.
“We would need multiple failures before we could say it’s not viable,” said John Spiropolous, VP and research director at MediaVest. “Eventually I fully expect to see this work because the Web opens up a distribution platform for independent content creators.”
The show’s dismal on-air performance is a reminder that TV and the Web are different mediums, said Kaan Yigit, analyst with Solutions Research Group.
“What this shows is that what works in a searchable universe and what does in a linear universe do not match up easily,” Mr. Yigit said.
“Quarterlife” lacked both marketing oomph and strategy. NBC did not market the show as heavily as it did other new shows.
Bad Timing
It also was handicapped by timing, debuting during a slow period when most scripted series have not yet come back to air after the Writers Guild of America strike.
Also, NBC may have missed the mark on its marketing strategy.
“I don’t believe selling it as an Internet show was an ideal way to convince someone to watch a television program,” said Joshua Katz, president of marketing at Current TV. “What mattered most was whether it was interesting and what the story was.”
On that count, “Quarterlife’s” reviews were tepid, with noticeably poor reviews in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Mr. Herskovitz said the show had generated more than 6 million views online over the last three to four months. That’s not a huge number. Vuguru’s “Prom Queen,” for example, generated more than 15 million views in two and a half months last year.
“NBC has proven that content that no one watched online can also be watched by no one on TV,” said Keith Richman, CEO of Break Media.
Kent Nichols, the co-creator of the popular Web series “Ask a Ninja,” said “Quarterlife” lacked true buzz on the Internet. “Real buzz is when people are genuinely excited and talk to their buddies. If there was real buzz, ‘Quarterlife’ would have done better,” he said.
The broadcast networks remain keen on investing in broadband programming. Late last week, ABC launched Stage 9 Digital Media, a new unit dedicated to producing short-form content for the Web. The mini-studio kicked off with the show “Squeegees,” which is running on ABC.com and YouTube.com. The series was created by online creators Handsome Donkey, represented by United Talent Agency’s online division.
ABC’s investment in original content is a sign that experimentation will continue in broadband content, said Jason U. Nadler, head of UTA Online. For a Web show to make a successful leap to TV, consumers will need to demand it, he said.
“Real online to TV success will come organically,” Mr. Nadler said.

2 Comments

  1. Mr Yigit’s (Solutions Research Group) observation that Quarterlife’s failure as a FTA property illustrates the differences between TV and the Web fails to recognise the fundamental reason behind the program’s demise. As a piece of entertainement (mainstream or online), Quarterlife has failed to engage viewers on a mass basis. While the online model used to launch the Quarterlife is undoubtably a future template for the evolving convergence between TV and the Web, the average views achieved for each web episode (100,000 quoted on this site and other online articles) is way below the numbers acheived for the online incarnations of other existing FTA television properties. There can be no doubt that Quarterlife’s web presence offers viewers the opportunity to interact organically with the show in a manner that cannot be achieved in a traditional TV environment. It’s execution on this level is almost flawless. However, was the decision to move Quarterlife to a FTA environment flawed? Perhaps. It is a well known fact that part of Ben Silverman’s current brief is to “young down” NBC’s audience footprint. In this context it was certainly worth a gamble. The hype and discussion generated across the net and mainstream print media prior Quarterlife’s crossover was substantial. However (and this always seems to be the case when an opportunity emerges for the web to act as a driver to push people back to traditional media channels) the discussion seemed to focus predominantly on the structure of the media model as oppossed to the quality of the video content that it was housing.

  2. Wanted to let you all know that the Academy is now allowing online content such as a web series to win an award at the 2008 Primetime Emmys =) It’s great to see the Academy acknowledging the internet as a viable source for entertainment, and to win against a primetime television show would rock.
    If you’re interested, check out http://www.emmys.tv/downloads/index.php for the rules and regulations on how to enter. I’m currently working with the Academy to help spread this message to internet filmmakers, so definitely spread the love to others!

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