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November 14 2005

Adam Sternbergh, of New York Magazine, examines the direction in which television might be heading. And he uses a Firefly hypothetical to illustrate the possibilities for the medium.

Sternbergh (who saw the movie and "liked it a lot" and then bought the series and "liked it a lot") uses as an example of his thesis the notion of Joss finding one million people "who were willing to pay, say, $39.99 each for a sixteen-episode season."

The entire article is worth reading, and to be fair I've linked to its beginning. The hypothetical he uses to illustrate his point is on page three.

My Dad and I once did some very rough, not even back-of-the-envelope calculations about about whether a fan-financed season of Babylon 5 would be viable. I can't remember the details, but we were surprised to find that it could be done. IIRC we assumed $1 million per episode for 22 episodes, which was roughly the actual budget.

[ edited by Gag Halfrunt on 2005-11-14 15:01 ]
I'm guessing this is something that corporations like the BBC would not like to see, given that the viewers already pay?

Maybe we just need to band together and pay a license fee for a Joss Whedon station :)

Have to say that while I would pay for more Firefly I don't think I'd be as willing to pay for something I'd never seen. How would new shows be developed? Would TV as is remain the starting place for them?
Lots of interesting speculation ahead.
Very interesting article overall, thank you for posting it up.

Pre-selling is not exactly a novel or outlandish concept. In all sorts of industries products gets pre-sold while they are still in development. Any new business that starts up will sell, sell, sell while the stuff is still being made if they are smart. So as a concept, it could be done, no question about it.

What you could quite easily do, is raise some initial finance to produce say a couple of episodes, so you got something to show, and then start flogging the thing for all itís worth. Minimise the risk, if it sells, you carry on, if not you pull the plug. The big bonus for the people involved, apart from the money: creative freedom. There are so many ways this could be made to work.

All it needs it someone with the right business savvy to make it happen. Yes, that means you Mr Buchanan.

Of course it won't happen with Firefly because of all the legal issues now, but if would be a possibility for a completely new project. If Joss were willing to scale it down and make something smaller and more cheaply. Which I kind of doubt, given his recent interviews. Not being critical, just saying.

(Also, aren't there some bands who raised money via the web to make new albums? I am not really into music and I realise it's a lot less money, but I remember reading something.)
Great article. This is the day I am waiting for. Pay for what you watch TV - send money directly to the creators! Yay!

I watch an episode of, for example, "Angel" mid 2nd season and realize I like it a lot. I go to a web site and for a reasonable price download the episodes so far. (Accent on the reasonable - and yes I want people who do the work to get paid for it)
I don't have to pay for 20+ stations in order to watch/tape the 5 hours of TV I watch per week.
Being able to pay the creators directly instead of it having to go through layers of people who don't add value but do take a cut..

Mmm. I really have to bite the bullet and add more memory and disk to my home machine and make it a PVR
How happy will Joss Whedon be when the $39.99-paying legions, assembled at, demand that a killed character be resurrected or that an irritating plotline be written out of the show?

LOL! Fans already do that! I don't think it would phase him a bit.
Killinj - agreed! Is his credo not to give us what we need & not what we want? Then again, that was when we didn't directly influence the financial future of the show. When Fox asked him to make Mal less dark... he did. I'd have to sign a contract or something pledging not to meddle with his plots were I one of the investors...
redfern, that is so it!
I am so fed up with all these people taking my money and making it difficult for me to watch/read/listen to the things I want, when I want. That is what makes it feel expensive.
I think I would pay twice or tree times the money (and for some things more), if it went straight to the creators.

The cow is not supposed to be the sucker :(

[ edited by onesnailshort on 2005-11-14 16:17 ]
If you are funded by thousands of people or more, I am sure they all have different hopes and whishes for plots and characters. I believe our wallets will give a more fair chance, than one or two suits that "has been thinking".

If a "creator" wants to satisfy the market, she/he will get clear signals from our wallets. A real creator who wants to tell something, will of course take more of a risk, but not a bigger one than today. Just think about if all OUR promotion money for Firefly and Serenity had gone to Joss/ME instead of the distributors.
The thing is how do you get word to all the fans who would buy an new series. There are not 1 million Firefly fans online. At most, I'd say somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 active fans online.
An interesting read, to be sure. For me, this reality is already partly present. I almost never watch anything on dutch tv (apart from sports and news). I either download new shows directly, or I buy shows I want to see on DVD. Both work fine - if I like a show I've downloaded, I'll end up buying it on DVD anyway. And some shows I'm just willing to take a leap and watch on DVD without ever having seen them on tv (working my way through The West Wing, Alias, The Shield and 24 in that way).

However, I do wonder about a few things in this article:

1) Would people really buy seperate episodes of a show, just to download them to your pc? I'm not sure. I, for one, would much rather have a DVD, instead of something I might lose in a simple system crash. Then again, the shows apareantly are getting sold through iTunes.

2) I don't think the market for this will be as big as the writer seems to be assuming. Yes, there will be niche fangroups such as ourselves willing to pay for a show, but I think the avarage tv viewer'll most likely not be willing to pay for an episode of something when he can also get stuff for free on his regular tv. ( is a concept that works in America, right? I have no clue how succesfull it is, though, we don't have it over here).

3) What will happen to regular tv? I can't imagine it'd stop, and I also can't imagine shows running solely on getting sold by the individual episode. If it happens, it'll most likely be a combination of those, where the higher budget shows couldn't survive on episode sales alone.

No, where I can see a succes story for something like this is in individual projects that creators who already have an existing fanbase can use to launch new projects or as a way for tv shows that get cancelled on regular tv to continu specifically for the fanbase. Say JMS wants to do a new Babylon 5 spin-off or a completely new show, or maybe someone wants to do a new season in the Farscape-verse, or even a new season of Enterprise for those few trekkies who still haven't lost their appetites for new Trek. Maybe tomorrow someone even decides to cancel Veronica Mars (*knocks on wood*), but the fans get a third season anyway, because they're willing to pay up front. And that in itself would already be a pretty great thing.
I have seen these kinds of calculations before and was told that there are all kinds of hidden budgetary bits lurking under the murky financial waters - like the fact that part of the budget goes to just advertising the show on its own network.

I think something like this could be pulled off with a very tight eye on the finances. How expensive is Lorne's makeup? How much does each vamp dusting cost? I have yet to see a good budgetary breakdown and I doubt I ever will.

That having been said, I would cheerfully plunk down a couple of hundred bucks for the honor of waiting a year or two for a totally unknown 13 trial episodes penned by Whedon. And I mean penned by, not "created the concept for." I have that much faith in The Man. I wouldn't even blink writing out the check.
At most, I'd say somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 active fans online.

There are a lot of people out there watching without being online fans. (Or fans, even). I watch a lot of shows and movies and other things I would gladly pay for, directly.
Simon. Would word of mouth be enough? That how I found Buffy and House. I think advertising as a way to get viewers is only necessary with the format we have now. If you miss the first 5 episodes of 24 or Lost because you hadn't heard about it, you have to find someone who recorded it or wait for the DVD. With Shows-On-Demand, you can start viewing whenever you like. I guess the issue would be building up the momentum.

I think a new delivery mechanism is inevitable - hopefully one that works for us.

GVH: I'm currently paying $55/month for TV in Toronto - without movie channels (teenager in the house so I need every music channel there is). I know lots of people who gripe about TV costs. Digital TV was supposed to allow us to select just the channels we want but it doesn't work that way - we have to buy "bundles". I think what would work for me is:
- a few local stations for news/weather/etc,
- an "upcoming shows" data feed sortable by creator, writer, actor, genre, etc,
- ability to sample a new show at a reasonable fee
- and a pay per view for movies, shows
Simon. Would word of mouth be enough?

Heh. I've gone off 'word of mouth' since it achieved bugger all for Serenity at the box office.

In all seriousness, I have enormous trouble getting round the concept of a production company getting money up front from fans to finance a 13 episode TV season.
This is a very interesting article, I hope a lot of people read it, mostly because it mentions Firefly and Serenity so much. Any intelligent article where the writer expresses his enjoyment of Serenity and Firefly must make me happy. Not that I'm an obsessive fan or anything.
There are indeed a number of hidden costs and issues here. One, as Simon mentions, is start-up costs. Not many people are going to start up a series production based on speculation. Same for sustaining costs; continuing production will require money as well.

Word of mouth has several problems. You need a critical mass of people to spread the word. For something as expensive as video production, it has to build quickly, too, or the whole effort will starve.

There's still no substitute for mass media in terms of spreading interest quickly. This is one area where the net will always be at a disadvantage, because the "audience" is so fragmented.

There will always be some number of "middlemen" in the chain, for distribution, production of any physical products, advertising, etc. I have no objection to the middlemen getting a fair return for their work, for appropriate values of "fair." I can't argue that the current system has a lot of distortions in terms of fairness, giving new series an opportunity to build, etc. I'm not sure it's going to get better for a while.

As far as digital distribution goes, the whole area of digital rights management is an unholy mess now, and I don't see it getting better. It's a strong argument for maintaining physical media like commercial DVDs.
This article raises many interesting possibilities. However there are risks. Would free to air TV be reduced to a cess pit of cheap reality shows and bland sit coms? (Or has that already happened?) Would interesting "quality" shows air one season, or even half a season, and then say "If you want to see the rest, send $39 to..."?

Distribution via BitTorrent, which is very efficient and fast (er.. so I've heard**cough***) would cost nothing, eliminating all packaging costs, retailer overhead, shipping etc. Would you sell a million episodes at a dollar? Or would you sell ten million at twenty cents each and make twice as much?
Make it that cheap and I can't see many people bothering to bootleg it. I use BitTorrent to avoid waiting six months to see the latest shows, not to save money. I got every episode of Buffy from the net the day after it aired in the US but I still bought every DVD the day it came out.

You could still sell a proper DVD box set leater for people who want the real thing, with the extras and so on.
I have enormous trouble getting round the concept of a production company getting money up front from fans to finance a 13 episode TV season.

I would too, except for the fact that the movies do it every day. TV financing is a cakewalk compared to the movies; a studio sinks literally hundred of millions of dollars (King Kong cost about $200m) in production and advertising costs in the hope that the movie is hyped enough to sell tickets even if terrible, or good enough to get positive word of mouth and become a genuine blockbuster. It's a crap shoot or a leap of faith.

It would take courage for any production studio to finance an overarching run of shows, but some studios do operate like this. British shows have very short seasons, 6 episodes, that they film all at once. BBC series also tend to be very inexpensive, but I think Joss could make that work for him should he ever make good on his promise to do Ripper. He'd make the budgetary constraints work for him, hopefully. Because expensive does not automatically equal good. HBO finances mini-series this way too, as well as TNT's recent Into the West. HBO spent $100m on the ten episode mini-series Band of Brothers, confident it could make the money back somehow, through DVD and licencing. If you phrase it as a mini-series rather than a direct-to-DVD TV show, would that make more sense to the money people?

I can see something like a season on DVD working -- maybe if the financial cost was not such a big leap in the first place. A lot of novels in the 19th century were sold on the subscription model: a chapter would come out every month in a magazine, and there were some novelists, like Dickens, who could have people waiting at the docks for the next chapter. The only problem there is that writing a novel is cheap, the only cost is the author's labor for x amount of time. Making a few episodes of a new televisual venture is not.

The problem I see with the downloading from the 'net is that not that many people have sufficient 'net speed for it yet, plus the system isn't user friendly yet. I also doubt whether a lot of people would be willing to pay for the quality of downloads as opposed to the quality of a DVD. Making 16 eps a new show, $40m, plus start-up costs and advertising costs, is pretty much too big of a gamble for a theoretical payoff. Right now, I can't see the actual money people considering it, and it's only people in the media theorizing about the possibility.

I actually don't know what my point is, only that it'd be a nice thought, but in terms of reality, can't we just get Joss hooked up with HBO and be done with it? They're really the perfect network to work with: no creative interference, slow to cancel, preferring great word-of-mouth to immediate ratings success and flush with money.
This will never work Serenity tanked at the box office how much money do you actually think it would make On Demand...I tell you NOTHING!

FireFly/Serenity both failed no one watched the show and no one went to the film so get a life people and move on there are better things to watch.
KnightFire: try phrasing your comments in such a way as not to include phrases like "get a life". That's extremely rude language.
KnightFire - we're here because we really, really, like this stuff. There isn't anything better to watch.
Is this the same Gordie Pitt who has said elsewhere, "I play Btvs ccg, Btvs rpg & Star Wars RPG"?

Role playing? Get a life.

KnightFire - you see, that's exactly the attitude that this approach could respond to.

You don't like Serenity - I do. You don't want to watch "Serenity 2: The Operative's Mum makes a cup of tea and eats a cookie whilst endlessly ranting on about her beautiful kind son who was so hard done by, by that big bully Mal ", but I do seriously. Mind you, Joss might make the title a little shorter!

I have faith in Joss' ability so I would pay, sight unseen for it. Presumably, there is something else not by Joss that you would pay for that I might (or might not) like. I don't show you mine and you don't show me yours.

The article is pointing, most importantly, I think, to the ability for shows to be sold to viewers , not viewers to advertisers. This means a potentially huge new flexibilty in programming because many of the other parties who get involved in censorhip, like advertisers who don't want fast food to be portrayed badly, for example, get cut out.

I do think thpough that are several issues potentially running over the top of each other here, though. One issue is the ability to pay for already made episodes by downloading by direct charge per ep and the second is the more speculative version that says I put in development money for an unknown (or at least untested) series. The first I have no issue with - and is happening now on a massive scale (except for the *paying* part!)

Th second is new - clearly, I need to get something more back than just seeing the eps made. Why would I give you $1000 to make it or $100 if I get the same out of it, regardless of my investment? Indeed, why would I give you anything when I can wait and then download the whole season for $1 per ep for a total of, say, $22?

Clearly I need to get something back: the more I put in, the more I get back would probably be a fair option. Everything I think of though just sounds like shares in a company - we can already do that though if the company issues shares, can't we? Mutant Enemy publicly listed - I'd like to see that!
If money could be made off of fans through new channels of distribution, I wonder if money could also be made off this new type of anti-fan we've been seeing so much of lately.

I mean, Joss could take bids -- $10.00 from toward the $60 million budget of Serenity II, and then take $20.00 from the anti-Whedonite who is so determined that Whedon and his fans "get a life" that's he's actually willing to pay for Joss to go work with Habitat for Humanity in New Guinea for a decade or so. Then, it becomes like this giant bidding war.

Of course, this could work for other creators. Right now, I'm willing to send $50.00 to either Christopher Columbus or Joel Schumacher if they promise to not direct another film for, say, five years. I'd throw another $20.00 at Tom Cruise to get him to take it easy for awhile.

Hey, if this idea catches on, it could REALLY save show business.
bobster - oooo *now* you're onto something! Mind you, there could be the peculiar effect that the more you are paid, the worse an actor/dircetor/etc you are! No, wait......

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