Sep 29, 2011

Audience, Interrupted

By Thomas Willett

“Go ahead, laugh. Thank you. I appreciate it. But the fact is, I’m here. Now, tomorrow you’ll know I wasn’t kidding… and you’ll think I was crazy. But, look, I figure it this way. Better to be king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime.”
-Robert De Niro, the King of Comedy (1983)


It’s been weird adjusting to the new Fall TV season. I’m not just talking about new programming. Even the selected time slots for reruns have become a conflict. I’m used to two episodes of the Simpsons a night on FOX. Now, there’s only one. I have been looking to find a gap for those nights I don’t want to watch it’s replacement, the Big Bang Theory.

Last week, I came across a channel called Youtoo. It was a rather exciting discovery at first. As I was running through every program, I saw the typical reruns of choice: Seinfeld, Two and a Half Men, Sanford and Son… none that I would watch regularly. Then, I saw it. I saw the Green Hornet. Not that Michel Gondry misfire, the actual Van Williams/Bruce Lee classic. I was so excited that I immediately turned it on and blared the volume, taking in the Billy May score. It’s been so long since I had seen the show on cable, and even if I owned the DVD set (courtesy of On the Run Video), I have been thrilled to revisit it on TV since discovering it on the now defunct American Life channel many years ago.

It was going perfectly. I was amorous. Then, there were commercial breaks. Would I get a classic along the lines of FinallyFast.com? No. What I got instead was an introduction to what makes Youtoo call themselves You too. The host came out and explained the channel as breaking the fourth wall by giving air time for user submitted videos under 30 seconds to explain a daily question.

This daily question this time was about the worst day of work. Supposedly it tied into the plot line in which Britt Reid (Williams) is trying to interrogate a house with a pet cougar, sleeping in a tree. Halfway through the scene (before the respected act break), it cuts out to the host, who cheerfully says “Wow, looks like Britt Reid is having a bad day. Explain yours.”

It was immediately followed by maybe three videos with primitive filming of people explaining their worst day, including one puppeting a cat explaining how he failed to catch a rat. In any other world, this would be adorably cute. Somehow, in between an act break for the Green Hornet, I wanted to punch the cat. My heart was broken at this revelation. In fact, the cougar jumping from the tree felt like a three act scene within itself with the amount of commercial interruptions (the episode was also bumped up from it’s traditional 30 minutes to 45).

If you are at all familiar with a format along the lines of FX’s DVD on TV hosted by Jennifer Lothrop, this is nothing new (which I only discovered because my friends wanted to make fun of X-Men: The Last Stand one night). Adding “special features” to the commercial interruptions has always been a gimmick to try and watch censored reruns. For the most part, it’s created a cult that now quotes censored dialog (like this Snakes on a Plane scene). Otherwise, it’s a nuisance.

Don’t get me wrong, I love me some commercials. For me, it makes most sense in a sitcom format, as it allows for the story to be broken up into three acts properly. It goes back even to the Jack Benny Show, which had interruptions for small investors. Movies, not so much. Even if you get them uncensored, like on IFC, it can easily break the intensity to shreds to have a Cheez-It commercial smack dab in the middle of Hard Candy.

Going back to Youtoo. I watched that 45 minute version of the Green Hornet and felt sad. I now get the outrage to the recent Star Wars changes. They didn’t make Kato (Lee) blink, but the editing ruined that tone. I had longed to see this on the Hub channel next to Batman just to get some joy out of my everday life. Instead, it got stuck on on Youtoo.

Let me clarify. I don’t hate the idea of interacting with the audience. In fact, it’s been a prominent feature of entertainment since the beginning. Remember game shows? Rigged players aside, it created the illusion that we could be on TV. There was a whole episode of the Honeymooners dedicated to that concept in 1953 (“Ralph’s Name That Tune”), and I feel that it’s just as representative of our time now.

The most popular of these is the Price is Right. The incorporation of the audience can be seen in the first two minutes of the show, when tagged audience members are told by Rich Fields to “Come on Down!” and win “A New Car!” It’s created the illusion that we can be on TV and have our few moments of fame. It even grew into the 90’s with MTV’s Total Request Live, which featured music videos with audience members giving a shout out over the new hits of Hanson. The gap was bridging.

How do you top it now that our society has gone into the world of viral videos? You create a call in number to have your texts placed in a side bar, like on Attack of the Show. Still not good enough? That’s the disaster that leads to Youtoo TV.

What is the best way to incorporate audiences into programming? Do you just allow for them to post brief videos of themselves discussing a topic? It could work. However, I am pretty sure that the creators of the Green Hornet didn’t want their episodes to be interrupted so a cat can complain about chasing a rat. It just ruins the flow of an average TV episode, and explains why people are recording their shows via Tivo. No one cares about the fluff in the middle. I assume this is why people try to make it more socially interactive, but it’s actually just taking advantage of those poor shows not yet on DVD.

I cannot say that the social interaction factor is a total failure. It’s just that mixing the old filming format with new ideas is clunky at best. You have to make them part of the actual circle, not the show. For example, there was a program called Rotten Tomatoes Show that aired on Current TV in 2009, hosted by Brett Erlich and Ellen Fox. I considered the show to be cutting edge, and not just for the comical analysis of movies present and past. Every week, there would be around three movies chosen, and they would review them with a select group of critics (notably Alonso Duralde), and user submitted videos. Edited together, it managed to portray five different viewpoints on the same topic.

To me, that is the perfect example of how to intrigue an audience. Make them a useful part of the show. By giving them incentive that their opinions on movies were on the air, it made Rotten Tomatoes Show fresh without dumbing down their content. Even Erlich’s other job at Infomania featured moments of audience interaction, including a segment called Viral Video Film School, which he ended every week by asking the audience to send “Wall things” (pictures, notes, etc) to appear behind him.

Sadly, both shows have been cancelled (though Viral Video Film School remains live online) due to Current TV’s desire to be more political. However, their impact remains a prominent influence on how I perceive social interaction on TV. To me, that few years of experimenting managed to show what was wrong with everyone else’s attempts. You need to make them a useful part of the show. Cutting the Green Hornet off early isn’t the right way.

In the end, I consider Youtoo to be a nuisance at best. They also play Batman immediately following, but somehow they butchered that to an entire hour. It’s also a waste of time when you just want to watch Burt Ward say funny things. Most of the videos they interrupt for will never top “Holy Cinderella, a damsel in distress” (I dare you to find a better Robin quote). Also, I can get Batman AND Laverne and Shirley within the same amount of time on the Hub.

My suggestion? Don’t turn audiences off by making them feel punished. Even if the videos are adorable, excessive amounts keep it from reaching the interaction’s potential. True, chat rooms are full of trolls, but don’t be afraid to weed out the other viewer’s suggestions. I’m sure I’m not the only one who hates the idea of watching a three act version of a cougar jumping from a tree. Make them worthwhile. You don’t have to make America’s Funniest Home Videos (I hope you don’t, anyways), but integrate the audience with some respect, like the Price is Right does everyday. We watch these shows for fantasy that we’re just as important.

Also, do I really want to be in the Green Hornet that badly (maybe 2 Broke Girls sans everything but Kat Dennings)? Their ads make it look like you’re really in it. I feel that it’s a dead road living out sad fantasies. We make fun of cosplayers all the time for this. Let’s not start bringing technology into the game.

With that said, I’d totally watch a show with user submitted commentaries on the Green Hornet just to know fans also exist out of state. That’s the best way to integrate audiences, not this Youtoo way, where that additional 15 minutes doesn’t add much besides grief. Make me feel like I am important. It will give me incentive to find interest in your programming. Otherwise, I’ll be continuing my journey to try and make it in the world as a writer without a 30 second spot.

You can read Thom’s blogs at nevpodcast.com every Wednesday and his movie reviews on cinemabeach.com. Send us your thoughts at nevpodcast@gmail.com

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