Web-only series? Yep. Audience?

Web-only series? Yep. Audience?

By David Sarno, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

November 11, 2007

Show

Lori Shepler / LAT
A
group of USC students and professors watch producer Marshall
Herskovitz’s new web-only show, quarterlife, at the Ron Howard Theater
at USC.
What’s wrong with this picture?

On the first night of November, a group of about 15 professors,
graduate students and film school alumni half-filled USC’s tiny Ron
Howard Theater. They came for a sneak preview of the much-anticipated
Web series "quarterlife," an event hosted by the show’s co-writer and
director, Marshall Herskovitz.

"Quarterlife" is about kids a few years
out of college trying to find their way in the real world. It hopes to
speak to college kids, in their own language and in a medium they can
relate to. The problem was it was hard to say if anyone who’d showed up
for the screening actually was
a college kid (USC has 16,500 of them; its film school alone has 730)
— except 19-year-old Cynthia Horiguchi, the Daily Trojan’s television
reviewer. But I’d invited her myself.

"I hadn’t heard of it," said Horiguchi, a sophomore, in a phone call
afterward. "I don’t think there’s much of a buzz around it."

That’s not strictly true — it’s just not the show’s audience that’s
buzzing about it. Most of us over 25 are familiar with the work of
Herskovitz and "quarterlife" co-writer Edward Zwick, the creative team
behind "thirtysomething," the term-coiningly iconic TV series of the
late 1980s, and "My So-Called Life," which, if its status as the best
teenage drama ever is not universally agreed upon, then only a handful
of people need their minds changed.

Having nailed the 30s in the ’80s and the teens in the ’90s,
Herskovitz, 55, and Zwick, also 55, have left themselves with a
difficult pair of decades in which to complete their epic of growing
up: the 20s, and this one.

"Quarterlife" valiantly attempts to navigate a perilous strait: On one
side it’s a tale of young artist-types trying to get a handle on
real-world living, and on the other it’s an ambitious exploration of a
new media genre whose waters are largely uncharted: the short-form Web
drama. Which means that both its characters and its medium are
experiencing rapid, whirling change on the one hand and a pervasive
sense of uncertainty on the other.

For his part, Herskovitz said he had become "radicalized" by what he
saw as a consolidation of media power that had homogenized
broadcasters’ offerings and which, as he wrote in a recent Times Op-Ed,
was "literally poisoning the TV business," having laid the groundwork
for the writers strike.

Indeed, "quarterlife" has its roots in a 2005 ABC television pilot
called "1/4life" that did not make it to air. So Herskovitz and Zwick
decided to bypass TV altogether, re-imagining the show as an Internet
original — an endeavor Herskovitz described as "a speculative wing and
a prayer."

Starting tonight, "quarterlife" will be doled out in eight-minute
"webisodes" posted twice a week, first on MySpace (Sundays and
Thursdays), then a day later on the show’s proprietary platform and
social network, quarterlife .com, which boasts a much larger and more
eye-friendly viewing screen than the small screen on the MySpace page.

"We only care about our site," Herskovitz said at USC. "We don’t care
about MySpace, because they’re not paying us. But they’re bringing us a
lot of eyeballs, so it’s worth something."

MySpace will promote the show by serving 500 million Web pages that include ads for "quarterlife," he added.

Widely thought to be the most expensive Web-only TV show yet,
"quarterlife" is financed by a combination of venture capitalists and
advertisers, according to Herskovitz, who would not offer exact budget
numbers. "Quarterlife" has advertising deals with Pepsi, Target and
Toyota, and it’s not a leap to guess who’s riding shotgun, given that
one of the show’s main subplots has two young filmmakers making a
commercial for a Toyota dealership.

Oh, to be young

Awriting teacher of mine once explained away the dearth of great novels
about life’s third decade with a wave of the hand: "Nothing interesting
happens in your 20s," he said. It’s a lot of false starts, second
guessing and feeling sorry for yourself. "What is the life of a writer,
and am I living it?" muses the show’s main character, Dylan Krieger
(Bitsie Tulloch). Part of Dylan’s angst derives from her frustrating
position as a low-level editorial assistant at Women’s Attitude
magazine. But when Dylan first fires up her laptop’s webcam and begins
to record herself video-blogging, the constraints of old media
dissipate, and so, apparently, does her social discretion. In her
"vlog" entries, Dylan divulges, one by one, the wishes and weaknesses
of the people closest to her.

Of her roommate Lisa (Maite Schwartz), the sexy, tortured
bartender-slash-aspiring-actress, Dylan vlogs: "She sleeps with guys
and I see them leaving in the morning all, like, dazed — and then she
drinks to forget them." In a later video, Dylan broadcasts that her own
crush, Jed (Scott M. Foster, the show’s most compelling actor), "is in
love with his best friend’s girlfriend — what could be more unhappy
than that?"

The storytelling possibilities for a character who blogs
everyone’s dirty little secrets seem potentially titillating. But as
Horiguchi from the Daily Trojan pointed out, there’s a credibility
problem. "I couldn’t really see anyone I know going and putting these
video blogs about their friends on the Internet," she said.

On the call with Horiguchi was Molly Eichel, 22, the arts and
entertainment editor for NYU’s Washington Square News, who said she
agreed that the vlogging conceit was hard to swallow but enjoyed the
story anyway, in part because of what she called "the sense of
hyper-magnified melodrama" that overlays the characters’ struggle to
get where they want to go, in life and in love.

"That theme is really universal across generations of aimless
twentysomethings," said Eichel, a senior in journalism and cinema
studies.

Isn’t this just TV?

AFTER the screening — which previewed the first hour of "quarterlife,"
in eight-minute segments — audience member Frank Chindamo, an adjunct
lecturer at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, asked Herskovitz a simple
question:

"To me it looked exactly like an hour of TV with six commercial breaks in it," Chindamo said. "Did you do that on purpose?"

Herskovitz didn’t hesitate.

"You can’t teach an old dog new tricks," he said.

"I don’t know how to create real emotion in less than an hour — I know
how to do it in two hours, I know how to do it in an hour — I don’t
know how to do it in a half-hour, and I really don’t know how to do it
in eight minutes. So we made a decision to stick with what we know."

Which pretty much sums up "quarterlife’s" crisis.

Though it does not have the advantages that "My So-Called Life" had
(Winnie Holzman’s dialogue and Claire Danes), as an hourlong TV show
"quarterlife" is not bad. Shore up the blog nuisance, add a few
characters who aren’t white, well-to-do 25-year-olds, stick in a few
symbols and ciphers for good measure, and sure, it’s just about ready
for prime time.

But slice that single hour into six short segments spaced out over
three weeks, and it stops mattering that the show’s writing, directing
and acting are better than any other made-for-Web drama. Amid the
endless stream of forgettable digital tidbits, you’re lost without some
way to keep an audience coming back.

MySpace’s "Roommates," for example, is one Web series that started well
but is trailing off precipitously. The hot-babe bonanza’s first two 2
1/2 -minute episodes scored nearly half a million views each, but seven
of the next nine failed to reach 100,000 — a dismal showing on a site
that boasts 110 million active users.

Herskovitz copped to a certain apprehension about the sparseness of the initial two-a-week viewing schedule.

"My fear is that they’re spaced too far apart," he said, "not that
they’re too short or too long. So if that’s true, I hope I can find it
out in time not to lose viewers, because I can certainly put them out
three times a week."

Whether Herskovitz "gets it" about the Internet is hard to say. I asked
him what freedoms and limitations he’d noticed working as a filmmaker
in this new medium. "It’s not clear to me that it’s a new medium," he
said. "The Internet is a delivery system — it can have anything on it."

But, but, being "a delivery system that can have anything on it" is precisely what makes the Internet a new medium.

Still, if you excuse that comment, there is some evidence that
Herskovitz and creative partner Zwick are not necessarily stuck in
old-media land. The sophisticated social network they’ve built around
"quarterlife," although still in its infancy, appears to be more than a
marketing accouterment some cynical executive heard would "bring
eyeballs."

The site is thematically tied to the show — "what it means to have a
passion about something," Herskovitz said — and is intended as a
community where aspiring artists and performers can share their work.
It has a streamlined, visually appealing design and a clearly stated
purpose.

Herskovitz said the site would have sections for up to 50 artistic
disciplines, including advice from established artists and grant and
internship opportunities. There will also be software that allows users
to edit video online, and by supplying original takes from the show,
the site will allow users to "re-cut" "quarterlife" episodes.

In the last days leading up to the show’s premiere, very few of the
promised features had been implemented on the site, which Herskovitz
said wasn’t even ready for beta-testing.

Maybe, though, it’s all part of the grander theme: Don’t be afraid to have big dreams.


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