Top 10 Professional Favorites from 2009

Looking back at a year’s worth of professionally produced web content (which, by the definition we’re using today, refers to any series that had some sort of official support system to aid in their production and/or release), I kept noticing that most of the great stuff out there was made with the same independent spirit that drove many of my top 10 indie favorites — in fact, at least half of them came very directly from a grassroots background. That said, though, some real money did get thrown at creating interesting content in 2009. And some of it was even pretty awesome.

  1. Auto-Tune the News
    In partnership with Next New Networks’ Barely Political, Michael Gregory and the Gregory Brothers rode the wave of one of 2009’s most defining memes to earn viral glory; guest appearances by Alexa Chung, Obama Girl and T-Pain; an advertising deal with Sony; and some well-deserved applause at NewTeeVee Live.

  1. That’s Gay
    Current’s Infomania took a cue from the fantastic Target Women and gave comedian Bryan Safi a platform to rant about the depiction of the homosexual in the media. And Safi’s critiques bring some sorely needed edge and wit to an increasingly intense national debate.

  2. Angel of Death
    March 2009 kicked a whole lot of butt thanks to the Ed Brubaker-created Crackle series, which is now available only on DVD. It’s a disappointing decision, but the memory of Zoe Bell with a knife stuck in her head will endure.

  3. Heart Felt
    I almost didn’t want to include this one out of spite, because I’m a little bitter we haven’t gotten a second episode of this hilarious puppets-and-The Hills mashup. But this pilot, created by Black20 for 15 Gigs, is still one of the funniest things I saw this year.

  4. The Cheeseburger Show
    Kevin Pang’s multi-episode ode to Chicago-area cheeseburgers was, according to Pang, largely self-funded, but under the Chicago Tribune brand it established itself as one of the most charming food commentaries online. Episode 12 appears to be the last, but hopefully it won’t be Pang’s last online video effort.

  5. Valemont
    This fall, MTV’s first real foray into the vampire genre (produced by Electric Farm Entertainment) became my go-to example for what ARG content can add to a series. The official web site, which took on the appearance of the titular fictional university, gave birth to a thriving community of fans who were encouraged to insert themselves into the story, and helped the series become so popular that an oldteevee transition may be in the works.

  6. The Guild: Do You Wanna Date My Avatar?
    Between landing TV’s Wil Wheaton as a villain and winning a whole mess of Streamys, The Guild had a great year. But the short that really showed what a powerhouse the series had become was the addictive music video (directed by Dr. Horrible co-writer Jed Whedon) released to promote the third season premiere. Within hours of uploading, the video had gone viral and the song was topping the iTunes charts. Better yet, it wasn’t The Guild’s last bit of clever viral advertising for the year; instead, it established a tradition of finding fresh ways to get people watching.

  7. HBO Imagine
    Created to help spread the HBO brand, this interactive video experience’s interface was an innovation in how it allowed users to engage with the narrative. The more you explore the story, which begins with an intriguing suggestion of an affair and quickly increases in complexity, the more you learn and the more you want to know — it’s a far better investment of an hour or two than rewatching whatever awful romantic comedy the pay cable channel is rerunning on the hour.

  8. Web Therapy
    Friends‘ Lisa Kudrow has proved several times over that she’s more than just Phoebe, but the second season of her Lexus-produced comedy series, directed by Don Roos, was an exceptional showcase for her talents, while also pushing the premise’s narrative potential and enlisting a fantastic guest cast, including Victor Garber, Alan Cumming, and Courtney Cox-Arquette.

  9. Compulsions
    The first drama series to get an exclusive distribution deal with Dailymotion, this eight-episode noir thriller circumvented expectation by largely disregarding the plot and instead focusing exclusively on exploring its internally twisted characters, brought to life by some of the best acting in web series last year. The result was a fresh spin on the genre that ended with a pretty dramatic cliffhanger; while I’d have liked to have seen more resolution to some of the storylines in the first season, I’m definitely excited for season two.

That’s just what I think, though. How about you — what would you have put on or kept off this list?

Ronna & Beverly: Triumph of Comedy, Buzz & Social Media

RonnaBeviiWhen people like Rainn Wilson, Mindy Kaling, Paul Feig, Rob Corddry, Paul F. Tomkins, Joel Stein, Rob Riggle, Diablo Cody and Jenji Kohan say your schtick is funny, then it’s pretty safe to say it’s funny. But will saying that — and tweeting it, and Facebooking it, and YouTube-ing it, and emailing them on the computer — get that schtick picked up? For the last week, creators of “Ronna & Beverly,” a new pilot for Showtime that wasn’t picked up but got a last-ditch airdate, have been doing their best to find out — with a little help from their online friends.

Today the WSJ’s Katie Rosman wrote that “Ronna & Beverly” “might be the most buzzed about television show … never actually to become a television show,” and who knows, that might be true — despite many a media and social media impression over the past week, Showtime thus far has declined to release ratings information indicating whether the buzz is translating to eyeballs. Tonight Ronna & Bev get one more kick at the can with a 12:05 a.m. airdate on both coasts — and if the ratings are persuasive enough, we could be looking at a test case for the impact of newfangled social media on that most old-fashioned of platforms: TV.

I’ve written about “Ronna & Beverly” a few times now, not only because I know creators Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo (disclosure) and not only because I like it (disclosure?) but because I am watching this as a potential test case. Just over a week ago, Ronna & Beverly, both pilot and act, was known IRL in amongst the UCB and Funny or Die crew in New York and LA, and certainly to Showtime execs, but their web presence was not anything to kvell about. Cut to now, when they’ve buzzed their way into the Twitstreams of some high-octane tweeters like million-plus follwer club members Kaling, Feig, Stein, Sarah Silverman Show’s Steve Agee and newly-minted member Riggle, plus the FOD and UCB community. It’s gotten them buzz in Variety, the WSJ, Jezebel and on this site — and so if the numbers reflect that, why wouldn’t Showtime pay attention? (Check out clips from the pilot here and here — they are clearly not budgeting for high-octane explosions, though the lox budget may creep up there.)

If it does, then that will be a first: A pilot getting picked up specifically because of a vocal, active online audience. Think of what Chuck had to do to hang on (though admittedly the budget there is a lot more extreme). “Ronna & Beverly” have hit this point just when Twitter is blowing up (and other social media, but Twitter’s the biggie here) — remember back in April when it was such a big deal that Ashton Kutcher hit a million followers? Less than a year later the million-member club has 203 members (you just made it, Cory Booker! Welcome!) and the network(s) is (are) growing ever day. On the flip side, TV is now nichified like never before, and what counts as a decent audience share for a show on Showtime is very different than on network (the season finale of Dexter smashed Showtime’s ratings records with 2.6 million viewers — meanwhile, 5.3 million makes Heroes seem like a flop — but Californication’s series high was 1.1 million, and United States of Tara debuted with 881,000 viewers a year ago (headline: “Showtime scores high ratings with United States of Tara”). It remains to be seen, of course, if a 1.1 million audience on Twitter can translate to a 1.1 million audience on Showtime — but it seems to me like those numbers are getting awfully close to each other.

Lucky for Ronna & Bev, they’re meeting in the middle at a rather fortuitous time. Whatever happens with “Ronna & Beverly” — and I hope it gets picked up because I frankly need more dating advice like “Do you want to be honest or do you want to be married?” — it’s starting to see pretty clear that they are hitting the sweet spot of the intersection of TV and social media like never before. Between the support from the online comedy community (and, as I have said before, never mind the Jews — Ronna & Beverly may not yet be ready for a panel at Comic Con, but oy can’t you just see them at B’nai Brith or Hadassah?), the growing buzz and the fact that Showtime just upped its subscriber base to 17.5 million, it actually seems like a pretty safe bet. Throw in how cheap it is to make, its pedigreed team and the fact that it’s good, and I don’t know why Showtime wouldn’t jump.

If they do, though, you can bet that a whole lot of TV execs will suddenly start paying a lot more attention to Twitter. We’ll see what happens, nu?

Second Chance For A TV Pilot — And That’s Where The Internet Comes In
“Ronna and Beverly”: How the Showtime Sitcom Went from Cancellation to Sensation [WSJ]
New, scripted series boost cable ratings [Variety]
Ronna & Beverly: First Look (NSFW) [Mediaite]

How To ‘Fix’ The Sunday Morning Shows

Jay Rosen, saints preserve him, has posted a "Simple Fix For The Messed Up Sunday Shows". Since Sunday morning is the time when I personally do penitence for the salvation of my immortal soul by watching these infernal displays, I'm interested:

I think the situation calls for cynicism. But I have to admit that is not much of a call. So instead I propose this modest little fix, first floated on Twitter in a post I sent out to Betsy Fischer, Executive Producer of Meet the Press, who never replies to anything I say. "Sadly, you're a one-way medium," I said to Fischer, "but here's an idea for ya: Fact check what your guests say on Sunday and run it online Wednesday."

Now I don't contend this would solve the problem of the Sunday shows, which is structural. But it might change the dynamic a little bit. Whoever was bullshitting us more could expect to hear about it from Meet the Press staff on Wednesday. The midweek fact check (in the spirit of, which could even be hired for the job...) might, over time, exert some influence on the speakers on Sunday. At the very least, it would guide the producers in their decisions about whom to invite back.

The midweek fact check would also give David Gregory a way out of his puppy game of gotcha. Instead of telling David Axelrod that his boss promised to change the tone in Washington so why aren't there any Republican votes for health care? ... which he thinks is getting "tough" with a guest, Gregory's job would simply be to ask the sort of questions, the answers to which could be fact checked later in the week. Easy, right?

I think that as a modest fix, this is really off to a good start. Obviously, it's just plain sad that journalists are outsourcing their essential tasks to outfits like Politifact but that seems to be the game now. But I'm all for fact-checking. And I'm all for real consequences when people get things wrong or lie or abuse the platform. There's no value in having a repeat guest if they're just repeat offenders.

But if this solution has a flaw, it lies in the asymmetry -- the Sunday shows simply exert a power and a draw and a space in the newshole that's just not going to be matched with some late-week online follow-up edition. At the moment, many of these shows end by encouraging their viewers to "continue the debate" or "follow the discussion" online anyway. How many viewers do? Probably not many.

If a midweek fact-check on the Internet gained a reputation for being truly compelling, having real teeth and doling out real consequences, then maybe people would browse over on a regular basis. Mainly, though, I think people will wonder why these news outfits can't just manage to be compelling and bare their teeth and mete out consequences on Sunday.

So let me try to bring a little creatine to this scene. Naked assertions from politicians are the stuff of these shows. Why can't some of them be checked in real time? Surely it's possible to have a small army of fact-checkers at the ready during the broadcasts of these shows. Network news divisions already employ reporters and researchers (all of whom are likely passively watching their network's program anyway) who can be deployed to assist the overall journalistic enterprise. Moreover, I'm reliably informed that technology now allows for people to send "instant messages" to one another. Why not use it? Why not open up these lines of communication between the backroom and the moderator, and bring the full force of a news gathering organization to bear as the cameras roll live?

At the very least, the producers of these shows should be capable of calling out anything that doesn't pass the "Look What You Can Find On Google Within Thirty Seconds" Test. But the thing that sort of astounds me is that so often people come on the Sunday Morning shows saying things that are easily predicted or anticipated, given the news cycle that's preceded it. A creative team of reporters or researchers should be able to get in front of what a guest is going to say. I have a funny feeling that the need to employ Politifact as an after-the-fact fact-checking service may prove to be unnecessary, given the work they've likely to have already done before the fact.

The bottom line is, while an after-action report on the Web is better than nothing, the goal should be to get this aggressive journalism on live teevee. Right now, "The Daily Show" has become the sine qua non of turning basic accountability into riveting television. To be certain, the show's staffers afford themselves a long amount of lead time to prepare -- they don't approach the ideal of instantaneousness. Nevertheless, they are complete and they are brutal, and they are the ones with a audience of viewers who are not entirely disaffected by what they see on television.

I've long wondered why it doesn't just burn the ass of professional journalists to watch a bunch of comedy writers beat them at their own profession on a daily basis. But I think there's a reason it doesn't. Having watched these shows extensively, it seems to me that the producers of these shows just feel that the journalists and the guests should be on equal footing -- that there's a virtue in reducing the advantages of the actual journalists. They act as if it wouldn't be sporting to place their guests at any sort of disadvantage.

This is wrong: they should seek to place their guests at a maximum disadvantage. The reason they don't is because they're all terrified they'll lose access to important decision-makers. They've got the essential dependencies in their relationship all running in the wrong directions.

On the other hand, those guys who research and write and pull clips for those segments for "The Daily Show" -- they want punchlines to land. They want the butt of their jokes to be clear and unambiguous. They want their viewers to remember what they did. And so they demonstrate a quality that you never, ever see on Sunday, even if you squint real hard: KILLER INSTINCT. Because they want one thing: to win.

So if you've ever wondered if the goal of the Sunday programs seems to be the staging of an amiable, risk-free coffee hour where everyone basks in each other's relative importance, guess what? You are the savvy one. Instead of Meeting The Press, these shows have largely become exercises in Pressing the Meat. And not vigorously enough to be interesting at that.

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Great Moments In Journalism: Explores “Boozy Grandmas”

betty-white-gunBoozy grandmas: where would we — nay, the American entertainment industry — be without them? In a thought-provoking meditation, explores the monumental and possibly somewhat made-up trend of alcohol-fueled grandmothers suddenly pervading TV and movies.

What does the boozy grandma trend mean? You know, in sociological terms that say something about our society?

You’ve got to give some credit for the loopy lede: “In the same way a Christmas playlist is incomplete without a tipsy, eggnog-drinking grandmother having an unfortunate accident with reindeer, the melodrama of certain shows and films improves when a boozy grandmother is written in.” Who would bother with a Christmas playlist if it didn’t involve a tipsy, eggnog-drinking grandmother having an unfortunate accident with reindeer?

But that’s all mere prelude: the rise of the boozy grandma is symptomatic of our shift as a culture towards an acceptance of more free-spirited (for instance, boozy) older female figures (such as grandmas), who are not doing things such as knitting. Also, “drunk grandmothers are nearly always wealthy, white and cruelly witty, with poor parenting skills.”

81-year-old author Mary McHugh, who sounds like a good time, breaks down the deeper meaning of the boozy grandma:

While their alcohol-induced shenanigans are obviously trumped up for comedic effect, the idea of a grandmother who’s independent, technologically savvy and having fun isn’t the foreign notion it used to be, said Mary McHugh, the 81-year-old author of “How Not to Become a Little Old Lady.” McHugh herself has spent her post-child-rearing years traveling the world.

“When people think of a grandmother, their eyes glaze over. But now, many of us are doing things we love doing. We’re not sitting somewhere and rocking in a rocking chair,” said McHugh, who herself enjoys a glass of wine or two to cap off her evenings.

What News? MSNBC Wins Prime Time Demo Saturday Night With Docs

Cable news ratings, December 26, 2009: Check out the highlights, and see the full ratings below:

We praised Greta Van Susteren and Larry King for anchoring live Saturday night to cover the terror attempt story, while MSNBC stayed in tape. Well guess what – MSNBC was the top cable news network in the A25-54 demographic in prime time. In total viewers, FNC was #1 by far, with CNN in 2nd place.

• The top show in the demo was the 11pmET MSNBC Lock Up doc block, while the top show in total viewers was the 5pmET Fox News America’s News HQ program.

Check out all the ratings below, and leave your own thoughts in the comments:

Fox News CNN MSNBC CNN Headline News
5 pm 263 204 203 58
6 pm 250 194 181 91
7 pm 261 178 240 89
8 pm 197 153 199 102
9 pm 215 197 276 104
10 pm 189 133 324 92
11 pm 287 200 375 116
TOTAL DAY 260 205 194 110
PRIME TIME 200 161 266 99
Data by Nielsen Media Research. Live and same day (DVR) data.
Fox News CNN MSNBC CNN Headline News
5 pm 1106 839 405 190
6 pm 992 757 440 193
7 pm 1081 677 536 201
8 pm 888 688 382 339
9 pm 862 835 549 282
10 pm 878 554 615 185
11 pm 524 574 570 238
TOTAL DAY 921 720 409 266
PRIME TIME 841 692 515 269
Data by Nielsen Media Research. Live and same day (DVR) data.

Damage Control: Obama Makes ‘Audio’ Statement On Northwest Terror Incident

obama_audio_statementThere appears to be growing consensus that President Obama’s reaction to the failed terrorist attack on Flight 253 was, at best, tardy. While some have pointed out that his response was one of a calm and collected leader, the somewhat bungled message by Janet Napolitano has lead some to question her viability to remain as Secretary of DHS. Today, Obama made an audio statement, which surely set the cable news producers in overdrive to scramble for tonight’s shows.

As we’ve mentioned before, it is odd that an administration that is normally obsessed with public perception should make a series of whiffs with their first big terrorist scare. To wit, Obama’s vacation destination not only lends itself to a sense of being disconnected, but the Waikiki backdrops behind White House reporters only further that impression.

Then, yesterday, word broke of a siren-led motorcade, speeding from the presidential round of golf (which was cut short) to attend to a injured family friend. You could almost hear half of America cracking to themselves: “where was that urgency during the terrorist scare?”

While the text of Obama’s statements were at once reassuring and predictable, it mostly felt like damage control. Which, in all likelihood, is how it will be received by most in the media.

WSJ Gets On The Gratuitous Bikini Shot Traffic Train

EI-AY966_AGENDA_G_20091228190900Further evidence Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid sensibility is seeping into the Wall St. Journal? Or merely proof someone over there is reading HuffPo?! The former according to Reuters’ Felix Salmon who picked up on this photo and caption in today’s WSJ column by Patience Wheatcroft. The caption: “Basel II was to Basel I what a bikini was to a burkha,’ Coxe Advisors says.” The photo: above. Says Salmon:

Just how far is the WSJ moving towards UK-style journalism? Well, the editor of its European edition, Patience Wheatcroft, used to edit the Sunday Telegraph — a broadsheet gently ribbed in media circles for its ability to illustrate just about any story with a picture of a girl in a bikini.

Today, she gives us a case study in how that’s done, illustrating her column on the impossibly-dry subject of international capital adequacy regimes with the photo caption at left.

I’d say welcome to the blogosphere WSJ! Except Rupe has made it fairly clear he’s not so interested in this corner of the Internet.