Saturday, February 16, 2008

It's Time For Creative Puppet Peeps To Focus Less On Prime Time TV

Will we ever again see a puppet-based program like The Muppet Show on prime time television? Short answer: I don't know.

I would love to see another Muppet Show type of thing broadcast to the masses, but I don't think "prime time" is the best way to go about this anymore. And it shouldn't be the only goal that creative people strive for.

It would be great to see new prime time offerings (or ANY time offerings for that matter) featuring puppetry. Something that has the potential to appeal to a wide enough TV audience to make it feasible for producers to take a chance, but not something that has to be so watered down and vanilla to meet that potential.

The wishing is the easy part, of course. From everything I've read on the subject, getting any program from idea to pilot to an actual season on TV, let alone a primetime slot, is exceedingly difficult. Especially an idea featuring puppets. I'm not saying it can't be done, just that it is an especally steep hill to climb.

Jim Henson developed short ideas that were featured on popular primetime shows like Jimmy Dean and Ed Sullivan for many years before a forward-thinking Brit by the name of Lew Grade gave him a chance to produce the Muppet Show. It took someone outside of Hollywood to take a chance on Jim, eventhough his success had been pretty well confined to American TV sets in the years prior.

Since The Muppet Show run, there really hasn't been a purely puppet-based production that has seen anywhere near the same success (even the Henson follow-ups never had the same wide audience appeal needed to keep a show on TV, for one reason or another). And since then we've seen more niche shows like Crank Yankers, that appeal to a smaller core audience, get a chance to shine. But this is a far cry from the "prime time network TV" exposure that many creatives still set as a goal.

The reason I get into the history a bit here is to set up the following idea:

The old idea of getting a show on TV and in a prime time slot is changing every day that the internet becomes a greater and greater mass media delivery system for the masses. I don't think we are at the point where the power of the old network model can be completely discounted or ignored --- mostly because the companies that own those networks ALSO own most of the internet portals delivering broadband media entertainment on the web. But the days of begging for a chance to make a pilot for a show, and then a chance for that pilot to be advertised and aired at a decent time to build an audience, and then for a network to agree to pick up the idea and buy a season or two worth of shows based on the ratings of that pilot, are being changed every day by the rise of the internet delivery model.

Think iTunes and YouTube and SuperDeluxe and and any other number of popular ways people are experiencing the very same shows via the internet that other people are watching on cable or over the networks. Now think about how many more people will be getting their daily and prime time doses of entertainment delivered to them over the next few years. There is a huge shift happening in the delivery system and that is going to change the way shows are made and the way they are marketed.

Audiences are already changing. Fewer people tune in to network TV during those, once-coveted, prime time slots to get their entertainment. Many people never turn in at all during those times. They use on-demand services or record programming on DVRs and watch when it is convenient.

The idea for the show and the production still needs to be good in order to be successful, but the argument to get a puppet-based show in the "primetime" slot on TV in order to make it available to a wide audience is not the only thing to consider anymore, and it is getting less and less important every day. As more viewers switch to the On-Demand model of watching programming, the notion of "prime time TV" will become completely abstract. People might start to equate "prime time" with "quality programming" and THAT is where most productions on the internet currently fall short. And by "quality" I am referring to production quality, in addition to performance, etc.

So, all my yammering leads me to this point: It was difficult for Jim Henson to do what he did, but he succeeded BECAUSE he was a genius who worked his arse off and had a lot of support from fellow geniuses and visionaries. And then, after that amazing alignment of stars in the galaxy happened, the real "prime time success" really eluded Henson for most of what he created following the Muppet Show run.

But with the changing internet delivery model, a new group of geniuses have the potential to make magic once again. Only this time, they do not NEED to appeal to the Neilsen Ratings Family of TV viewers in order to be deemed successful and stay on the air. They can build a rabid following though all the new media delivery portals out there.

This has the potential of reaching a much larger audience of people of similar tastes, without a show's creators facing the almost impossible task of repeating what Henson was able to do with The Muppet Show --- create something with mass appeal for a large and varied audience demographic.

Could that type of mass appeal for a new show happen again? Sure! But it is highly unlikely.

What is highly LIKELY, though, is a new show featuring puppet characters being created that appeals to a core audience of a fairly narrow demographic. But with the right internet delivery systems in place, that core audience has the potential to be MUCH larger than any audience of a typical prime time network or cable TV broadcast.

Then what could happen is the new delivery system could influence the decision making people who control the old delivery system. Popular internet programming will and should be offered on traditional network schedules, giving those shows the chance to find an even wider audience --- one consisting of people who still get most or all of their programming delivered the old way.

This is where the new shows could find themselves in prime time TV slots because they will be coming at the network with a huge audience following already (so much different than the old make-a-pilot-and-cross-fingers model of yesterday).

But as the days go by, I find the NEED for shows to make it to prime time network TV less and less necessary. More people are watching what they want to watch WHEN they want to watch it using alternate delivery systems on the internet (or even DVR systems if you want to extend the analogy to cable and DirectTV viewers a bit), and because of the personal freedom of choice this gives people, having a handful of studio executives deciding the handful of shows they are going to provide to the public on TV between the hours of 8pm and 11pm just feels like a really arcane method, doesn't it?



We already have good puppet-based shows available online. We need much better ones. And I believe that when the skilled and creative people out there begin focusing on the new delivery models and letting go of the old ones, we will see a ton of shows of a much higher caliber on the net than the smallish, more hobbyist type of puppet stuff that currently dominates YouTube and the rest.

A non-puppet-based show that was created by veteran TV people for delivery to the net with high production value is Quarterlife. It is now going to have a run on traditional TV. I give this as an example not because I think this show reached an unquestionable level of success on the net and is now poised to reach a larger audience in primetime (I think this show was always intended to be on TV --- the network execs were just dipping their old school toes into the internet water to see what it felt like), but instead as an example of an "internet production" doing it right. The show's production value is high (if a bit "indie"), the acting is excellent, the writing seems solid (not my demographic, but I can see the appeal for their probable "twenty-something" target audience) and the delivery system on the net is well organized, attractive and fast.

There is no reason that a puppet-based series cannot be produced with similar production values and delivery mechanisms. THIS is the kind of thing people will come back for. THIS is the kind of thing that will allow a show to build an audience on the internet.

Once more seed money gets offered to today's creative people with great ideas, and their efforts get focused not on prime time TV (or cable), but on the internet, and that common goal results in a show with a high production quality to match the amazingly creative show concept, PUPPETS WILL BE BACK IN THE MINDS AND HEARTS OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE AGAIN.

I like what the Henson company is doing with some of their "Henson Alternative" (ha!) productions. They are good ideas with high production quality, delivered to the internet to gain an audience. But I think even Henson is still thinking old school and are too eager to get something on the networks to find that next big success. They should be improving their content delivery system, creating a unique web experience where shows can be easily watched (unfortunately, this is not the case with most of the things they have done online to date --- their internet delivery system is abysmal).

But they obviously have the talent and the production know-how to make it happen on the internet. Someday maybe they will. Hopefully.

And there are countless others out there who could do it, too. They just need to set their focus on the new delivery systems and continue to work on improving the overall experience for the viewer.


Just a lil minor detail there. ;)

Thanks for reading.


about jenji said...

Da CAPS are scaring me.

Great observations. I'm in as long as I don't have to wear a helmet to participate.


chet said...

hehe... thanks. No helmet needed. However, you might have to ride precariously atop a dolly fashioned from a rickety shopping cart while squeezing a heavy and expensive camera between your thighs as you handhold and maneuver a 14 foot mic boom that's missing its counterweight out across the pothole-and-broken-glass-riddled parking lot during the ultra-high speed tracking shot of the climatic final chase scene of my epic masterpiece film "Don't Fleece Me, I'm a Puppet!"

Thanks in advance for your help.

Ron said...

In my opinion I sincerely doubt there will ever be me a prime time puppet show ever again, not on a network channel anyways. Henson, Oz, Burns, Lazer, Bailey, Juhl, Odell, Hinkley, and Langham were very driven and motivated people to create and develop that series as it was, there's no one around currently motivated enough to pull it through, I'd love to see it, but the right type of people don't seem to be around much anymore to see it through from concept to completion. Whatever few individuals that are around and motivated enough to do it are currently at the Henson company, doing Puppet Up, in Europe do small bits for commercials and such, or scattered through out to U.S. struggling to find work.

It's unfortunate that the web is the only haven and breeding ground for such independent craftsman, puppeteers, filmmakers and creators. Several animated series have been spawned in to full fledged television cartoons based upon the online format it was originally made in thanks to it's internet popularity.

I think immense popularity and millions of hits would be in order for an independent puppeteer's web episodes to be recognized as a potential and viable primetime network television series. Along with killer writing, appealing characters and very original ideas behind the show's concept to entice producers to buy and air the show.

As for now, online puppet shows struggle just as online comic book/comic strip artists do, they make little to no money and do it as a hobby and hope their audience/viewers/readers grow from word of mouth.

The desire for it has diminished greatly since the 80s. Henson himself was always pushing for new series, since his passing, Dinosaurs, Fraggle Rock and other such broadcast shows have been far too scarce.