July 21, 2006

Nobody’s Watching…Or Are They?

Every year there are dozens of TV pilots made. Only a few of them get picked up by the networks and get turned into regular series. The rest go into a vault somewhere and are forgotten. Once upon a time those were the only two options for a pilot, but now a third is beginning to emerge.

Nobody’s Watching was the name of a pilot made last year by Bill Lawrence, the creator of Scrubs and Spin City. It was a show about two guys who were tired of watching all the crap on TV, and sent a complaint to the executives in Burbank saying that they could do better. I’m sure hundreds of letters just like that are written every day in real life. But in this show’s shocking twist, the executives write back and say, “OK, prove it.” The guys are flown out to LA and put in charge of creating and running their own sitcom. Which, of course, they have no idea how to do. Cameras follow them everywhere and record everything they do, and it’s this reality-show-wrapped-around-a-show-within-a-show that we at home are supposedly watching.

Nobody’s Watching was a pilot in the spring of 2005, I believe, and first NBC was interested in it, then the WB was interested in it (in fact, it takes place at the WB studios), but in the end nobody wanted it and it was put into the vault. Normally this would be the end of the story.

But this story, just like the show itself, has a shocking twist. This spring the pilot episode of Nobody’s Watching found its way onto YouTube. It’s still up there; you can watch it yourself, in three parts (one|two|three). It became a hit on YouTube, earning nearly 400,000 viewers, so NBC decided to give it a second chance. They officially announced this morning that they’ll pick up Nobody’s Watching for the 2006-07 season, as well as create several internet-only “webisodes” for folks to watch online. It’s an internet-age success story, a TV show brought back from the dead by the web.

So is this the start of a trend? Is every failed pilot going to be dumped online now in the hopes that they can get enough grassroots support to get on the air? And what I’m really wondering, is how long before the TV producers decide to bypass the networks alltogether, and take their shows to the web first? I guess the problem with that plan is that it takes money to make these shows, money that the network usually fronts. Some kind of new economy would have to spring up to take the networks out of the picture, and that kind of thing doesn’t happen overnight.

And what about Nobody’s Watching itself? Will pageviews online translate into viewers on the tube? Will the title be self-fulfilling? One thing I know for sure is that the pilot will have to be reshot, since it was focused around the WB. The WB doesn’t even exist anymore; it’s merging with UPN in a couple of months to form the CW. And since the show is now on NBC, they’ll probably redo it to work in their new network. But this reshoot is actually a terrific opportunity for them. Because the pilot, while kind of fresh and exciting in some ways, was also kind of limp and lame in others. It’s part of the whole mockumentary genre, and uses that to good effect in some areas. Like the TV executives that can’t stop staring at the cameras. But at other times the jokes fell flat and things that probably looked good on paper were executed poorly. In some ways, it’s probably a good thing that it didn’t get picked up right away, because it most likely would have been a dud. If the producers can really figure out what went wrong the first time, why it didn’t get picked up, and work on making it better, it could turn out to be a fun show.

And stayed tuned on YouTube for more failed pilots. I have a feeling we’re about to see a land rush.

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