The New York Television Festival has been going on for six years, but I'll bet you've never heard of it. The focus of the festival seems to be a seriously watered down version of the Paley Festival in Los Angeles, where the stars and creative personnel of several shows gather to talk about their work to adoring fans. Scheduled during the premiere week of the TV season, the NYTVF does the same, but usually with talent from upcoming shows. This week, there are screenings for Detroit 1-8-7, Luther, and Running Wilde, among others. In addition, there are assorted panels on breaking into show business, the perils of late night TV, and various other bits of TV ephemera. But, outside of a couple of the panels (like the late-night one, which will be covered by our own Steve Heisler), there's nothing here that couldn't be just as easily covered from the comfort of one's own home.
So why cover the NYTVF? Because there's a sideline to the panels that just might be the future of television, that's why.
TV has finally reached a point of enough cultural prominence that even those folks who say, snidely, "Oh, I don't even OWN a TV," have now gone on to saying, "Oh, I don't even OWN a TV, but I DID like The Wire" (which, presumably, they watched on a laptop or something). Plus, TV—and not just TV, but good TV—has won. If you like Mad Men, you likely watch it on your TV, but there are myriad other options for checking it out. You can still say you don't own a TV and yet watch all of the good TV. And if you need to catch up on pretty much any show from the last 10 years, the bulk of it will be on DVD. Yes, it's a good time to be a TV fan.
But there's also a sense that TV is bumping up against the limits of what it can do. The three best pilots this year—Boardwalk Empire, Lone Star, and Terriers—are all about varying degrees of guys who live just outside of the law. (The dudes on Terriers are good guys, but they're unlicensed, scruffy, and generally just trying to scrape by.) Nearly every good comedy offers some variation on a single-camera sitcom where all of the characters race around, tossing wacky quips at each other. Granted, there's been a lot of innovation within comedy in the last couple of years, but how long before that genre runs out of room as well?
Yet there's a very good reason for this: TV networks control the means of distribution, as they always have. And the networks generally have fairly narrow ideas of A) what's good and B) what fits their brand. This even goes for the wide-ranging HBO, which sells pretty much everything as, "It's The Sopranos in X." There's little room for independent voices in television. If I were to go out tomorrow and shoot a pilot for $5 about my friends and I making a living as post-apocalyptic dog catchers, told via a complicated flashback structure, there's really no way for me to get it out to the masses. Even though I'm a TV critic and think the medium has endless potential, when people try to pitch the argument that TV is better than film, I often can't agree. Sure, mainstream American TV is better than mainstream American film by a fair amount. But film has the benefit of being able to import the best foreign films and show the best independently produced films. If I shoot the aforementioned dog catcher project as a film, even if it's absolutely terrible, there exists an alternate distribution model for me to get it—however briefly—in theaters.
"A-ha!" you say. "What about the Internet?" The Internet is, indeed, a pretty good place for independently shot pilots to go, but there's really no place on the Internet that's set up for anything beyond five-minute comedy shorts. How many 25-minute sitcoms or 45-minute dramas are out there on the Internet and consistently satisfying? Sure, there's always the possibility that a site like Hulu could start buying up independent pilots (and I hope it does), but the revenue model for the site still isn't clear, and isn't it much easier to make money from pre-existing hits than from branching out into production? In addition, the Internet is conducive to multi-tasking, to clicking around. That's fine when you're watching The Legend of Neil in several bite-sized chunks. You don't really need to pay attention to that show to enjoy it. But where is there room on the Internet for something dense and enthralling like Breaking Bad?
The solution seems pretty obvious to me: Either a site (like Hulu) or a TV network (presumably Sundance or IFC) needs to get into picking up the best foreign series—from non-English speaking countries—and begin building an independent television model. The most important thing for an independent television model will be a series of festivals for producers to show their work to interested buyers. And in the New York Television Festival, such a thing already exists, but basically no one knows about it, even though the networks sponsor it and ostensibly sign the best producers to distribution deals.
At the same time, Sundance didn't become Sundance until the media started paying attention to it. Granted, the films started getting better and buzzier right around that time, too, and just from watching the trailers of the pilots here on YouTube, I can tell there's not going to be anything quite at the level of sex, lies, and videotape here. But if one of the best pilots in history is at the NYTVF some year, no one's going to know about it because no one covers the damn thing. So over the next week, Steve Heisler and I will be hitting as many pilots as we can, with both of us dropping in on some of the more interesting panels as well. We hope you'll read along and toss in your two cents. The future of television is at stake! (And that's only half hyperbole.)
Blatant comments bait question of the day: While I'm in New York City, what should I do?