Game of Clones: online streaming is killing quality TV

Online video services are broken. Consider the case of Eureka, a fantastic science fiction show about a silly town full of super scientists, which is being canceled like most quality SF because it could never find an audience on broadcast TV. If you want to watch Eureka online, you’re in semi-luck, it’s on Hulu (Plus). However, there’s a catch:

For Syfy scripted television, the first four episodes of every season will be made available online the day after they air. Every episode after the initial four will be available 30 days after air.

5 episodes will be available at a time.

This is an entirely arbitrary limitation that means that I won’t be watching Eureka even though it’s online for at least a month – a month in which newer shows might come along and eat into my limited availability for watching new and exciting television – like Game of Thrones. This, in a nutshell, is why online streaming is no saviour of quality television: because the content is still slaved to broadcast economics. And for the purposes of this discussion, anything on basic cable might as well be broadcast TV. Unless we get true a la carte pricing on cable (which will never happen), this will always remain true.

Erik at Forbes wrote a deservedly widely-linked piece lambasting HBO for refusing to make GoT available outside a premium subscription, pointing out that the restriction has only encouraged rampant piracy. Later, Erik called for HBO to at least allow folks to subscribe to HBO Go as a standalone service, only to later realize that this is untenable from HBO’s perspective due to their business model. In a nutshell, piracy isn’t a threat to HBO’s ability to create quality TV programming – online video services, however, are a mortal threat, especially “cord cutting” (as an excellent rebuttal by Trevor Gilbert at Pando Daily also made quite clear). It’s also worth reading HBO co-president Eric Kesseler’s thoughts on the matter.

The problem is that quality TV is expensive. Great shows like Awake, Terra Nova, and Eureka are all lost, while nonsense like Lost gets renewed for a milion years and people actually were fooled into thinking that’s good television. Once in a while you get something great like Battlestar Galactica that survives barely long enough to tell a story in depth and in full, but these are rare events built on the fertile ground of corpses of superior concepts like Farscape and Firefly.

The rush to the web means that most content companies are reactionary – they grudgingly put the shows online, but they do it half-assed (as in Syfy’s case with Eureka) with inane restrictions that hamper building a viral audience. Netflix doesn’t have any current television at all, the only game in town is Hulu or buying videos from Amazon or iTunes, which rapidly makes even the expense of cable television seem like a bargain. The end result is that the video go online (at significant engineering and overhead cost) but they fail to generate any viral interest – and cannibalize broadcast views, which hurts ratings.

Yes, Nielsen supposedly does count DVR views towards ratings now, but it’s doubtful that’s equally weighted as a faithful viewer sitting down at the annointed timeslot. But even using a DVR is like flying the space shuttle compared to ease-of-use of online, given that every device in your family room has an internet connection now: Wii, XBox, Playstation, smart TV, Roku, Apple TV. All of these support Hulu and/or Netflix or both and most support Amazon video. DVRs are dinosaurs in comparison.

But if DVRs are not counted as equal to a traditional view, then surely Hulu etc is even less. It’s trivial to ignore ads on Hulu by opening a new window and checking your email, or laying the iPad aside and goofing off with your phone for 30 sec. Hulu is very helpful in even giving you a countdown for how much commercial remains.

No matter how you argue yourself an an exception to the rule, it’s a no-brainer that online viewing of television means less ads, less engaged consumers, and lower ratings. And that hurts good TV across the board. It’s harder to persuade a studio to take a risk on a new concept because they know that even if it’s good, they can’t sell as many ads as they used to so the cost-benefit calculation is going to be worse than it was a few years ago, and will get worse further still ahead.

There’s only one alternative for quality television, outside the Clone ARmy of online streaming services, and that is premium television. If SyFy were a premium channel we would be watching Firefly season 5 by now. As long as we circle around the drain of online streaming we are going to see fewer and fewer shows outside that paywall worth watching, and the few that do make it will be short-lived. The cancellation of Awake really burns in this regard – a show that had an incredible idea but just didn’t have the time to mature. Look at the difference between Encounter at Farpoint and Yesterday’s Enterprise or The Offspring, for example. We don’t get to see that kind of maturation anymore because teh economics of ratings has driven it into the ground, and online streaming is the bloody shovel.

The techsphere is all agog over everything mobile, streaming, real-time, immediate gratification, and cheap. But that’s a formula for dren rather than quality. This is why we can’t have nice things.

Firefly rewatch

Tor is doing a Firefly rewatch and they have the first episode (“Serenity”) up. Reading the plot synopsis really brought back the sheer density of memorable events – I think the reviewer is right that in many ways, “Serenity” the episode made for a better movie than “Serenity” the movie. Then again, part of what made it work as a pilot was the fast pace. Were it a full hour longer, would it have been as effective? They’d have had to pad some and slow it down some, and that could have hurt.

I like the detailed character analysis, invoking various archetypes:

Mal is wonderfully convincing. The Knight in Sour Armor is pulled off wonderfully with him, especially as it can be questionable with just how much good really is still in him. Yes, he is a man of honor in a den of thieves, but he nonchalantly killed Dobson and dumped the body simply because he did not have time to deal with it. Not the sign of exactly a moral person that has just given up on ideals.

Zoe is actually pretty flat in the pilot. She is the stalwart second in command from her first moment on screen and sticks to it the entire time. You get a little depth on her with her interactions with Wash, but those are really far more building for him than her.

Which brings us to Wash and three words: Witty Comic Relief. When a man’s opening scene is with plastic dinosaurs at a spaceship’s helm, you might think he is there for pure silly, but he manages to throw in enough snark to be witty instead. I also love his husbandly concern, both in pleading with Zoe to stand up to Mal and when he is talking to Simon. Wash is a person, and that is all there is to it, perhaps the most balanced and “normally relatable” on the ship.

Jayne, on the other hand, is the crass, silly comic relief. Yes he has his dangerous, redneck moments, but, especially in the pilot, he is there to be the dumb, funny, gun-totting hick. He serves as a foil to Mal, and does so faithfully well. I love him later in the series, but here, he is really just a secondary.

Kaylee. Nuff said. OK, not really, but I will give even more full disclosure and say that if I was a fourteen year old boy, there would be a huge poster of Jewel Staite in my bedroom. Now that we are past the creepy, Kaylee is the female counterpart to Wash on the ship. She is centered and relatable, and she serves as the Earth Mother. She is open and honest and sees through to the real side of people (except for Dobson, I guess, but no one is perfect). And she’s a hot girl who’s a grease monkey. There’s that too.

Inara, I imagine, is who most boys have on their walls, despite their ages. I will admit, she plays the courtesan-geisha amazingly well, with both her role as ship’s counselor (even the preacher goes to her for benediction) and moral compass. I also enjoyed that, on a network television show, we had a main character who was able to show sexuality as something positive and wholesome, and on Fox at that. Her mild romantic tension with Mal is already well established here, and I am sure the shippers rejoice at something to ship over. I, for one, enjoy the dynamic it adds to both of them.

Book is very quickly made into a mystery for us. He goes from slightly awkward preacher to ninja in point-three-five seconds flat, and then back to a somewhat unsuspecting preacher. I know that, with the movie, some have speculated that he was once an Operative, but thus far, nothing is solidly canon, so we can only guess. His moral conundrum was delivered quite well, though.

Simon’s mislead as the villain was actually really good, ’cause it got me the first time I watched this, and I had seen the movie (albeit I couldn’t remember anything beyond River killing everything). His stiffness is well played for the rich kid who doesn’t really know how to be a fugitive, and bumbling Dobson had completely thrown me off too. Later, once Simon starts to open up to the crew, he really does an amazing job of being the protective big brother that gladly and willingly gave up everything for his sister. Still, he never completely shrugs off that dangerous aura about him, and we as the view can just tell there is more to him than meets the eye. After all, he did jump off a catwalk to save River.

And then there’s River. River is really just a Mac Guffin in this episode. She’s damaged goods, hysterical, and who knows what she’s going to amount to. So for now, Hi River, Bye River.

Of course these are from the series pilot. It’s amazing just how much each of these characters were fleshed out over the course of the series, despite it being truncated. Of them all, I think Jayne is the one with the most effective character arc, with Zoe coming in second. All the others, you basically have a good sense for who they are from the pilot alone, which is a mark of good storytelling (especially since despite being true to their core, they were never boxed in, like poor Ensign Kim on Voyager). It’s hard to do an ensemble where everyone is introduced, and then everyone is given a chance to shine. Firefly easily achieves this feat in the first episode.

My favorite scene: the scene of everyone laughing at Simon’s expense. My favorite line: “Well, you’re a dummy.” My favorite visual: the aerial dogfight with the Reaver:

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I took some other screenshots from the pilot episode a while back that also really bring back fond memories… what a great show. Sigh.

Take me out, to the black

This is just really, really cool – the crew of Endeavour STS-130 awoke this morning to the Ballad of Serenity.

And NASA announced it on Twitter – and is even hosting the mp3 for download. Though you can also get it from the Firefly Wiki.

funny comment from the thread at Whedon’s site: “and then the Space Shuttle program was cancelled. Coincidence?”

here’s the lyrics:

Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don’t care, I’m still free
You can’t take the sky from me
Take me out to the black
Tell them I ain’t comin’ back
Burn the land and boil the sea
You can’t take the sky from me
There’s no place I can be
Since I found Serenity
But you can’t take the sky from me…

NASA Serenity

Starbuck whines

Sheesh man, this whining is so emasculating!

There was a time, I know I was there, when men were men, women were women and sometimes a cigar was just a good smoke. But 40 years of feminism have taken their toll. The war against masculinity has been won. Everything has turned into its opposite, so that what was once flirting and smoking is now sexual harassment and criminal. And everyone is more lonely and miserable as a result.

“Re-imagining”, they call it. “Un-imagining” is more accurate. To take what once was and twist it into what never was intended. So that a television show based on hope, spiritual faith and family is un-imagined and regurgitated as a show of despair, sexual violence and family dysfunction. To better reflect the times of ambiguous morality in which we live, one would assume. A show in which the aliens (Cylons) are justified in their desire to destroy human civilization, one would assume. Indeed, let us not say who the good guys are and who the bad are. That is being “judgmental,” taking sides, and that kind of (simplistic) thinking went out with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and Kathryn Hepburn and John Wayne and, well, the original “Battlestar Galactica.”

I kind of pity poor Dirk Benedict. He sounds like Grandpa Simpson. I think, however, that his version of Starbuck would have found a lot to like about the new BSG, because at its core, it’s about strong people who keep going in the face of overwhelming odds, about the importance of principle and honor, and a basic embrace of the essence of being human. What makes BSG special is that it does so in classic science fiction style, by using the strange and unfamiliar as foil to probe the familiar and known. How better to answer the question of, what makes us human, then by having machines ask it?

One gets the feeling that Dirk never read any (Philip K) Dick. The Matrix, Blade Runner, even good ol’ Spock the Vulcan… all of that goes over his head, and he is left fuming, impotently, about ambiguous moralities. Science fiction is for grown-ups. The old Galactica series was for kids.

(good as BSG is, though, Firefly still holds the edge. I wonder what sort of conniptions that show would send Dirk into?)

(via Steven)

BSG season 4 tidbit: Romo Lampkin returns!

badgerThis interview with Ron Moore has lots of little morsels to chew on, but by far the best is the news that wily lawyer Romo Lampkin returns twice in season 4. He’ll always be The Badger to me, though.

The bad news is that there is no word on when the second half of the season will be aired; SciFi milking the series out until 2009 seems increasingly likely. Still, at least we get the first ten episodes of season 4 starting in just two weeks.

Interestingly, the interview with Moore also includes his thoughts on the new Sar Trek film. Overall, he is very positive, about the reboot with fresh blood. Worth reading in full.