Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Viewers? Anticipating the Blog-To-TV Tsunami

A lifetime ago, back in 2004, I became a book publisher: co-founder of The Friday Project, a publishing house that promised to adapt the web’s creative talent into awesome books. This wasn’t print on demand, it was real, live publishing: we paid our authors (including the occasional advance), we partnered with publishing giant Macmillan for distribution and our books could be found in actual book stores.

It’s hard to say if we rode the bloggers-with-book-deals wave or if we helped precipitate it. All I know is, for a brief period starting about five years into the present millennium, every online hack and her dog was being offered a six figure sum to turn her livejournal about love or sex or working in an office or cooking like Julia Child (or all of the above) into the next bestseller. Big online brands got in on the action too with Gawker and Postsecret and every other site north of a million page views being handed a fat check. There were even agents who specialised in blog-to-book deals, most notably ICM’s Kate Lee who achieved her own meta-micro fame by helping high profile bloggers break through.

Twelve months later came the deluge of remaindered books. A couple of the sex books did pretty well, Julie and Julia went on to become a movie, Postsecret still hums along nicely – but the vast, vast majority of the rest sank without trace (the Gawker book is currently trading at about five copies the 1923 Deutsch Mark). The Friday Project was itself remaindered, sold to Harper Collins who have since un-acquired every member of the original team.

The conclusion, in hindsight, seems obvious: just because something makes for a popular blog, doesn’t mean it’s going to be an equally popular book. Books are – duh – a different medium: I might smirk at and retweet a pithy observation on Twitter but would I really pay Barnes and Noble to read it in printed form? And given the size of the advances – Stuff White People Like sold for a reported $300,000 – they didn’t have to just shift copies to be considered succesful, they had to become bestsellers.

Today, generally speaking, publishers have learned to assess online talent for its literary potential rather than being bamboozled by hype. Certainly only a fucking idiot would throw good money at an author – not to mention the associated development costs – simply on the basis of some ethereal web traffic numbers.

CUT TO: A room full of television producers.

The first episode of “Bleep My Dad Says” aired last month. Adapted by CBS from the almost-eponymous Twitter account “Shit My Dad Says” the show was a critical flop, despite the fact that the account’s author, Justin Halpern, is a professional screenwriter. Viewers apparently agreed with the critics: the show lost two million viewers between the first two episodes.

Unperturbed, CBS is ploughing ahead with it’s blog-to-broadcast spree, signing up “Shh… Don’t Tell Steve”, a Twitter stream of things overheard from the author’s roommate, Steve. I shit you not. CBS is clearly trying to own the “things people I live with just said” space. And good luck to them.

Over at ABC they’ve just signed a “script plus penalty” deal with Sony Pictures for a show based on AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com, created by Mike Bender and Doug Chernack. (“Script plus penalty” essentially means that Sony – and the site’s creators – get paid no matter whether a pilot is subsequently made). Quite what a show based on some awkward photographs will look like is unclear – just thinking about it makes my brain hurt – but between the subject matter and the precedent set by Bleep My Dad Says, it’s reasonably safe to say the results won’t be pretty.

There’s a saying, credited to George Santayana, that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Like publishers before them, TV studios are terrified by the exodus of their core audience, particularly the younger segments of it, to the Internet (the fact that many of those escapees are turning to the Internet to watch TV shows like House or Glee doesn’t seem to matter.) In response, producers have decided that the only way to compete with the web is by throwing money at spin-off shows that started life online, no matter how abstract the concept or how high the cost of acquisition. And, like book publishers before them, it’s likely to take them at least a year – and a dozen more dreadful pilots – before they realise the embarrassing error of their ways: that just because something makes a good blog or Twitter account doesn’t mean it will make a successful TV show.

In the meantime, check your local listings for shows like Craigslist: Miami, Celebrity Foursquares and Dancing With Lolcats, coming soon to a TV screen near you…

A Postscript on AOL/TC…

I should probably clear something up. In my last column I acknowledged the screaming inevitability of me being fired by AOL. Some readers inferred the reverse: that I’d decided to quit in some kind of fit of pique over the acquisition of TechCrunch by (and I quote myself) “America’s number one killer of startups”. My inbox steadily filled up with subject lines like “Have you really quit?” or “Woah!” or “No!” or “Yes!”. I’m no longer on Twitter, but I gather a similar noise is being made there.

Here – to save my tired fingers – is the answer: no, I haven’t quit AOL-TC – not least because, as I’m technically a contractor (the Untermenschen of the corporate world) no-one from AOL has spoken a single word to me since the take-over. It’s hard to quit a job you haven’t been offered. It’s also incredibly liberating to exist in this kind of limbo.

That said – I’ve made (and will continue to make) no secret of my fear that our new corporate structure will mean the end of TechCrunch as I know and love it. I’ve seen what happens when big dumb companies acquire small awesome ones, and it’s much like what happens when you let a drunk elephant play with a blind kitten. I’d be an idiot to expect otherwise. But at the same time I have a huge amount of affection and loyalty towards Heather, Mike and the TechCrunch team so I’m in no hurry to rush out the door simply because it would be the cool and independent thing to do. TechCrunch is dysfunctional as all hell, but I like it here.

So, like Milton in Office Space, I’m planning on tapping away here for the time being: until either it stops being fun, I stop getting paid (“we. fixed. the. glitch.”) someone revokes my login credentials, or someone in AOL’s New York head office decides to drop by my virtual desk with some helpful suggestions on language and tone.

And while I await the inevitable, the least I can do is to continue sharing with you the amusing things that I’ve been privy to since the takeover. Like the moment last week where two HR people strolled up to Alexia’s desk and asked her “are you MG?” (Alexia claims she’s flattered by the mistake). Or the fact that the quality of AOL’s welcome gifts appears to directly correlate with the reported valuation of your acquisition. Employees of TechCrunch (reported sale value: $50m) received bottles of $7 wine in AOL carrier bags (thanks) while the Brizzly folks (reported sale value: $6m) were given branded staplers. Really. AOL staplers. Isn’t that fucking tremendous?

And I said, I don’t care if they lay me off either, because I told, I told Bill that if they move my desk one more time, then, then I’m, I’m quitting, I’m going to quit. And, and I told Don too, because they’ve moved my desk four times already this year, and I used to be over by the window, and I could see the squirrels, and they were merry, but then, they switched from the Swingline to the Boston stapler, but I kept my Swingline stapler because it didn’t bind up as much, and I kept the staples for the Swingline stapler and it’s not okay because if they take my stapler then I’ll set the building on fire…

– Milton

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