Two weeks from now, TV networks will announce their new slate of shows for next season. The majority of these series will be variations on a formula. Procedurals. High-concept sci-fi and fantasy dramas. Nighttime soaps. Comedies starring familiar faces. This is how it works. Out-of-the-ordinary shows tend to be too risky when the goal is big ratings.
That equation is somewhat different for the likes of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, where the measure for success is less daunting (for now, at least). A couple of million viewers might not be impressive for broadcast television, but if you can get that many people to pay for a show online? That would be a hit.
Just about every media venture you can think of is getting into the original content game, and companies are willing to take chances on shows that will get them noticed. AOL, Conde Nast and Yahoo are all spending real money on original content, and don't be surprised if we see similar efforts from Aereo, Redbox and even Xbox not far down the road.
But this window of opportunity won't last forever. Eventually budgets will tighten and the process will become as codified and cautious as it is at the network level.
Before that happens, this may be the best shot creative types have at getting their pet projects launched — online, or perhaps somewhere in the reaches of cable, where channels including Sundance have started commissioning original content as well.
This month Amazon debuted 14 TV pilots, all free to watch online. The company is looking for viewer feedback to help decide which shows get the go-ahead. That's a good start. I'm betting viewers will eventually want an even bigger say. Niche audiences might finally be able to flex some muscle; offbeat ideas might gain some traction. It won't be long before someone pitches a first-person show shot entirely on Google Glass. What kinds of shows would you like to see these new streaming ventures make? Here are a few ideas of my own.
A “Mad Men”-esque drama set in the Chicago offices of Ebony magazine, circa 1972. That was the year Johnson Publishing moved into a swanky, funky, brand new building on South Michigan Avenue. The offices were the height of style. I've been thinking about this ever since photographer Lee Bey posted a terrific photo essay on WBEZ's website of those now-empty interiors, which have remained largely untouched.
The art direction alone for a project like this would be a hoot. But more than that, isn't it time that Ebony, once one of America's dominant forces in black pop culture, got its due? “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner has made it clear that he's not comfortable (or particularly focused on) fully portraying the lives of black professionals in the wake of the civil rights movement; surely there's a writer out there who is. (Although it would be nice if whoever that is shared Weiner's obsession with detail and character development.) The magazine employed a striking number of women in executive positions at a time when the same couldn't be said for comparable white magazines. If someone created a funny, complex, thought-provoking prestige drama set within the world of Ebony (one that avoids all the cheesy pitfalls of NBC's “The Playboy Club” disaster), I would watch the daylights out of that show.
Twenty years ago, barely anyone had heard of the Internet, let alone would have imagined that we'd all be carrying around smartphones in our pockets. What might life look like 20 years from now? Futurists have all kinds of arresting predictions, and I would be curious to see a show tackle some of these within a narrative set in the 2030s.
I'm ready for a break from the dystopia that dominates pop culture these days. A human-scaled drama within a believable-seeming version of the future, though, would be unlike any on TV or online.
There's a risk that a show like this could get bogged down in too much gee-whiz gadgetry. The trick, I think, is to keep the stories grounded and only marginally shaped by the social and technological shifts of the time. It would be different from now, but not that different. Our expectations of privacy and personal space will surely be altered in the years to come — that's a strong underlying theme right there. As a Google spokeswoman recently put it, “New technology always raises new issues.” Exactly.
All these what-ifs work for shows set in the past (“The Americans” and “Boardwalk Empire”) — could they work for a show in the future? I would be intrigued to see smart TV writers try to puzzle that out. By the way, some of the advances futurists say we'll probably see in just two decades include the ability to selectively erase memories, the use of microscopic nanobots for surgery and 3-D printing (which is here already) as an everyday means to acquire pretty much anything.
Wonder Woman's creator
A drama based on the life of William Moulton Marston, the Harvard-trained lawyer and psychologist who created the comic book character in the 1940s. Wonder Woman was devised specifically as a way to advance his ideas about feminism (plus, you can't discount the bondage subtext that he made sure defined the comic in its early years). Here's where it really gets interesting: Wonder Woman's characteristics were inspired by both his wife and his mistress. Each woman had two children with Marston, and they all lived together, apparently quite happily, in a polyamorous relationship. Oh, and Marston's research on deception was central to the development of the modern polygraph (the lie detector test). There's so much here to explore — it's one of the most unconventional and unexpected back stories in pop culture.
Let's bring the recapping culture to TV. In the days after Roger Ebert's death, I found myself watching old clips of him and Gene Siskel, and it was a reminder of how good the right kind of back-and-forth can work on TV. It wouldn't cost much to put a couple of wry, insightful types in front of a camera to analyze films and TV shows that have become pop culture mainstays. With thousands of movies and TV series available for instant streaming, these are exactly the kinds of conversations we need to help sort the wheat from the chaff. Siskel and Ebert worked so well because of their chemistry. That's tough to replicate, but not impossible.
Many Second City performers log four-month stints entertaining on cruise ships. That's a show. “Saturday Night Live” cast member Cecily Strong, a Second City alum, once described the experience to late-night host Jimmy Fallon as “half-prison, half-vacation.” Cruise ships can be such strange, hermetic ecosystems — and, as we know from watching the news, a nightmare when things malfunction. I'd watch a “Veep”-like scripted absurdist comedy based on that premise, which is somewhere between “The Love Boat” and “Party Down.”
Chicago has long proved itself as a solid home base for daytime talk shows. But there is fertile ground here for a late-night talk show as well, thanks to an abundance of comedy writers in town with the chops to make it work and experiment with the genre while over at NBC they debate which white male will take the next late-night slot. What's your idea for an original TV series? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. (It goes without saying this is purely for the sake of discussion — we can't make you a star.)
What's your idea for an original TV series? Send it to email@example.com or add to the comments below.
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