The AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff joked yesterday that he and I are the only people interested in the independent television movement and the problems surrounding finding a successful business model for it that doesn’t include distribution over established networks. But the report he filed from the New York Television Festival is indispensable for anyone who cares about connecting up genuinely fresh voices, ideas, and faces with the audience we believe is hungry for them but isn’t finding them, or isn’t paying for them. Todd explains why it’s been so much harder to find that business model in independent television than in independent film:
No one has quite figured out the independent TV business model just yet—a problem even Grey will admit exists. Attending NYTVF feels a bit like how I imagine attending Sundance in the mid-’80s must have felt: There’s a whole bunch of valuable product that could attract an audience if given a chance, but no one’s yet sure how to make money from that product. It was Sex, Lies, And Videotape that helped Sundance break through into the mainstream consciousness, and I’m not sure that independent TV has found its Steven Soderbergh yet. And even considering that factor, there’s the fact that running a TV show is a vastly different undertaking from directing a film. An independent film can be released to theaters, where it will hopefully recoup its budget. An independent TV pilot will ideally lead to a larger series, and that would mean a substantial investment of network funds to keep the show going, while an independent film is, ultimately, a much smaller investment of cash. Until a show as self-evidently good as Sex, Lies, And Videotape breaks through, independent TV may remain a curiosity too costly for networks to indulge in.
I’d note that in certain ways, independent film in recent years has also been gaining access to alternative distribution methods that audiences are already using. You have to find your way to an independent movie theater, but it isn’t a totally different experience from going to the multiplex. Same with ordering independent movies on demand: indies like Margin Call and Bachelorette have gone to VOD sometimes without even going to theaters and done fine there because audiences are so familiar with the experience of ordering movies. But indie television hasn’t broken in there, because that would mean striking details with cable carriers, which is no small task of its own for producers who, and would probably be something the networks would frown on, however little competition the indies would provide. Right now, indie television isn’t getting access either networks like PBS or even bigger distribution networks like Netflix and Hulu, which would be obvious outlets for them. However easy it is to distribute on the web or through YouTube, it still requires determined consumers who are already used to looking for content outside normal channels to find those shows.
That, of course, comes second to the issue of just producing enough material independently to actually constitute a television season, much less a television episode. Todd explains, for both reasons of creativity and resources, that most shows at the festival just aren’t coming up with even a full episode’s worth of material, though the best shows, like Husbands, are coming close. He’s right it’s going to take a big breakthrough show that becomes a massive hit despite the distributional challenges—and then it’s going to take people working out the rather more complicated business infrastructure to provide the huge, long-term support indie television makers are going to need to keep turning out product.