NBC’S “Quarterlife” On its Last Breath

Ben Silverman’s gamble taking Herskovitz and Zwick’s made-for-Internet series to NBC is looking very risky for everyone involved after the show premiered poorly despite huge promotional efforts.

By Alex Ben Block for Hollywod Today

 HOLLYWOOD, CA (RUSHPRNEWS) 02/28/08 – The disappointing Nielsen ratings for the premiere Tuesday of “Quarterlife” on NBC don’t portend well for a series billed as a breakthrough. This was to be the bold step pushed by NBC co-CEO Ben Silverman to help re-charge NBC, but instead may be a misstep. The 1.6 rating was the worst for any show in that time period in at least 17 years.

Silverman was hired to shake things up. He aggressively made the deal with “30something” and “My So Called Life” creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick for the program to transfer from initial showing on the Internet to primetime on his (and G.E.’s) broadcast network.
If it flops, it would also be a blow to the ambitious plans of Herskovitz and Zwick who broke the number one rule in Hollywood: Always use OPM: Other people’s money. The pair have invested millions of their own money to seed the series, a web site and social networking community, with plans that include a program to place interns in creative businesses at Herskovitz and Zwick’s expense.
“We broke the Hollywood rule,” Herskovitz told me last week before the show premiered. “We broke a bunch of Hollywood rules. We shot in our own offices, we asked favors of our friends, we put up our money. What can I tell you, we believe in this. We love it and we believe in it and we can’t wait to see what going to happen.”
Now that we have seen its weak debut, all of the dreams are on hold at least until Sunday evening at nine when the next episode of “Quarterlife” airs on NBC. The network soothsayers will be watching to see if there is an uptick, a buzz, signs of life; or another dreary performance dragging down NBC’s ratings which could lead to an early cancellation.
Remember, this was an experiment. Some experiments fail. The pre-show hype was that this was the first time content would start online, at multiple web sites, and then migrate to a major broadcast network. This was Ben Silverman trusting his gut instinct that it was time for a multi platform approach that also embraced a social community of artistic types. It didn’t hurt at the time the deal was made NBC was in the middle of the writer’s strike, and this show was already written.

Silverman gave Herskovitz and Zwick unusual creative control. However, they were also rolling the dice by investing their own money in the shows, and then licensing them to NBC for a much lower than usual fee. They were counting on the NBC exposure to feed their web site, and grow their new social networking community, which in turn would provide a flow of audience and a font of new creative ideas.
“We also produced it for less (than the usual network show) but we are still in the red,” Herskovitz said last week. “We’re still in a deficit. We’re still trying to figure out how to monetize what we’ve done but we’ve done very well and we are creating an asset we hope will have value for years t come.”
What was discounted was how many people had already seen the episodes. And who would watch in the network universe? All of the episodes that aired on NBC had already been seen on My Space and YouTube, so many potential audience members may have felt they had seen that, and could make another choice. There was also a special preview on MTV just before the NBC airing.
Adding to their struggle Sunday, “Quarterlife” will be on at the exact same time as the highly publicized and hugely hyped premiere of “Oprah’s Big Give” on ABC, which is expected to be a powerhouse driven by all things Oprah, and the lure of watching people figure out how fast and how well they can spend money. Viewers choice will be the Oprah event where she gives away millions to good causes, and it’s likely the talk of the water cooler the next day; or they can choose to watch the sensitive but realistic drama on the Peacock network with no stars that is available anytime online with more realistic language than the sanitized network version,
Things looked a lot brighter when I spoke to Herskovitz last week before the show premiered.

Since the show has no name performers, Herskovitz had been given the assignment of doing press, getting out the word, making noise about the launch of “Quarterlife” on network TV, and heralding a new business model. Remember, this was Marshall Herskovitz who I was talking to.
It was Herskovitz who famously announced in an Nov. 7, 2007 op ed in the Los Angeles Times that he and his partner would no longer develop series such as “30something,” despite having become rich and famous from it, and “have — for the time being at least — stopped producing television programs.”
Herskovitz wrote that since the end of the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules in the 1990s, all of TV has been concentrated among a small number of large conglomerates. In the years since the rules changed the networks have used their clout to force producers to work with their subsidiaries if they wanted to work at all. The result was an oligopoly that could not only control prices but also interfere in the creative process. Per Herskovitz: “The most profound change resulting from that ruling is the way networks go about the business of creating programming. Networks today exert a level of creative control unprecedented in the history of the medium.”
But now Herskovitz was back on network TV. “Here I am with a show going to television where I own the negative and I have creative control,” says Herskovitz, “How could I say no to that. It’s thrilling.”
Herskovitz told me that he takes advice, but doesn’t like being given orders by the suits. “There are notes and there are notes,” he explains. “When people have advice for me, I listen, and I take it if I want to take it. It’s different from when they say, ‘we need you to do this.’ That they are not allowed to do. They don’t have that control (in the Quarterlife deal).”
Ben Silverman has made “Quarterlife” his special project. He even appears with Herskovitz in a promotional video discussing the show that was released just before the premiere.
“He’s fantastic,” Herskovitz said of Silverman. “I can’t say enough about him. I love the fact he is bold. I love the fact that he is willing to trust his own judgment. He doesn’t rule by committee. And he respects creative people. Look, he was willing to make a deal with us, where we retain creative control over our product. That’s important in network television today.”
However the cruel lesson that is emerging from the over hyping of new media is that expectations are dramatically different on the network level. An audience of a certain size would be a hit on the Internet, or even cable TV, but that can be a flop by the standards of NBC and its advertisers. That appears to be what is happening with “Quarterlife.” The high expectations created by its early hype on the web, and the business model of the future spin have not been met by actual performance.
Actually, the numbers on the Internet haven’t been all that great either. Although Herskovitz, who refuses to provide any numbers for the web site or social networking site, insists it is a hit, the reality is that it peaked early and has never recovered. When the first eight minute long episode of Quarterlife went up on YouTube three months ago, with a promo on the front page of the site, it got a strong 789,000 views. However, the latest episode to air got only 1,200 views.
Quarterlife.com has an Internet percentage of 0.00225% compared to social network Facebook with 5.7 percent of the Internet’s traffic while the top portal Google, had 27 percent of the daily traffic.
Now comes the TV show. In the most important age group, those 18 to 49, it pulled only 4 percent of the audience watching TV at that time to place a distant third in the time period. Even when you only look at females 18 to 49 it was weak, pulling a 2 rating that made it second among women in the time period.
An even worse measure is how much of the audience lead in it was given that it lost. In this case it was roughly half. The show that preceded it, “The Biggest Loser,” had a 3rating and eight percent of the available viewing audience, or about 8.1 million people. .

On Wednesday, Silverman was saying it was worth the try and that it did drive a lot of web traffic. He noted it didn’t cost them much but admitted he was disappointed.
Herskovitz and Zwick have no reason to give up their web play even if it is a flop, and have elaborate plans for their social networking community to not only share their art with each other, but to also become contributors to Quarterlife, and to create new series.
“We’ll be placing advertisements saying we are going to take user generated content to the next level,” says Herskovitz. “In the next season of ‘Quarterlife’ all of the music on the show, all of the art you see on the walls in the characters apartments, the designs for the costumes, hopefully even some scripts, a lot of story lines, will come from our (online social networking) community.”
The site is specially designed as a place for artists of all types, and those with an artistic temperament. They encourage members to exchange their art, poetry, videos and more. But they discourage trash talking and hurtful comments on the message boards. “There’s none of that meanness you see at so many other sites where when people comment on things they just rip it to shreds,” Herskovitz told me. “There’s none of that on our site. “
Like the show (the title is a play on the idea your 20s represent one quarter of your life overall) the site and social network are aimed at arty twenty-something’s. “Those in their twenties define themselves as creative more than any generation in history,” says Herskovitz.
As of last week, there was also a budding plan for an intern program, but not to staff the Quarterlife offices. According to Herskovitz, they will take applications from members of the social networking community and see if they can place them with likeminded professional artists in key media markets. The interns would work for a photographer, architect, designer or Internet film, but their salary would be paid for a period of time by the Quarterlife backers, primarily Herskovitz and Zwick.
What’s the payoff for that? Herskovitz at first insisted that it was to give back. Then he added that they hoped it would help them inspire and build the online social networking community. `”There is this idea we didn’t make up that if you give people something of value then they will value you in what you do,” says Herskovitz. “That’s supposed to be what media companies do. I’m trying to give people something of value in their lives so then they’ll want to be on our site and they’ll support our advertisers and they’ll tell their friends to come on the site. I mean it is my self interest, but I believe we have a responsibility as grownup s in the society to contribute something and contributing something to society doesn’t necessarily exclude also benefiting from that. That’s what doctors do. All of us theoretically are contributing in the careers we have. “
That may not include hedge fund managers or career criminals, but it is a nice sentiment. The problem is that in the real world it is the success of the big distribution engine, the network TV shot, that has given them the opportunity to dream big. Right now that shot is on life support, hoping for an infusion of audience. If the show doesn’t make it on NBC, it will still be on the web, but like some of its characters, it will once again be looking for its purpose in life.

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