There is something wrong with NBC. This statement should not surprise or offend, as anyone who has watched the network over the last several years on a night that isn't Thursday is already keenly aware of the network's myriad problems. Take Heroes, for example. I maintain that Heroes was an entertaining television program for its first season, and a tolerable one for its second. Although the story never approached Lost-like levels of complexity, intrigue, and literary sophistication, it nevertheless presented characters vaguely resembling real people interacting in a world not unlike our own, dealing with the problems that superpowers could and would inevitably bring to them.
Take for instance the first season episode Six Months Ago, wherein Hiro, the plucky young Japanese fellow for whom we've all been rooting because of his raw enthusiasm for his powers, has to learn a hard lesson about the complexities of time travel and the capricious nature of fate. He emerges from the episode a more mature character, ready for his next challenge. Now contrast that to anything that happens after season two, when time travel, fate, and consequences all collide in a horrible mush of nonsense, and layers of character development are repeatedly peeled back until all that remains is the fragile notion of something that might become something vaguely resembling a person. Any past experiences that the characters may have gone through are rendered meaningless, and the audience is left to wonder what happened to the figures that they at one point in time kind of sort of liked. (Full disclosure: I haven't watched Heroes since the end of volume 3. It is entirely possible the show has gotten better... but I doubt it.) It's as though the thought of the characters growing and changing is repulsive to the creators, who are desperately trying to cling to what made the show interesting during the first season.
Contrast that with Lost, again. Those of you who are caught up on Lost: remember when the show was just about a group of crash survivors on an island? Oh, how things have changed! But even if you disagree with the general direction that the show has taken, you can't deny that these characters have changed and evolved in a way that feels organic to the telling of the story. They have moved along in the narrative, and the creators, rather than trying to hold on to the feel of the first season, when everything was new and fresh, have instead delved deeper into the show's mythology and created new and interesting characters and scenarios to keep the show going. What do Ben Linus, Desmond Hume, Charles Widmore, Daniel Faraday, Penny Widmore, Miles Straume, Frank Lapidus, Juliet Burke, Jacob, Illana, and Richard Alpert all have in common? None of them appeared in the first season of the show! Lost successfully reached new frontiers of storytelling and kept itself interesting. Heroes did not.
And in this way, Heroes is the perfect microcosm of NBC. NBC has spent the last several years trying desperately to recreate Seinfeld, Friends, Law & Order, and ER, and failed miserably. Sure they've got some funny shows; like I said, NBC Thursdays are very entertaining. But the programs on that night are focused on a very specific demographic, and don't have the huge appeal that Friends and Seinfeld did, regardless of their quality. 30 Rock may win Emmys, but it will never be number one in the ratings. So NBC presses onward, trying to come up with something else, and fails, because they are trying to recapture former glories or piggyback on another show's success, instead of innovating on their own. Heroes and Lost share a number of plot elements, including time travel, destiny, and the conflict between good and evil. But whereas Lost contextualizes and expands on these notions, Heroes hopes that they will be sufficient to carry the story. You see, Heroes sees Lost utilizing those ideas successfully, but misses the underlying narrative structure. Heroes is, in many ways, a copy of Lost made by someone who doesn't really understand Lost.
But can we really blame Tim Kring (creator of Heroes)? After all, Kring did create a pretty good first season for the show. He didn't ask that NBC place all of their hopes for a hit on his shoulders. He stumbled into it, and inevitably was given some incentive to deviate from what he wanted the show to be. That doesn't absolve him of blame, but it does reinforce the notion that there is a larger problem at hand than just a creator bereft of ideas. NBC itself seems incapable of creating great shows that aren't half-hour niche comedies -hence, The Marriage Ref.
NBC is incapable of penetrating the new frontier, which brings me to the crux of this post: the iPad. Surprise! Stealth iPad post!
(You can thank me for deleting the video of Rick Astley that was originally going to go here.)
No, seriously. Credit where credit is due: NBC has not been totally ignorant of the coming television apocalypse. As technology provides alternative methods of viewing beyond the living room, traditional media is going to have to adapt, and NBC has taken a good first step with Hulu. What is interesting now, though, is how they are slowly but surely doing everything they can to piss away all the goodwill they've garnered for putting their programming on the web with two new policies. The first is that NBC content is not going to be available on the iPad for free. ABC and CBS have both found ways to offer their programming to the new device, which is expected to sell between 7-10 million units this year. ABC has a free viewing app already available in the App Store, and CBS is converting their video player to HTML5, so that iPad users can view shows in the Safari browser. NBC, meanwhile, says that they have no plans to put full episodes of their content into an iPad-optimized format.
Now, even if you don't buy the iPad hype, you have ask yourself why NBC is refusing to compete in a market that its two most prominent rivals are making aggressive plays for. If the iPad takes off in the way that the iPod and the iPhone did, then NBC is going to be significantly behind the other two networks, and will have to do something radical to catch up. Why cede a potentially lucrative new marketplace without so much as a fight? The only rationale that I've heard is that NBC doesn't want to rush its content onto the device ahead of a forthcoming Hulu app. That makes some sense, but there is a catch: whereas ABC and CBS are offering their ad-supported content free of charge, NBC is pushing hard for the Hulu app to be on a subscription model. That's right, folks: unless something changes, you'll have to pay a monthly fee to watch Hulu on your iPad.
Do these people really not understand that the reason people use Hulu is because it offers high-quality video free of charge? Does NBC really believe that people are going to pay for their programming because they love the Hulu experience so much? Especially when their rivals are offering content of comparable quality for free on the same device? Once again, NBC is undermining its ability to compete in a new market. This is especially disappointing when you realize how well they've been doing with Hulu. If one company was going to be ready to seize the bull by the horns here, you would expect it to be NBC. Sadly, that's not the case.
So the question is: why? Why is NBC abandoning the Hulu business model and ceding a potentially lucrative new market to its competitors? Simply put, it's a lack of vision. NBC still thinks that television means the screen in your living room. They see the product through an old-world media paradigm, wherein only the unit that has traditionally been designated as "television" can fill that role in someone's life. They don't understand that as technology grows and delivery mechanisms change, their content will be viewed across a significantly larger number of screens. It'll be viewed on computers, on phones, and, yes, on iPads. And unless NBC acknowledges that and makes a smart play for the new markets, they are going to lose viewers. NBC needs to realize that television conceptually is no longer about the TV, and they need to do it fast.
And I know that you're probably thinking to yourself, "But they're already ahead of the game. They've got Hulu." Well, boys and girls, there's the rub: NBC wants a subscription package for regular Hulu as well. Successful business model be damned: they think we have to pay for their content. They honestly don't get that people will download it illegally or (like me), just not watch. They don't get it.
And this is why Heroes is the perfect microcosm of NBC. It can see the new frontier, but it can't or won't pursue it. Instead, it looks to its past successes and tries to relive them. And inevitably, it fails.