Repurposing the Web


None of these shows have been breakaway hits and some were outright flops. (Still on the air -- in addition to the brand new Smash Cuts -- are Tosh.0 and Web Soup.) Not even Comedy Central would make the claim that Daniel Tosh of Tosh.0 is the new Ed Sullivan. This may be because the performances on The Ed Sullivan Show could only be seen by watching The Ed Sullivan Show, which is not the case with viral videos. Furthermore, on the Internet we can always choose to stop watching one video and move on to the next.

Still, the idea behind these shows is a sound one. America's Funniest Home Videos, after all, has been going for 20 years now; and Beavis and Butt-Head and Mystery Science Theater 3000 demonstrated that adding snarky new analyses to tired old content can be very appealing if it's done right.

But there's another radical principle behind these shows: the idea that as the content of the Internet approaches infinity, people can't keep up with it. It's the "we'll-surf-the-Web-so-you-don't-have-to" approach -- CliffsNotes for the Internet. In a bizarre rhetorical sleight of hand, these viral clip shows make the extraordinary claim that they are the avant-garde.

At the beginning of an episode of Bravo's Outrageous and Contagious, the announcer encouraged us to "ditch that dial-up and download yourself on your couch." This show was, in effect, telling us that the Internet was old news, now that we could watch the cream of the online crop right on our regular television. This past (post-dial-up) summer, Comedy Central promoted Tosh.0 in essentially the same way, with the claim that the show was "taking the Internet to the next level -- your TV!"
It's a cagey argument to say the Internet has become such a crowded mess we need a guide. Perhaps the promotions folks at the network evening news shows should take note. In the world of 24-hour news on cable and the Web, they might argue, maybe what we really need is a quick digest of the day's news in a half-hour after we get home from work. Under the philosophical rubric of Smash Cuts and Tosh.0, the nightly news is a positively modern idea.

Robert Thompson is professor of television, radio and film at Syracuse University and director of SU's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.