After a decade of breathless predictions, the new television revolution is finally upon us. Every week, an announcement is made about another service that will release programming from the confines of a schedule or even a TV set. "Anytime, anywhere" has emerged as the industry mantra.
Technological breakthroughs notwithstanding, however, the bulk of the content of these services depends on programs that have already played on traditional networks or cable channels. Eventually, it seems, the new mobile TV will have to establish its own aesthetics, as the old TV did when it was emerging from radio in the 1940s and 1950s. A new kind of programming is called for: one that can be enjoyed in the complex, chaotic, out-of-home environment and that doesn't suffer from being seen on a small screen.
CBS' broadband channel, innertube, introduced earlier this month, seems to be slouching ever so slowly in this direction. Indeed, much of what we see (and are promised) on innertube is of the usual brand-extension variety: behind-the-scenes of CBS shows, sample clips of CBS shows, episodes of CBS shows no longer shown on CBS. More interesting, however, is an upcoming lineup of original made-for-broadband material that includes comedy, animation and reality in short, modular, daily programming bursts perfect for the conditions of Internet viewing.
The first of these original shows is a reality makeover series featuring college fraternity boys. It's called Greek to Chic, and it provides a primitive map of the new territory that mobile television will eventually need to settle.
Structurally, the concept is a promising one. The episodes are less than 15 minutes long, and thus easily consumed in, say, an office cubicle while pretending to work. Each installment is independent of the next, easy to follow and doesn't require a big screen to be enjoyed. CBS is hoping to attract a younger audience with innertube, and certainly the extreme frat makeover idea is consistent with that aim. In form and style, then, the show works pretty well as something to be watched on a computer in a state of distraction.
The content is another story. The audience that CBS is looking for will likely come to this show having logged in many hours in front of MTV's spring break coverage, The Real World and raunchy late-night hook-up shows like ElimiDate. They will be shocked to see how utterly tame and G-rated Greek to Chic is, which is all the more mystifying because direct-to-broadband programming isn't hindered by the content regulations that restrict stations broadcasting shows like ElimiDate.
Another problem is the flagrant misuse of product placement. In serving the demands of the product, the integrity of the story is completely compromised. This is a show, after all, about frat boys. Indeed, these college students drink a lot, but all they drink is Dr Pepper. They encounter pretty girls, but all they want to do with them is take them to Chili's. If Bluto, Pinto and Flounder had been bound by corporate sponsors like these, they'd never have been put on double-secret probation.
After the rooms at a frat house get a minor makeover in the premiere episode, the show ends with a party. In the climactic scene, the hosts of the show interrupt the party to make an extraordinary announcement: The house will be receiving a full year's supply of—Dr Pepper! The party guests respond with a joyful ovation. It's like ending a Christmas special with all the kids getting socks and underwear; sure, they can use them, but you don't expect them to be so happy about it.
Not that there's anything wrong with product placement. Milton Berle and friends employed it expertly on The Texaco Star Theater, as did others in the live TV of the 1940s and 1950s. The Apprentice is a better show thanks to product placement, with the big-brand participants bringing a big-time feel to the challenges. In Greek to Chic, however, the product placement just makes everyone seem kind of dorky.
More than two minutes of the 12-minute-long second episode is spent at Chili's with three fraternity brothers from the University of Southern California. We get to watch the dining process, from soup to nuts. We see it all, from the waiter's introduction through the arrival and consumption of appetizers, main course and dessert. None of it has anything to do with the story. It's just hot guys in fast motion, eating. Truly, we are at the dawn of a communications revolution.
Once they've finished their meal, we get to the core of the story. A couple of experts (named Mr. and Mrs. Klapp) are going to teach these boys some manners. The problem is, they don't teach them much. The only significant lesson in a session about proper behavior at the dinner table is that you shouldn't belch after chugging your Dr Pepper. The experts have no objection, on the other hand, to the presence of open cans of Dr Pepper on a formal table setting. These straight guys could use a queer eye—or Martha Stewart—a lot more that a case of the Klapps.
Greek to Chic isn't very good, but you've got to give CBS credit for taking a few baby steps. They've got more original shows coming, and one big hit could change everything. After all, the TV shows of 1946 weren't very good either, and look how that turned out.