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We should have seen this coming. Being forced to watch the previous week’s LOST episode before a new one aired, with additional notes and tidbits on the show woven in, was just the first step. Adjusting proven concepts from Glee or Desperate Housewives into full blown reality shows was the next. And if AMC has their way, the most recent development in “fan service that no fan asked for” will be a talk show based entirely upon The Walking Dead, their surprising hit TV show from last year.
This comes on the trail end of various levels of bad press for AMC, which seems to be awkwardly dealing with its own emergence as a contender in original scripted television. Recent monetary clashes with the creator of Mad Men, negotiations to prematurely end Breaking Bad next year, and even their removal of The Walking Dead’s executive producer Frank Darabont have marred AMC’s image in current press releases. But they appear to be fighting back by giving audiences what they hope we want, which seems to be manifest in a talk show devoted to a fictional universe. Sure, it’s got “gamble” written all over it, but if it succeeds (and potentially even if it doesn’t) AMC will be breaching new ground and may perhaps change our interaction with TV as we know it.
Impact 1: Promotion of Live Viewership
Our culture feeds upon who knows what first. XKCD and Twitter themselves have already made jokes on how tweets travel faster than earthquakes, an observation that’s humorous at first but also quite telling about the power of information. In this age, knowing even the most trivial details, whether through Wikipedia knowledge dumps or by watching your favorite reality show to know immediately who’s in and out after some contest or another, matters to everybody. Because of this, watching live always trumps torrenting, TiVo-ing, or Hulu-ing. Even my family with their silly Bachelor-style show obsession never want to hear spoilers on what happened. It’s only natural that in our Information Age the most well-informed prosper.
Since this concept contrasts directly with Hulu and TiVo and all types of recording software, networks now have the challenge of keeping people interested in live TV. And what better way than with a talk show featuring your favorite actors and sets? It’s one thing to postpone watching the series itself, but you might miss out on crazy methods to make zombie blood or crazy on-set stories! These may seem like infinitesimal details, and they really are in a broad sense, but to a dedicated fan this is like getting behind-the-scenes DVD footage without spending a dime. Not only could you be the first of your friends to know the latest twist, but if you watch live you get the added bonus of for-fans-only content. Potentially, a talk show of this nature could increase the audience’s basic knowledge of the show’s inter-workings, actually adding a tangible, accessible side to the drama to differentiate from the actual show’s more conceptual foundation. It also shows that the network takes pride in productions such as The Walking Dead, adding value to it culturally and therefore making live viewership essentially mandatory for any legitimate fan.
In short, if other networks take this idea and also run with it, you’ll most likely find yourself persuaded into live viewership, both for the convenience and our innate tendencies to retain information. It’s a brilliant strategy but it’s one we should actively be aware of.
Impact 2: Demolishing the Fourth Wall
Talk shows in general serve a greater purpose of side-stepping fiction in an effort to let reality shine through. Actors, directors, and really anybody who helps make a large production can be shown for who he or she is outside of any fictional realm. But previously, these shows have focused on a wider sense of entertainment rather than one particular property. Breaking down that fourth wall and letting all personnel address the camera directly takes a great deal of the magic out of the entire production. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing background featurettes on how they made the ship Serenity on Firefly, but a frequent offering of that viewpoint would eventually have me confusing reality with story. It’s hard enough as a critic watching without criticizing direction and other little choices, but constant identification with these objects off-stage would desensitize even the most dedicated viewer to the narrative.
One disclaimer is that they haven’t released any details as to how this talk show would actually work for The Walking Dead, but however it turns out the application is clear. One network could run a show where they just interact with the actors, while shows with the highest viewership could even afford to run larger-scale productions alongside their filming process to produce a “making of” show in the same vein. I’d love to see features on the actual science from Breaking Bad, even if they did tiny Mythbusters-esque segments. There are many positive aspects to this, in that these are features that many viewers would love to see. For instance, instead of waiting for their favorite actors to be invited to a talk show they could bypass that wait. Unfortunately this really only gives those featured on the show access to an audience they already had, but as this is more an exercise in brand trust than viewership accumulation, it’ll be doing its job anyways. Expect though to eventually find shows catering to their reality counterparts in one way or another, in ways that could be creative but will most likely end up as money-driven.
Impact 3: Hit Us Where It Hurts: Our Wallets
When you come down to it, these companies want your money. These talk shows may be attempts at increasing live viewership, but there’s also a good chance that we may get shorter seasons or perhaps simply shorter DVD installments with episodes of the talk shows attached. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Battlestar Galactica style “Season 3.5″ release for different shows that also come with the talk shows as extra content. Would you like season five of Fringe? Feel free to buy both halves of the season for the low-low price of $69.99 each! And they’ll pass these off as deals, as two shows for one. There’s nothing stopping them from this release system, and honestly with an extra half-hour or more of content per episode, is there any point to releasing a talk show about The Walking Dead separate from the season itself? No one will buy the talk show alone, so it’s merely a logical extension of the DVD release system. And for the same reason that I’ve seen the Firefly episode “Objects in Space” at least three times with commentary, there will always be people who want this content to buy and re-watch over and over again. We’re consumers at heart, and we’ll be playing right into our hands with this one.
I do want to point out here that this is all speculation on my part. A Walking Dead talk show could appear and bomb so quickly that its effects amount to nothing on a larger scale. It could also herald a grand new age of interaction between creators and fans. The future is still unclear, but we should absolutely be weary of the influence one such show could have on the nature of today’s television landscape. When Reality TV exploded our world changed rapidly to accommodate this new way to draw consumers, so there’s really no telling what a fiction/reality hybrid could accomplish.
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