Economic models (updated)

I’ve become a huge fan of the show Journeyman, about a San Francisco journalist–slash–inadvertent time traveller who intervenes in peoples’ pasts, basically a cross between The Time Traveler’s Wife and Quantum Leap. I wasn’t entirely swept away at first, as some of the relationships between the characters seemed a little too contrived and soap opera-ish for my tastes. But a show about a time traveller set in San Francisco pretty much has me at “hello,” and now, at close to the end of the season, I’m totally sold on it. The writing is solid, the lead actor is compelling, and so far the show manages a delicate balancing act between two concurrent plots in each episode and an overall story arc that actually unfolds in a fairly satisfying manner, all while dancing around the basic mystery of what’s happening to the central character and why.

But here’s the thing: if you came to this show late in the season, and were intrigued, you’d probably want to catch up on it from the start. If this show had been on a year ago, iPod users, at least, could have gone to iTunes and downloaded the first couple episodes at the extremely well-considered price point of $1.99 per. Unfortunately, NBC and Apple are having a little pissing match, and that’s not an option this year. You can go to the NBC site for a free download — but they’ve only got five episodes up, so starting from the beginning is not an option, at least not until the show is cancelled and comes out on DVD next year, which seems to be the network model these days, at least for every show I find halfway interesting.

(Update: a reader emails to note that full episodes of Journeyman are in fact available for download, on Amazon, rather than iTunes, which almost turns this post into an Emily Litella moment — except that this is not something that NBC seems to publicize, and the system and equipment requirements still look to make this an annoying workaround, rather than an easy way to watch a show in which you might be casually interested. So some tattered remnant of the basic point stands.)

Anyway: add to this the fact that the option NBC does push, the streaming interface on their website, is also clunky and annoying, and you really have to wonder if these people are deliberately trying not to cultivate new viewers. I honestly don’t understand the point of creating these complex, interesting shows which require a commitment of time on the part of the viewer, and then making it difficult, rather than easier, for people to catch up. NBC has a couple of other shows this season that look intriguing — Life, in particular, looks quirky and interesting — but given how little time I have to watch purely escapist entertainment, and the obstacles NBC has placed in my path, I’m probably not going to bother.

None of this is of earth-shattering importance, of course, but it is a puzzling way to do business.

Of course, while we’re on the topic of puzzling network behavior — why not just give the writers a fair cut of future online revenue and settle the damn strike, rather than shut down an entire season’s worth of shows across the board (and potentially alter audience habits permanently)? But we know the answer to that one. They’re terrified of the internet — all the old economic models of content distribution are melting into air and they just don’t know how to react. It’s the same way in my own field — nobody really knows what the newspaper industry is going to look like five years from now, and personally, let’s just say I’m happy that my wife is gainfully employed. (The uncertain future of print journalism is an ongoing subplot in Journeyman, further endearing the show to me.) And I do understand how easy it is to toss out glib advice on topics about which you know nothing — I myself am ever so grateful whenever someone suggests that my own future economic model should involve giving my work to publications for free and making a living off the ancillary merchandising, which currently brings in literally tens of dollars each week. Nonetheless — while acknowledging that I am not the first person ever to take note of the fundamental irrationality of the television industry — it really does not seem like the networks are making the best possible decisions as they try to grapple with these changing realities.

…while I’m on the subject of tv shows: Mad Men was absolutely the most compelling thing I’ve seen on television in ages, with brilliant writing and sublime acting. Highly recommended, and available for easy download on iTunes…