Now's about the time when things get harried in the production offices of new primetime series fortunate enough to land a slot on the fall sked. With most newcomers, there's a honeymoon period between the time they're picked up in mid-May and the time that cast and crew begin to hold their breath in anticipation of the first overnight ratings rolling in.
But there was no such luxury of an early-summer honeymoon for CW's unscripted frosh series "Online Nation," which bows Sept. 23. The frenzy of production set in as soon as producers got the official pickup word in May because of the research-intensive nature of program that exec producer David Hurwitz describes as "Laugh-in" for the YouTube generation.
"Unlike other shows where you can block things out, we're dealing with upwards of 40 user-generated clips per episode," says Hurwitz, who is steering the "Online Nation" ship along with exec producer Paul Cockerill. "This show is designed to be a showcase for all the creativity that is being displayed on the Internet. It's a variety show in the old-fashioned sense that we're offering something new every few minutes. But instead of producing segments, we're assembling this show 20-30 seconds at a time."
Hurwitz, an alumnus of "Fear Factor" and "The Man Show," says the biggest challenge in assembling each half-hour seg is the detective work involved. "Online Nation's" production offices in North Hollywood are stocked with nearly 20 staffers whose mandate is to surf the Web, as long as their eyes can focus, and hunt for interesting video snippets from people who qualify as non-pros, in Variety parlance. In many cases, the toughest part is getting past the user's Web pseudonyms in order to track them down and get a hold of a master copy of the clip.
(Pictured above, from left: "Online Nation" exec producer David Hurwitz, hosts Joy Leslie, Lincoln Neal, Rhett McLaughlin and Stevie Ryan and exec producer Paul Cockerill)
Surprisingly, the quality of the footage has not been a problem, thanks to the leaps and bounds that consumer digital video gear has taken in the past few years, Hurwitz says.
"We heard a lot of people saying, 'Who wants to watch grainy Internet video on TV?'" after the show was unveiled, he says. "That's not what we're getting. The quality of most of what we get is the same quality as a lot of the shows on MTV or A&E."
Tracking down the creators of clips that catch the fancy of researchers can take days if not weeks when their material is not readily affiliated with a websites, blogs or email address. Researchers frequently wind up blowing up freeze-frame images to hunt for any clues that might be found in the background shots, i.e. a company name or a license plate. In one case researchers found a gem of a clip of a guy who did a musical number by stomping on bubble wrap of all shapes and sizes. They wound up zooming in on a sign deep in the background of the warehouse where the bubble-wrap suite was recorded, which yielded the clue of a company name that helped them locate the packing material maestro. The gumshoe work is particularly challenging for clips that hail from overseas, Hurwitz notes.
But when you find the guy who has done a portrait of Marilyn Monroe made out of cucumber slices, or an artiste who paints in ketchup using a french fry as a brush, it's all worth it, he says.
There's no competitive element to "Online Nation," no build-up to the show crowning a best clip of the month or season, Hurwitz says. It's been an effort to embrace the free-form, ultra-fast-paced world of the young folk of America (and elsewhere, of course) who have made YouTube a household name.
The show's four hosts are drawn from the world of online vid mavens. Stevie Ryan, known on YouTube et al by as "Little Loca," has been uploading her own works on vid-sharing sites for some time, as demonstrated below. (There's more on her dedicated YouTube page.)
Co-hosts Rhett McLaughlin and Lincoln Neal have a burgeoning following as comedy duo RhettandLink, as seen below, and collected on this page through the magic of YouTube.
Actress Joy Leslie dabbled in her own vid creations during her downtime between guest shots on shows like "ER," "CSI" and CW's "All of Us."
In addition, Hurwitz sez they've sought out some of the most popular Internet filmmakers and bloggers to do intros and outros and other interstitial bits for the show. They even sent the "Online Nation" logo to the guy who works in ketchup to see what kind of treatment he might give it.
"We're trying to bring this very organic Internet experience to TV," Hurwitz says. "It's organized chaos. It's got a great kinetic energy to it, and great pacing."
Interestingly, "Online Nation" has been consciously designed to be family friendly -- given its Sunday 7:30 p.m. time slot -- so producers eschew anything too bawdy or revealing, as so many Internet vids are. In a few cases where producers have found intriguing works that are not ready for primetime but demonstrate some talent on the part of the creator, they've contacted the auteur and invited them to take a stab at something that could play on broadcast TV.
"There's a whole new world of content creators out there," he says. "A lot of it is too sophomoric for a show that's going to air at 7:30 on Sundays, but there's also a lot of talent out there. It's like looking for oil -- some days there's nothing but when you find a good one..."
(Hurwitz is hopeful that submissions will start rolling into the show's page on the CW site once the show's up and running on the air.)
The vast majority of people that the show has contacted so far have been shocked to learn that their bits have caught Hollywood (or at least the CW's) eye. There's been very few holdouts of people seeking more than the modest license fee "Online Nation" has to offer, Hurwitz says. One of the biggest hassles producers have face so far has been a guy who wanted a more grandiose on-air credit (he might have a future in this town) than the other clips.
The framework of "Online Nation" was inspired, funnily enough, by the Age of Aquarius-era hit "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In." That show, of course, was noteworthy in its time (1968-73) for its rapid-fire comedy bits and of-the-Sock-It-to-Me-moment look and feel.
Shortly after the two formed their 403 Prods. shingle, Hurwitz and Cockerill met last year with Ghen Maynard, guru of alternative programming for CBS and CW, about this time last year to pitch him a few show ideas. Toward the end of the meeting Maynard dropped the suggestion that CW as looking for a show that would come form the P.O.V. of viewers, and that he'd been wrestling with how to get a handle on the user-gen vid phenomenon for the CW's aud.
Hurwitz readily admits to being barely able to open an email attachment a few years ago ("When I'd get into problems with email and computers when I was on 'Fear Factor' I'd yell out into the room 'Can somebody born after 1980 come help me?'"). But as luck would have it he'd been spending a lot of time goofing around on YouTube during the previous two weeks, and in an instant (as often happens to producers in pitch meetings when executives throw out ideas they've been mulling), he and Cockerill could see what the show should be. And the "Laugh-In" construct became "the creative hook that we hung our hats on," Hurwitz says.
"We talked in that meeting about how 'Laugh-In' spoke to people from the point of view of where the society was at that point," he says. "We're trying to do the same thing with this show, immersing ourselves totally in the Web and the culture it has produced. We hope it inspires more people to grab their cameras and go."