Old Media's "Trust Me!" Looking a Might Dusty

6/22/2006 12:18 PM PDT

Old Media's "Trust Me!" Looking a Might Dusty

Each day we wake up, and like every Californian, we look out the window happy that we're still part of the continental U.S., and not a little island off the coast of Nevada.

The Big One is coming, seismologists in white coats assure us, it's just a matter of time.

So, does every Angeleno have a 55 gallon drum of purified water and enough food to last three weeks? Of course not. It's just too scary to think about, so we go about assuming that we'll be fine at least for another day.

For Hollywood, the Web functions in much the same way as California's boogeyman, the San Andreas fault: It keeps threatening to shake all of Hollywood's ancient structures to pieces, but mostly, it just sits there, occassionally sending out the odd jolt.

Reading Variety and the Wall Street Journal this morning, we got just such a jolt.

Thank the trade paper's indefatigable TV editor, Joe Adalian, who points out,

"Thanks to viral video service YouTube, somebody's watching the unsold WB pilot 'Nobody's Watching.' Now the show's creators are wondering if YouTube could give new life to their project, in much the same way DVDs brought 'Family Guy' back to life."

A week ago, the pilot from "Scrubs" creator Bill Lawrence showed up on the viral video website YouTube, getting it some 4,000 viewings. But last Tuesday, it got the pole position on the website, and within hours, it was viewed over 100,000 times.

Notes Adalian, " it's usually impossible for a failed pilot to find life at another network...because the net that passes on the show doesn't want to be embarrassed if it works elsewhere, while the net that might pick up the project doesn't want to fail with something already passed on by another outlet."

Lawrence is now pushing for the show to move to iTunes, where it could prove itself, but without any risk to NBC's primetime schedule, since a download wouldn't affect the lead-in to other NBC shows.

In other words, the web could allow "Nobody's Watching" to succeed on its own merits, instead of being what the late, great NBC capo Brandon Tartikoff  called "least objectionable content" - something just good enough to keep someone from flipping the channel.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. If "Nobody's Watching" succeeds online via YouTube, it might well give the company what it's been hungering for: Profits. After burning through millions of venture capital, it might finally emerge as showcase for Hollywood talent, (and not just a place to upload video of a guy getting kicked in the nuts by a friend. Wow. That sure is funny.) Success on iTunes would be nice, but there's a chance people will eventually be 99 cented to death. YouTube makes more sense as a venue for TV shows, since it's free, and that's how people like their TV.

Simultaneously, we opened the Journal and got another web-shocker:

Google is testing a new type of online ad that lets advertisers pay only when a Web user buys a product, qualifies as a sales lead or signs onto a mailing list. The test holds the possibility of transforming Google's business over time, giving advertisers greater assurance their ads will earn returns."

In other words, the era of "trust me" seems over. Usually, advertisers just have to make a great leap of faith that the millions of people who're watching "24" or "CSI" don't get up to make a sandwich or grab their TiVo remote to blast through their pricey ads. It's fairly insane: With gasoline prices what they are, you wouldn't go to a filling station and pour fuel all over your car, hoping that some of it just "seeps in" to your gas tank somehow.  But that's what Proctor & Gamble and all sorts of other companies have had to do for decades.

Thanks to YouTube's new potential, new shows might be allowed to succeed at their own pace, instead of a "two strikes and yer out!" Thanks Google's new ads, advertisters gnawing angst may soon be a thing of the past.

The scary part? If you're a TV network like NBC, it's probably time to think twice about what it is that makes you so special when you compare yourself to the web: Shows that have to succeed instantly or face millions in losses, versus shows that can succeed at their own pace and make a profit? "Dumb" ads that can be zapped or ignored, versus ads that only cost money when they're effective?

Given a choice between the boob tube and YouTube, the choice is becoming pretty clear.