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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Shows Must Go On: SMGO.TV and the Future of Television

Posted By on Wed, Oct 23, 2013 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Photo of Florian Hoenig, Dave M. Coduto, and Chehin Toumi by Dorian Fitzgerald
  • Photo of Florian Hoenig, Dave M. Coduto, and Chehin Toumi by Dorian Fitzgerald

When Chéhin Toumi discovered that Stargate Universe had been cancelled, he felt a series of emotions familiar to many a diehard devotee: shock, betrayal, abandonment, horror, despondence. With social media, fans have had forums for their discontent, circulating petitions and even resorting to prank-like methods of protest -- see the rumored 8 million peanuts lobbed at CBS for canceling Jericho. But Toumi was no ordinary viewer of SGU: like the intrepid practitioner of ratiocination, lead scientist Nicholas Rush himself, he would not surrender to his fate without first thoroughly considering the options.

Toumi immersed himself in the facts. Networks cancel shows for which the Nielsen ratings report fewer than three million viewers. But the Nielsen system dates back to the 1950s. People today watch television through a variety of media -- online through network websites and subscription services, DVR, DVD. In fact, it is relatively rare for anyone to schedule his or her life around a TV show in an on-demand society. Therefore, Nielsen ratings no longer reflect the true number of fans, though they do represent one figure that networks hold dear, the number of consumers who see the commercials they air. It seemed clear to Toumi that there were shows with enough viewer interest to warrant continuation, even after they had proven unprofitable to networks. And if the scads of peanuts, pants (MTV's I Just Want My Pants Back), and golf balls (A&E's The Glades) inundating networks are any sign, these shows have fervent fans who are willing to take action to keep their favorites on the air.

Realizing this, Toumi came up with the seed for SMGO, short for my Show Must Go On, a platform to crowdfund recently canceled shows and stream them online. He commiserated with David M. Coduto, a self-avowed "huge TV fan" and former classmate in the MBA program at San Francisco State University, who was still mourning the brief, bright flame of another cult classic, Joss Whedon's Firefly -- which aired a mere three months before it was pulled off the air in 2002, yet which remains a fresh wound in the minds of many viewers and number 5 on TV Guide's 2013 list of sixty shows canceled too soon. Toumi and Coduto were not fast enough to save SGU or Firefly, but together they devised a plan to rescue other foundering television programs from the whims of apparently callous networks.

The problem is the business model on which most television programs operate. In the dinosaur days of the tube, studios made shows, and networks bought them. Viewers were pawns of the networks, enticed by the shows provided to watch the commercials that paid the networks. Viewers didn't have much say in what aired and what didn't, except in the indirect approval system of keeping the TV on or off.

As usual, social media have changed everything. Fans not only sound off regularly about the shows they watch on Twitter or Television Without Pity, they also organize petitions and protests when the shows they watch go off the air. It was this kind of vocal demand that allowed fans to fund the Veronica Mars movie on Kickstarter in March and April of this year. But networks don't listen to fans who are watching shows online or on DVDs, and studios don't continue to make programs that aren't purchased by networks.

Enter SMGO, which provides a connection between fans and studios by polling viewers to assess continued interest in shows, negotiating production and streaming deals with studios, and using funds raised by fans to pay the licensing fees that account for about half of production costs. A test launch of the company website in March 2013 resulted in 20,000 site visitors within the first 72 hours, and the company has already achieved notoriety on Twitter and blogs regarding its confrontation with the WB over an attempt to revive the Cartoon Network's "Green Lantern" and "Young Justice" series.

After the WB incident, Toumi and Coduto have learned to tread lightly on a system that has remained largely unchanged for over half a century. One studio has already responded to the possibility of continuing a recently cancelled show with a contract allowing SMGO to use content from the show to gauge interest for crowdfunding. Toumi and Coduto have also negotiated a deal with PayPal to ensure that the fans' money goes where they want it to go, to the studios that make the shows they love.

SMGO has attracted the interest of a number of tech industry luminaries, including Mitch Lowe, former president and COO of Redbox and founding executive at Netflix, Naveen Jain, CEO of Sparkart, and Florian Hoenig, former CTO of Kargo and Guguchu, who have all taken places on the advisory board. Having industry confidence is a boost, of course, but SMGO puts the real power in the hands of the people. Explains Coduto, "I look at what we're doing as a cross between democratizing mass media and pre-selling merchandise to give people the content they want."

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Irene Hsiao

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