Saturday, March 9, 2013

Pens Where We Can See Them

If you blinked, you missed it. CBS's new reality show, The Job- and I say this as a friend of host Lisa Ling (hi, Lisa, congratulations on having Jett)- went down in a flaming, screeching explosion. That's the description you get when you get a Super Bowl ad, premiere the same week, and get cancelled in two episodes for failing to even crack 1.0 in the ratings.

I watched. Wasn't my fault. I wanted it to succeed. But now that the show has been cancelled, there's really nothing left to do but the autopsy.

There are several reasons cited as to what caused such a quick out- the perception of exploitation of the applicants, an incident in the first episode where the featured company, Palm Restaurants, asked questions deemed by some viewers to be illegal to ask (namely, asking one of the two finalists about the cancer he had mentioned early in the episode, and asking the other finalist if there would be willing to relocate her family from Alabama to New York), the applicants were often thought not to be up to the tasks asked of them, the rules were deemed by some to be hard to follow along with, the presence of a studio audience was seen as unnecessary, and even the job-search tips presented going into commercial breaks were perceived by some as condescending. But the most pervasive criticism was that of the prize itself, the eponymous Job.

Namely, the Job wasn't very impressive. The featured job in the first episode, assistant manager at the Palm in New York, did not have its salary mentioned on the show, but can be seen online to carry a salary of $42,000 a year. In network game show terms, that's really not very much. By the time a Price Is Right champion gets around to winning the Showcase, they've routinely made more than that. And that's daytime. Get into primetime, where The Job sat, and the money really starts flying, with six- and seven-figure jackpots all over the place. A million to winners of Survivor and the Amazing Race. Half a million to the winner of Big Brother. A quarter-million as the standard 'salary' for most of your job- or talent-search shows, such as Hell's Kitchen. The X Factor showers its winner with $5 million. No amount of calling your prize a "dream job", no matter how much Lisa really believed it (and I know she did; she was looking at the growth potential of the position rather than the position in the abstract), is going to puff up a $42,000 prize in that environment. Lisa and the viewers were thinking on two completely different wavelengths, and on prime-time network television, the viewers have the last word.

It's not an unprecedented incident. Back in the early days of the modern reality era (which I define as everything from Survivor forward), you had Fear Factor, which premiered in 2001. The draw of Fear Factor was more in its challenges than in its prizes, which to had to be, because the prize money was only $50,000. In 2001, nobody really noticed, because Fear Factor was part of the first wave of the era. In 2006, played out, the show went off the air. In 2011, it was given a revival, with the stunts bigger, more elaborate, and now with copious amounts of explosions.

But the price of poker had gone up in Fear Factor's absence. They were still offering $50,000, and it was no longer seen as enough of an enticement. Other shows were offering more money. Other shows were coming close enough to, or even surpassing, the stunts Fear Factor had devised, and the general sentiment was, 'why should I leap off that building for only $50,000 when The Amazing Race will give me a million bucks to do it?' Fear Factor was even pitted against its earlier self, falling victim to the golden rule of shock jocks: to survive, you must keep topping yourself, and when you can no longer do so, it's all over.

So, that's that, right? The Job didn't offer enough, end of story. Right?

Hang on a minute.

A week or two ago, the webcomic Penny Arcade, as the result of hitting a Kickstarter stretch goal last year, launched the online reality show Strip Search, a competition for webcomic artists. They're three episodes in (episodes last about 15-20 minutes), and the first elimination episode (they will happily go several episodes without an elimination) is set for Tuesday. Episode 1 is here, Episode 2 is here, Episode 3 is here. By all accounts, it has been very well-received so far. (Including by me. I'm watching this one too.)

What's the prize? $15,000 and one year working in the Penny Arcade office in Seattle. They won't be working for Penny Arcade, but rather, they'll have access to the Penny Arcade braintrust while they work on their already-existing comic. People have raved over the prize.

Now wait. The Job offered a new job worth $42,000 and got cancelled in two episodes for not offering enough, while Strip Search offers you your own job, in a new office, and a third of the money The Job did, and gets hailed for the offer they've made? How can that be?

I've already told you the answer. It's their respective platforms that makes the difference.

When a reality competition is placed on prime-time network television, like The Job was, it comes with expectations. It comes with expectations of big money and huge prizes to match the big budget commensurate with a major network. This is not about winning the tools to go find your rainbow, as The Job was trying to do. This is about straight-up awarding the rainbow. The show must ante up enough money to be taken seriously. In this day and age, $100,000 is the bare minimum to be taken seriously, and really anything under $250,000 is going to be seen as stingy.

But when you drop down even into cable, the monetary expectations drop severely. $100,000 becomes not the ante, but rather the high-rollers table, as evidenced by recently-renewed TBS competition King Of The Nerds, which offered exactly that, $100,000, as did the History Channel's Full Metal Jousting and Top Shot. The then-SciFi Channel's Who Wants To Be A Superhero? offered far less: each contestant dressed up as a superhero of their own creation, and the winner had their superhero featured in a comic written by host Stan Lee and a SciFi made-for-TV movie. The Canadian-produced Mantracker, in fact, offers no prize at all, only bragging rights. (The premise: A two-person team gets placed in some area of wilderness and is tasked with getting to a predetermined 'finish line' 20-25 miles away by sundown the next day; in so doing, they have to avoid getting captured by Mantracker, a search-and-rescue worker on horseback who has a local guide, also on horseback, who is without map, compass or knowledge of the finish line, and is tracking the contestants via footprints, signs of human disturbance, etc. About 30% of the contestants make it.)

When you get into the online realm, a prize like Mantracker's becomes the norm. It's not often that any prize is offered at all (when I was hosting online reality shows, I never offered a prize), and I personally have not seen a prize more lucrative than the one Strip Search is offering, or even anywhere close. When a prize is offered by a host, from my observation, it's usually in the range of maybe a hundred bucks at the most. A lot of the time online, many of the same players play a game together over and over again. While repeat contestants are becoming common on network shows, it's still rather rare for a contestant to be invited to play for a third time. In your third online game, you're still a relative rookie and not a major part of the metagame yet. Money is not the draw online. The game is the draw.

It's a matter of perception. The smaller the platform, the less money the audience expects you to be able to set aside for the prize budget, and the less money you need to pony up to be taken seriously. On the Internet, it's understood that absolutely anyone can host, and hosting duties are often traded off amongst the aforementioned core group. On cable, you have a smaller budget than the networks, and while you probably need to offer something decent-sized to stand out, huge prizes aren't absolutely necessary. But on a network, you had better bring the bling.

If The Job had been aired on some cable network- perhaps Lisa's other network, OWN- it wouldn't have wiped away all the criticisms. The bristling over the rules and the interview questions and the quality of the contestants would still have been present. But had the expectations simply been lowered- had it just aired on one of the upper cable tiers instead of on CBS- would the job on offer been as much of an issue?

Considering just how low the ratings were, we'll likely never get to find out with the remaining six unaired episodes. But clearly, offering someone nothing more than a better environment for the job they already have is viable in the right setting.

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