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In Age of Reality TV and YouTube, Show Biz Tries to Find Itself -- Again

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'Bree,' who captivated thousands of nerds' hearts as the host of the 'Lonelygirl15' clips on YouTube.YouTube

Poor entertainment industry. It's having such a hard time keeping up with "the next big thing" and "what the kids are watching these days."

That's because the next big thing and what the kids are watching these days are perpetually changing and flip-flopping — at a clip that seems almost as fast as high-speed Internet access.

Between YouTube and MySpace, single-camera sitcoms and reality TV, "Deal or No Deal" isn't just the name of a madly popular new game show on NBC. It's the question networks, studios and Internet companies are constantly faced with in this spastically and ever-evolving entertainment landscape when they're studying what new project to take on.

"There is a sense that everything is up for grabs right now," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "Everyone is battling for the young people's attention, and no one knows where it's going next."

Much of the craze in the past year has been surrounding Internet video and programming, led by pioneer Web sites YouTube and MySpace, where anyone and everyone can post almost anything and everything in the way of video — from amateur home movies to excerpts of ancient TV series like "Charlie's Angels."

The fact that Google paid $1.65 billion to buy the zero-profit YouTube and Time magazine chose "You" (as in, you the Internet user and original content creator) as Person of the Year highlight just how crucial cyberspace has become.

Further evidence can be found in CBS's broadband channel called Innertube, launched in the spring, and plans for a scripted program to run on it called "The Good Life" with 18-year-old former "Arrested Development" star Michael Cera, who will produce, write and star in the show.

Though the network wouldn't reveal how much dough it shelled out in the deal, announced in late November, it is reportedly the most expensive broadband project ever, according to E! News commentator Kristin Veitch, who writes the "Watch With Kristin" TV column for E! Online.

"They're paying a lot more for this than what people would pay for something Web-based even six months ago," Veitch said. "There are a couple of broadband projects these networks are fighting over in the way they used to fight over scripted programming.

"The directive for network executives is to find a way to get the YouTube and MySpace audience to click on their network Web sites."

In fact, the Internet is literally shaping the entertainment industry today.

"The Internet is huge right now in terms of directing what's happening," said Annie Barrett, an associate editor at EW.com, the Web site for Entertainment Weekly magazine. "It's much more influential today."

It's so huge and influential that it's breeding its own set of celebrities who have become famous solely because of their work online.

Take the much written-about, talked-about, blogged-about "Lonelygirl15" — an Internet reality show of sorts shot in Web-cam style about the fictional trials and tribulations of an angst-ridden adolescent.

Lonelygirl herself — a character named Bree — is played by actress Jessica Rose and filmed not in a teenage girl's bedroom but in co-creator Mesh Flinders' apartment, arranged to look like a teenage girl's bedroom.

When the first 2-minute clip was posted in June, it was made to look like a real Web cam of a real 15-year-old. Though many fans were suspicious about her authenticity, Lonelygirl wasn't officially outed as a fantasy until September — but that only made her popularity soar even more.

Today, the videos, which run two to three times a week, can count on at least 300,000 viewers a pop. And Lonelygirl has been featured everywhere from Wired magazine (sprawling in that innocent-yet-sex-kittenish kind of way on the cover of its December issue) to The New York Times.

"The Web isn't just a support system for hit TV shows," Lonelygirl's other creator, Miles Beckett, explained to Wired. "It's a new medium. It requires new storytelling techniques ... You make movies for the big screen, sitcoms for TV and something else entirely for the Internet. That's the lesson of Lonelygirl15."

Even more jarring, perhaps, is the example of the TV show pilot turned Web cult hit turned possible TV series known as "Nobody's Watching."

The brainchild of "Scrubs" creator Bill Lawrence, it's a sitcom within a fictional reality show within a fictional sitcom — are you following so far? — about a pair of friends, Will and Derrick (played by improv actors Paul Johnson and Taran Killam), who share one thing in common. Well, two things: Their love of the sitcoms of yore and their disgust with the networks' lame contributions to the genre in recent years.

So they pound the TV land pavement armed with a pitch to do their own sitcom and film the experience.

NBC expressed early interest in the project, but nixed it. Then the WB latched on, coming very close to adding "Nobody's Watching" to its lineup before also ditching it in the 11th hour, much to Lawrence's chagrin. Execs were worried that the show-within-a-show premise was too confusing.

But hundreds of thousands of viewers proved them wrong. When the pilot somehow wound up on YouTube, it drew swarms of fans, translating into big viewership numbers — close to half a million have downloaded it — and so much attention that NBC is now reconsidering whether to write "Nobody's Watching" into its schedule.

"One of the biggest success stories of YouTube is 'Nobody's Watching,'" said Veitch. "That was one of the main shows people were clicking onto YouTube to watch."

Aside from showcasing the impact of YouTube on today's entertainment, "Nobody's Watching" brings two other issues the industry is facing to the forefront: the state of the sitcom and the still-popular entity known as reality TV.

Characters Will and Derrick take pot-shots at specific sitcoms they blame for the downfall of the genre, namely "According to Jim," "Yes, Dear" and "Coach," among others.

And by having the characters film their quest to come up with a new and better TV comedy, the creators of "Nobody's Watching" are also playing into the networks' continued focus on — and investment in — the reality format.

"We have definitely seen the demise of the sitcom as we know it," Veitch said. "Six people sitting on a couch with a laugh track in the background is no longer working for the younger generation. It feels old and tired and 'been there, done that.'"

NBC recently announced plans to yank comedies from its prime-time programming and fill those slots with reality, reality, reality — which these days more often than not means game shows such as "Deal or No Deal" more than it does "traditional" fare like "Survivor," "Big Brother" and "The Bachelor."

But faster than you can say "Will you accept this rose?" the network veered off in the opposite direction, going back on its own word with the same sort of all-comedy Thursday night it had in the "Must-See NBC TV" days — when the likes of "Seinfeld," "Friends," "Will & Grace" and "Frasier" graced its airwaves back-to-back and garnered huge ratings.

This time, NBC is trying "My Name Is Earl," "The Office," "Scrubs" and "30 Rock" together. Could it be that the sitcom isn't dead after all?

"I would not say the networks are letting the sitcom die," said Barrett. "The concept of the sitcom has changed ... They're a little quirkier, they're more realistic and there's a lot of improvisation going on."

Many of them are also single-camera comedies, shot with only one camera like a movie, as opposed to traditional sitcoms, shot on stage-like sets with several cameras running at once. Single cameras allow a greater variety of angles and settings, and the shows can resemble home movies or amateur video.

Some new comedies aren't comedies at all, really, but rather wit-infused dramas or dramedies. Case in point: ABC's hit new show "Ugly Betty."

Barrett said the newer, morphed comedies might not have as wide an audience, but they're better than the more canned variety of the past.

"They're not taunting the viewers [with laugh tracks]. These shows end up feeling a lot smarter," she said. "They might not appeal to as many people, but those who know what good TV is will keep tuning in."

Whatever the future holds, those in show business seem to be indecisive at best and panicky at worst because of the unpredictable way and rapid pace at which the whole picture is changing. Lately, it seems as though entertainment is trying to find itself yet again.

"Across the board, the entertainment industry has got a feel of desperation," Thompson said. "We are on the cusp of a potentially cataclysmic revolution."

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