Web TV Helps Comedy Writers Find Audience

Michael Jackson could destroy smooth music forever, and it's up to the members of Toto to stop him. But first, they must convince fellow adult-contemporary titans Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald to bury the hatchet.

That's the latest episode of "Yacht Rock," a witty Internet TV show that has attracted nearly 150,000 viewers and given creator J.D. Ryznar a foot in the door in Hollywood.

"For somebody with no money and no connections, it's a great way to get your work out," Ryznar said.

Suddenly, Internet TV is hot. Networks like ABC (DIS) offer hit shows through Apple Computer Inc.'s (AAPL) iTunes download service, while established tech companies like America Online (TWX) and Yahoo Inc. (YHOO) have beefed up their offerings of video that can be viewed via Web pages or transferred to a pocket-sized gadget.

Even mobile-phone providers like Sprint Nextel Corp. (S) now offer live rock concerts and sports clips for customers' tiny screens.

But like blogs and podcasts before them, Internet TV has also drawn everyday users looking for a way to share their ideas outside established channels — and even helped some of them get jobs in the "old media" that they bypass.

"Video bloggers" like Steve Garfield's Video Blog post informal diary entries, while hackers strut their stuff on sites like hackTV.

"Yacht Rock" can be found at Channel 101, a hub for comedy writers in Los Angeles frustrated with the hurry-up-and-wait pace of the "legitimate" TV industry.

"We had all the cameras and this editing equipment and it was just collecting dust," said Rob Schrab, who came up with the idea with partner Dan Harmon after "Heat Vision and Jack," their TV show starring Jack Black and Owen Wilson, was canceled before it hit the air.

Participants submit 5-minute shows for a monthly screening, and those that rank highest among audience members are allowed to submit a second episode for the next competition.

Winners — and losers — are posted on the Web site, which attracts fans from around the globe.

"Yacht Rock"'s offbeat charm is typical of many Channel 101 shows, which spoof Japanese animation, early black-and-white movies and science fiction.

A mockumentary that portrays Hall and Oates as back-alley brawlers and Journey singer Steve Perry as a karate-kicking motivational speaker, "Yacht Rock" confers legendary status on the 1970s schlockmeisters who now haunt the bargain bins of used record stores.

"I'm making fun of the songwriting process, but the music is generally treated pretty lovingly," said Ryznar, who plays Doobie Brothers singer Michael McDonald in the show.

"This whole process of using life to create art, especially art that's sold as a commodity, is something that's fun to make fun of," he said.

Channel 101 allows writers and directors to create and test their ideas in an informal setting outside the strictures of the television industry, Schrab said.

"Instead of some kid in an office pretending to be a businessman telling you 'People don't like that,' ... you shoot it, you make it, you show it in front of 300 people and the Internet and you find out, 'You know something, it works.' It's kind of eliminating the middleman."

Despite their growing popularity, Channel 101 and other online video offerings don't pose a threat to established TV networks that employ phalanxes of middlemen between creator and audience, said Jupiter Research analyst Todd Chanko.

"There are some distinct advantages to being big — it's money for marketing, and it's programming resources and distribution resources, and those simply cannot be ignored," he said. "You're talking about a household name that goes back to the 1920s."

Ironically, for all their frustrations with the TV industry, Schrab and Ryznar said their main goal is still to find success within the mainstream.

Channel 101 has helped them gain visibility, they say.

Several Channel 101 alums have been hired as writers with "Saturday Night Live." Schrab said the project has helped him get work on comic Sarah Silverman's planned new TV show.

As for Ryznar, he's landed an agent and partied with the cast of "The Simpsons," though VH1 turned down an opportunity to develop "Yacht Rock" into a full-blown TV show.

"The fact of the matter is you cannot make a living doing Internet TV shows at this point, and you may not ever be able to," Ryznar said. "But God, it's such a great medium for making things that don't matter."