ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

TeeVee —

The most common question I recieve about the documentary, and I mean hands-down, is something along the variant of “Are you going / trying to put the documentary on PBS?” It ranges, sometimes with “PBS” being “TechTV/G4″ or “IFC” or “Sundance” or the like. But the general question (asked over a hundred times, at this point) is basically, when am I going to get this on TV.

The weird, non-intuitive answer is I truly have no interest in the documentary being on television. I am not AGAINST it in the strictest sense, but I am not actually interested in wasting the time, energy and swimming upstream through lies to put it on the air.

The documentary very specifically cleaves out a portion of the population so that it is of more use to another portion. If you really don’t care about computers or telecommunications at all, you will not enjoy it as much as, say, Desperate Housewives. I worked very hard to make it so it provides technical explanations where I could, but it is still a difficult ride for, for example, my mom.

Television really does take anything it gets and jams it into the lowest common denominator. Here is what they will have issues with:

- It’s got “computer people” in it.
- The 8 episodes are not the same length.
- There is profanity.
- It is five and a half hours long.
- It is already released as a DVD.
- It is Creative Commons licensed.

Jason Kottke wrote a very complimentary essay about how PBS could take my documentary and put it up and save lots of money, since they’d only have to pay $50 and then they could rebroadcast it. It is complimentary, but it is somewhat naive (and I assume intentionally so). Lawyers who work in television, yes, even PBS, would be as likely to take a CC work and broadcast it without a sheaf of papers from me, signed and notarized, as you might be to eat a human foot.

Not only will they demand a sheaf of papers from me, they will also insist on a ton of sell-out aspects that I’m simply not prepared to do. They will want rebroadcast rights, reselling rights, distribution rights. They will want to clean up my oversights (the occasional boom microphone or the high-end noise in a couple rooms) and that’s fine… and then they will edit out content or demand I make changes, or ask me to get rid of “difficult” sequences that people won’t “get”.

Here’s a little story for you. I was interviewed last year about this documentary by TechTV/G4, for their Pulse news program. I was interviewed by Kevin Pereira, who had been a WWIV sysop in his early days, and absolutely loved BBSes, and was going to do a small story on them and discovered me. After a couple extended phone conversations about how this would go, we got along well, and planned for the crew’s visit to my house (he was going to do a number of interviews that day in the Boston area) and we got it all arranged. Totally as smooth as it could be.

However, they wanted some example footage. In fact, their standard contract basically shared ownership and distribution rights of the example footage. And I had to sign this contract. Kevin was obviously interested in the subject personally, and I could tell it was all this legalistic crap that was out there, making his job that much more difficult, just to show a few clips.

So basically, I sent them examples of footage that were outtakes. Stuff I couldn’t and would never use. And without a doubt, I am technically sharing ownership of that footage with whatever Skeletor’s Castle owns G4. So I took steps to protect myself, but the fact is, I had to sign a few contracts to appear in a news story about a film I was making. Imagine if I was showing the film on G4. It is a nightmare I see no reason to go through at this time.

I could turn this into a rant, but I’ll explain my position this way: I went to school for Mass Communications. I studied television, film, stage, public speaking, radio, and sound mixing. I learned techniques, theory, process, and many different aspects of these industries. Ultimately, as I got to the end of my college career, I started the process of going into “The Industry”…. and I walked away.

It is so bad in “The Industry” that “The Industry” actually makes fun of how bad it is. And the worst part is, they’re being favorable. No, it really is that bad. The amount of people working in a happy, successful life in the industry that aren’t accompanied by drug use, empty nights staring at the moon, or the same level of self-awareness as a shark, is a lot less than you would expect. I have no interest in it, at all.

I am occasionally lectured rather harshly about how I’m “throwing away money” on various principles and stands I’ve taken. Certainly the Creative Commons licensing has gotten that reaction in some (private) quarters. Such it is with the Television/Cable idea, where people think I’m throwing away money if I don’t get the DVD’s contents out there. But they probably don’t know that the television industry has had decades and decades to refine screwing people who “make stuff”, to the present day where they consider it a great favor that they’ve optimized the screwing process to the level they have. And I don’t just mean financially; I mean content wise, controlling copyright, distribution and then suing anyone in their way.

So no, I don’t think I’m throwing away money.

People who make their own movies dream of what I’ve gotten to at this point: a completely-under-my-control DVD set, with the highest quality I could muster, unencumbered with meetings with “the studio” to “fix” the film, and lacking screaming phone converations with no-nothings deep in the bowel of a cable channel. I was able to add everything I could come up with, oversee its creation to my satisfaction, and then sell it (or give it, thanks to CC) directly to people. I don’t have a mountain to scale anymore, I’m on the mountain.

Why would I work hard to jump off that mountain into a garbage pit?

Anyway, back to your regularly scheduled friendly filmmaker historian guy.


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12 Comments

  1. jayrtfm says:

    What about public access CATV?
    I’m thinking of a grassroots effort to have episodes shown nationwide starting on the same day. I’d pay $15 or so for a set of 58 minute episodes that I could drop off at http://www.mnn.org for broadcast.

  2. Sparkey says:

    Yeah, I’m totally with you on this. It’s like that cute girl in my math class I’ve had a crush on since eighth grade. I mean, why should I ask her out when I can tell you right now what would happen: we’d break up in a year and my heart would be totally broken. It would suck, and she probably wouldn’t even give me back my Led Zepplin CD that I’d leave over at her place that one night. So yeah, dude, I don’t even want to ask her out anyway.

    There’s nothing like always foreseeing the worst possible outcome in a situation to forestall progress. It’s one thing to be afraid of rejection (or red tape, or creative compromise, or whatever your fear is in this case), but it’s another thing entirely to doom a potential relationshop before it’s ever started.

  3. Peter Wallroth says:

    Except in this case instead of being the cute girl in your math class its the hideously ugly janitor daughter smoking butts in the little girls room; and we all know how that is going to end up as well.

  4. Jason Scott says:

    …..who I’ve already dated.

    I think that’s what you’re missing in your flawed analogy, Sparkey; I’ve been down this road, I’ve seen it both as a participant and as a very close observer (helping friends who were going through these processes). I’m not a guy who is sitting in his mountaintop refusing to walk to the big city because I heard Here Be Monsters; I have sat with said Monsters in discussions and work. I have had my work on television before, I have seen what happens.

    This isn’t a case of dooming myself before I begin. This is me looking at the big shred-o-matic and going “I don’t feel like going for a swim this time.”

  5. Erik Kastner says:

    What about netflix? I have no idea what their distribution rights are, or how much you’d have to give up, But if it ended up being a good deal for you – would you do it?
    I’d bet that a larger percentage of Netflix’s audience would be receptive to your work then the viewers of (PBS|G4TechTV|BBC).

  6. Jason Scott says:

    I am certainly not opposed to Netfix; it’s mostly a case of supply and demand. If enough people request the BBS Documentary (and since it’s mentioned on both IMDB and Amazon and has a UPC product code, it’s a “real” product), then Netflix will contact me and buy one. I know a few people have done so, and so I don’t know what the outcome of that would be.

    Again, it’s less a case of not wanting to see it go out into the world through those channels, or that there wouldn’t be people who watch those channels in droves who wouldn’t enjoy it… it’s that I don’t want to deal with them.

    Netflix is just another entity buying DVD copies, so that’s great as far as I’m concerned.

  7. Jason Scott says:

    Looking as to why I got a lot of hits to this site, I see Mr. Kottke described this as “Why Jason Scott says the the documentary will never be on TV.”

    Technically, I’m just explaining why I’m not going crazy calling up TV people begging for meetings or looking for agents to talk to the TV people and so on. And how little I think of the industry (not the medium itself; video to the home in real time rules). It’s a world where Pink Floyd reunited and did 4 songs! Anything is possible!

    I’m just not going to be on the street corner with a sign saying “Please pay attention to me, TV Land”.

  8. Robert D. says:

    How very punk of you. Geeks everywhere should pick up a copy and pass it along. Eventually, if the buzz on it gets to be good enough, someone, somewhere will come to YOU and want to put it on television. At that point, you’ll have THEM by the short-and-curlies.

  9. Jason Scott says:

    Is that Punk? I don’t even know what “punk” is, anymore.

  10. I’m quite interested in the essay, but what’s with the white-on-black text? Maybe I’m just getting old, but reading this page literally causes me physical pain. I’ve copied the text out of the page and pasted into a text editor just so I could read it.

    C’mon, Jason: you wouldn’t shoot a documentary entirely in negative film, would you? Your presentation is horribly getting in the way of your content.

  11. Erik Kastner says:

    Not to have this totally digress into Jason’s choice of “theme” but I love it.
    It really reminds me of an old school bbs – except for the proportional font – unless this is a Rip board :)
    It reminds me of the ascii look I did for a wildcat board – The Twilight Zone in Eatontown, NJ. I even made the theme song with ansi music… good times

  12. brian says:

    re: complaint about white text on black background. bollocks. get over it. it’s fine.