As we all know, democracy doesn't work. Our elected leaders wallow in pork and interns. Our American Idols eschew the swirling melodies of XTC for those of Alicia Keys. Save for random frivolity -- say, the decision whether to feature thin, hip-swiveling Alec Baldwin or fat, sideburned Alec Baldwin on a U.S. postal stamp -- there is little that is best left to the collective will of the Yoo-Hoo-swilling hordes.
All the same, I'm digging the way that Cartoon Network's Adult Swim has partially outsourced the pilot-greenlighting process to you, me and any other democratically minded goober with a broadband connection. Over the last few weeks, Adult Swim and presenting sponsor Burger King have been running a "Big, Uber, Network, Sampling" derby online to decide which of eight stoner-friendly pilots to air during its esteemed late-night block. It's yet another inspired, viewer-friendly idea from a network practically teeming with them.
Here's how it works: You watch a pair of 6- to 10-minute shorts. You click the shiny "vote" button. You register your preference and feel some partial sense of redemption for having sat out the fall 2009 elections. The competition is proceeding apace, NCAA hoops tourney-style, with two of the four semifinalists already slotted in.
The pilots themselves are quite out there, most featuring humor so steeped in deliberate, "Tim and Eric"-style weirdness as to belong to a genre all their own. These bits and blips won't just go over the head of the "New Adventures of Old Christine" crowd; they'll create a level of cognitive dissonance so profound as to spur complaints to their congresspeople. That's high praise.
Randomness rules. Violence is a by-product of a vast majority of the character interactions. Acts of extreme anatomical and/or hygienic distress are depicted with great, furious glee. If you're looking for linear storytelling, look elsewhere. Now. Seriously. Go.
Me, I found four of the six contestants that have aired so far to be wildly entertaining. "Cheyenne Cinnamon and the Fantabulous Unicorn of Sugar Town Candy Fudge" chronicles the foul, foul adventures of a Britney-ish tart (voiced by the amazing Neko Case and her Gummy Bear handler). "Southies" mines that esteemed Boston neighborhood for every iota of its casually racist, shorts-in-the-winter charm. While online takeoffs of "The View" tend to devolve into overplayed riffs on the panelists' tics, "Yappy Broads" gets the subject miasma and aimless banter exactly right, jumping from "master cleanse" surveys to debates over the etymology of the word "earthquake" within the span of a few exchanges. The first two have advanced to the second round of the competition; the third, as of Thursday morning, was well on its way.
But the "Big, Uber, Network, Sampling" competition isn't about the pilots themselves. It's about building a fan base and audience engagement/investment in advance of a formal debut. As such, it works brilliantly.
Adult Swim can run as many on-air and online promos for its new shows as it likes, but in the best-case scenario, that doesn't do much besides create a small swell of anticipation. By asking online viewers to take a side, however, the network is essentially enlisting a mini army of advocates. Watch-here-early sneak peeks prompt no such loyalty. When the winner eventually airs on Adult Swim in late March, it could debut with a fan base that dwarfs that of many of the bloc's established 'toons.
Clearly, this particular sample-n'-vote model isn't economically feasible for every content provider. NBC, for instance, can't and won't let viewers get much early viewing of whatever expensive tripe it has in mind for the season ahead -- which reminds me, I'm looking forward to weighing in on the network's next sexy-doctor tour de force, hopefully involving a lithe allergist with a dark secret in her past. But for Adult Swim and other youth-leaning cable entities -- I'd include MTV, Comedy Central and Spike as candidates -- this could, and should, be the wave of the future.
The battle for viewer loyalty can be won before the first shot is fired.