Dialogue: Bochco enters the online world

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Creating iconic series including "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law" has made Steven Bochco a television-industry legend, but he isn't one for resting on his laurels. The writer-producer is launching his first Internet programming effort, "Cafe Confidential," today with video site Metacafe. "Confidential" represents a real departure for Bochco, who continues to develop TV series for ABC Television Studio. The Hollywood Reporter's technology reporter Carly Mayberry recently spoke with Bochco about his latest project and his vision of how digital media will change entertainment.

The Hollywood Reporter: Why enter the online world?

Steven Bochco: Because it's fun. Because it's fresh. And because it's something I hadn't done. I'd actually been thinking about the difference between the Internet and television -- which is what I've been doing my entire career for a long time -- and it struck me that the Internet provides, particularly for its younger users, a form of entertainment that doesn't conform to the traditional model that television has always presented but rather represents for its users a kind of distraction. And I think the nature of distraction is temporary and brief. If that's a valid perception, then designing entertainment for the Internet requires that you think of the kinds of things that you can provide for the user that are of very short duration ... which then took me to a consideration of what young users are almost universally obsessed with. The answer to that is sex. I thought within the context of that, what's the one experience that every single person who's ever had sex has in common? That's their first time. So I thought that would be a charming anecdotal series of segments that you could do in 11⁄2-2 minutes is "My First Time" ... and it requires minimal production. And then I extrapolated from that "My Worst Date," "My Most Embarrassing Moment," "My Worst Job." What we did was provide 44 of these segments to Metacafe under the general heading of "Cafe Confidential," which will roll out over time.

THR: Was it the confessional nature of this that attracted you to this project?

Bochco: I have to tell you, as someone who's a lot older than young men and women on the Internet, I'm kind of astonished at the degree to which people will disclose intimate details. I think it's part of the Internet culture. It has created a kind of voyeuristic delight that's enhanced by the illusion of complete privacy. I think reality television has contributed to a culture in which real people are willing to kind of do or say anything. We're past the point now where it's simply 100 privileged individuals who get to dictate what constitutes entertainment to the masses. Anyone can get a seat at the table.

THR: How is it having "real" people at the center of your content creation rather than actors?

Bochco: Yeah, it's very different. It's a lot of fun because it's so spontaneous -- there's a natural charm to it in that you just don't get a much more manipulated scripted environment. And by the same token and generally speaking, you don't get the complexity of story or theme -- I mean it ain't art, it's a distraction. One of the things that I don't like about the Internet is that it has killed the spoken joke. Most humor is disseminated over the Internet and on the screen. People don't tell jokes the way they used to. I used to have friends that would call me on the phone constantly and say, "Listen to this one ... ." It was a culture of storytelling -- joke telling -- because that's a kind of community, and people don't do that anymore. I think "Cafe Confidential" is sort of like an attempt to go back to a more verbal form of communication.

THR: After years in the industry, do you see the rise of digital technology having the greatest impact and creating the greatest change?

Bochco: I'm not a big techno guy, I don't have that crystal ball. I'm very much of a content person, but there's no question, as the technology has evolved and become more accessible to more people, that it hugely expands the viability of all kinds of entertainment storytelling. It has impacts on technology, on cost, on who gets to be heard. Television is still there, cable is still there. None of that stuff is going away; quite the contrary. Television and corporate masters who provide most of what we see on television are all looking for ways to incorporate the Internet into their portfolios. There was a time not too long ago when it was a very small universe; there were very few places where you could go with your wares ... and it was very orderly and a very specific little hierarchy, pecking order. And now it's like the gold rush. Everybody's running around with a pan under their arm straining for some nuggets here and there. To the extent that you can make a case to the fact that television has become increasingly difficult to crack with meaningful drama because the hours of broadcasting are increasingly cluttered with reality shows and God knows what else. You have cable, you have a proliferation of venues from which to show your work -- TNT, Showtime, A&E, HBO, USA, E! Entertainment recently started original scripted content -- so it's just an ever-widening universe of people who provide content.

THR: Where do you see online video going as far as the future of entertainment?

Bochco: I'm not sure I have a clear picture of that. It's really very much in flux. There's no question in my mind that over the course of the next two, three, five, 10 years at the most, there's going to be a real convergence of technology so that your hand-held device, your computer, your TV screen will all be accessible to the same input -- you'll be able to use any of those things interchangeably. That's part of an answer; what's going to happen is that something that's appropriate right now on a two-inch screen is going to look dreadful on a computer screen or 40-inch screen. So what happens then? Does technology put in the hands of the average consumer a far more sophisticated array of equipment so we can post things online and they hold up in terms of image quality? And as that happens, does the economic reality of filling a bigger frame with video information make the cost of doing that stuff prohibitive to the average user? All of this is part of the answer. I think the most stable part of it right now, honestly, is for content guys, because that's what we do -- whether it's a computer screen, or hand-held or TV or a movie -- those of us who can tell a story that will resonate with viewers. Users are always going to be in a position to do well.

THR: Could you see doing a fictional series online?

Bochco: Sure. It's a very different enterprise than that which you would pursue if you were doing it on a television template. It's not as simple as saying, I'll take an hour television show, 10-hour TV show or whatever, and split it up into little two-minute segments and just parcel them out in a serial fashion. First of all, the Internet won't support the kind of budget -- one generally associated with making more complex, bigger stories -- at least not at this time. So it's a little tricky, but it's very doable. It's just that you have to really sit down and think that through. Anybody who thinks they can take an episode of "CSI" and chop it into 21⁄2-minute segments and put it out there and expect anyone to be interested is kidding themselves. By the way, I think it would be more likely to be done by a so-called amateur than by a production company or somebody like me because you really do have to do it on a shoestring. You can't overproduce those kinds of things.
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