'Quarterlife' was made for cable -- or should've been


Leave it to a program about twentysomethings adrift to bounce around the media ecosystem like a shiftless slacker. And so it was for "quarterlife," which stumbled from the Internet to broadcast TV to cable in the course of a week.

It probably wasn't quite the arc envisioned by the series' creator, Marshall Herskovitz. The former "thirtysomething" executive producer has been hailed as a visionary for attempting to make a go of original programming on the Internet; getting NBC to sign on for a second window was just the cherry on top.

But the horrific ratings performance of "quarterlife" on NBC last week, compounded by ill-advised public remarks Herskovitz made expressing his regrets, stained what could have been a success story to remember. To add insult to injury, "quarterlife" has since been consigned to NBC's sister cable channel Bravo, which Herskovitz has deemed a better fit.

To some degree, "quarterlife" is a victim of heightened expectations that have been whipping up for weeks in advance. All the hoopla surrounding its move to a new medium reminds me of all the press attention that risky organ transplants used to get decades ago.

But the irony of the failure of "quarterlife" to make the transition from the Internet to broadcast is that it never should have been on the Internet or broadcast. This was and always has been a cable series.

"Quarterlife" isn't really all that different from another NBC series struggling for survival: "Friday Night Lights." In both cases, NBC has learned the hard way that a drama about young adults -- even, and especially, a quality drama that trades in nuance and subtlety -- is simply too narrow to appeal to the broad audience necessary to hold down a decent broadcast rating.

The ugly truth of broadcast TV is that it is impossible to command a significant audience without something that can appeal to the latter half of the 25-54 demographic; they are the generation that still makes TV the foundation of their media consumption habits. So why would anyone well over 25 tune in to a drama about the trials and tribulations of being 25?

Demographically speaking, "quarterlife" is a better fit for the Internet, and yet it doesn't quite fit on that medium for other reasons. There, the problem is largely a tonal one; there simply has never been a quality scripted drama that has worked online. Which isn't to say that it will never happen, but to date the Internet seems more hospitable to comedy and unscripted formats.

Once Herskovitz got back the rights to "quarterlife" from ABC, which originally developed the series, he should have taken the program to a young-skewing cable network that has made scripted programming work before. An edgier version of the series, with amped-up language and sexuality, would have been a great fit for, say, Showtime, which doesn't have to cater to any particular demo.

Now "quarterlife" has fumbled its way to cable. But the funny thing is, I still think "quarterlife" is on the wrong network. Bravo is the home to 100% unscripted programs that are all about superficial materialism from fashion ("Project Runway") to dating ("The Millionaire Matchmaker"). "Quarterlife" is a scripted drama about navel-gazing twentysomethings searching for their authentic selves. Scheduling "quarterlife" on Bravo is like filling a Humvee with ethanol fuel.

Here's a suggestion for NBC Uni: Why not put "quarterlife" on its newly acquired cable network, Oxygen? The network has the same young-female skew as the series, and the addition of "quarterlife" would have been just the injection of buzz-generating original programming that would have signaled that NBC Uni is angling to turn that network around.

Getting 3.1 million viewers is awful on NBC, but that kind of audience on Oxygen would have execs popping champagne corks. It's difficult to understand why anyone involved in "quarterlife" didn't realize that from the very beginning.