'Arrested Development' Leads The Charge For Old Brands In New Media

'Arrested Development' Leads The Charge For Old Brands In New Media

5:43pm May 21, 2013
David Cross and Portia de Rossi in a scene from Arrested Development, which returns on Netflix on May 26.
David Cross and Portia de Rossi in a scene from Arrested Development, which returns on Netflix on May 26.
Sam Urdank/AP

Arrested Development returning via Netflix? Just another old-media brand reviving itself on new media.

The TV show, which originally ran on Fox from 2003 to 2006 and unveils new episodes on Netflix next weekend, finds itself in splendid company. Radiohead, Louis C.K., Veronica Mars — all found their audiences with promotion and distribution from big studios and networks. Radiohead was signed to a major music label. Louis C.K. enjoyed HBO specials and TV shows. And Veronica Mars ran on two TV networks for three years.

But Radiohead defied industry norms in 2006 by selling its album In Rainbows directly to fans for whatever price they chose — and the band made millions. Louis C.K. took a similarly successful route with a comedy special in 2011, charging viewers five dollars to download the special online. And Veronica Mars fans contributed more than $5.7 million on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter — almost three times the stated goal — to pay for a movie adaptation.

Author Grady Hendrix says these models aren't exactly replicable. These are mid-list, old-media artists, not blockbuster celebrities. But their fan bases and name recognition furnishes them with a new-media edge that won't be shared, he says, "[by] some band from Cleveland that has a small following looking for Kickstarter funds for their album."

Inevitably, some old-media brands still manage to do it wrong. The blandly impersonal Kickstarter page of actress Melissa Joan Hart might as well have been written by a publicist's intern. The former star of Sabrina The Teenage Witch is soliciting funds for a new romantic comedy, but as Hendrix points out, with the slightest of smirks, "It's raised $50,000, and it's doing really badly."

On the other hand, a Kickstarter campaign from actor Zach Braff simply oozes kinship with fans. And they've rallied, giving more than $2.7 million to support a follow-up to his 2004 movie Garden State and surpassing his goal by hundreds of thousands of dollars. "There are shots of him and his brother and all these behind-the-scenes things," Hendrix notes," And you feel like, 'Hey, Zach Braff is going to answer my emails!'"

A sense of ownership and connection leads people to donate money to movies ultimately benefiting the major studios that make them. But it's important to recognize that Warner Brothers will still invest many millions in producing, distributing and promoting a Veronica Mars movie, even with Kickstarter's help.

And there could be more to come. Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities points out that rumors have swirled that late show Heroes might be resurrected by Microsoft as an Xbox exclusive. "And the only way you'll be able to watch," he says, "is on Xbox."

Giving still-grieving fans hope for new Xbox or Netflix episodes of their canceled darlings such as Caprica, Chuck or Firefly.

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The long-awaited day has almost arrived for fans of "Arrested Development." This weekend, Netflix is releasing new episodes of the beloved but canceled sitcom. It's an unusual arrangement but as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, the show is just the latest example of old media riding its fan base to new media shores.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "Arrested Development" is about a family business that dabbles in frozen bananas, poorly constructed McMansions and light treason.


JASON BATEMAN: (as Michael Bluth) Dad sold houses to the Iraqis, didn't he? And this is what you kept from me so I could take a polygraph test. Tell me the truth, OK? Because there's been a lot of lying in this family.

JESSICA WALTER: (as Lucille Bluth) And a lot of love.

ULABY: "Arrested Development" started airing 10 years ago, and lasted three seasons on Fox. It's built its audience after getting canceled, with DVDs and streaming video. Netflix looked at its passionate fan base and picked up the show for a fourth season. The show is an old-media brand with a following that would not have been possible without promotion and distribution from big studios and networks. That value translates to new media.


ULABY: When the band Radiohead was signed to a major label, it developed a huge fan base. It turned to those fans when it produced an independent album in 2007. Fans could pay whatever they wanted to buy the album online. "In Rainbows" was a hit.


RADIOHEAD: (Singing) How come I end up where I started?

ULABY: If you made a list of old, established media brands rocking new media platforms, comedian Louis C.K. would be near the top. He's old media, with his HBO specials and TV shows. But he sold his last concert video directly to fans online. They paid $5. He made more than a million. Or look at the people behind the TV drama "Veronica Mars," about a teenaged detective.


JASON DOHRING: (as Logan Echolls) You're not a killer, Veronica.

ULABY: They used Kickstarter to successfully raise money for a "Veronica Mars" movie. Musician Amanda Palmer turned to Kickstarter, too. She was signed to a major label. Her Kickstarter campaign for an upcoming album was so successful, she gave a TED talk about it.


AMANDA PALMER: And the goal was $100,000. My fans backed me at nearly 1.2 million, which was the biggest music crowdfunding project to date.


ULABY: These brands' fans give them an advantage over up-and-comers, says analyst Michael Pachter.

MICHAEL PACHTER: It's easier to produce something that already has an audience, than to sell something that has no audience as brand-new to everybody.

ULABY: Most of these artists bringing their old media fan base into new-media projects tend to be midlist acts, not blockbuster celebrities, says author Grady Hendrix. But their name recognition means they can do what a little act could never pull off.

GRADY HENDRIX: Some band from Cleveland that has a small following, looking to get Kickstarter funds for their album.

ULABY: While old media brands outshine new media hopefuls, that doesn't mean they always understand the new terrain. Look, says Hendrix, at the unfortunate Kickstarter page created by actress Melissa Joan Hart. She starred in shows like "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."


MELISSA JOAN HART: (as Sabrina Spellman) Oh, sorry. Is this the Witches Council?

ULABY: Hart hopes fans today will donate to help her produce a romantic comedy she wrote herself, but the page feels like it was written by a publicist's intern, says Hendrix. It's soulless, impersonal, bland.

HENDRIX: And it's raised something like, you know, $50,000, and it's really doing badly.

ULABY: On the other hand, actor Zach Braff started a Kickstarter with a video that oozes kinship with fans. He wants to make a follow-up to an earlier film he wrote and directed, "Garden State."

HENDRIX: There are shots of him and his brother, and all these behind-the-scenes things.


ZACH BRAFF: I wrote "Garden State" about a time in my life when I was feeling overwhelmed and lost in my 20s. I guess you could say "Wish I Was Here" is about the next chapter of your life, in your 30s.

HENDRIX: And you feel like hey, Zach Braff is going to like, answer my emails.

ULABY: It's that sense of ownership and connection that leads people to donate money to movies that'll ultimately benefit the major studios that make them, says Hendrix, like Warner Bros. and "Veronica Mars."

HENDRIX: Even though it raised twice what its stated goal was - I mean, I think it raised 5 million instead of 2, which is what its goal on Kickstarter was - that's roughly the budget they were looking for, for what they want to do. But obviously, there are going to be other costs, and Warner Bros. is just going to make up the difference.

ULABY: Hendrix says many of these new-media projects still depend on serious old-media buy-in. Rumors are swirling now about the fate of one popular but canceled science fiction show.

HENDRIX: That "Heroes" is going to be resurrected by Microsoft as an Xbox exclusive, and the only way you're going to be able to watch it is on Xbox.

ULABY: Giving fans hope for new Xbox or Netflix episodes of their canceled darlings like "Caprica," "Chuck" and "Firefly."

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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