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Editor's Note: Premium Blend

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Last month, we held Streaming Media West in Los Angeles for the first time. The change in venue from San Jose, Calif., breathed new life into an already vibrant event, and it wasn’t just because attendees and speakers could network with each other while sitting around the pool as the sun set. 

Mostly, it was because we were in one of the content capitals of the world; the conference hotel was situated smack-dab between the Creative Artists Agency and MGM headquarters. So it was no surprise when, during lunch on the first day, the conversation at my table focused on the question of what content works, what doesn’t, and why.

“I mean, take a look at Jersey Shore,” said one of my companions between bites of chicken salad. “My kid and his college buddies could make a web series that’s just as entertaining—probably more entertaining—with a Flip camera and a case of beer. You’re telling me Jersey Shore is so-called premium content?”

“It’s not premium content,” I said. “It’s premium marketing.”

And let’s face it. Aside from a few bright lights in the otherwise dim broadcast and cable landscape, most of what’s on TV (and then on the web) isn’t exactly stuff that would do Arthur Miller, David Mamet, or even Norman Lear proud. Writers such as Joss Whedon, who’s managed to create innovative content for both TV and online that’s funny without being obvious, emotionally evocative without being pandering, and smart without being pedantic, are rare.

No, most TV shows succeed because they have the marketing and PR push of a major broadcast or cable network behind them. 

Even great shows such as HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and FOX’s Glee wouldn’t have found an audience without the massive advertising and press campaigns that have gone along with them. 

Of course, you can’t discount the fact that the lean-back, channel-surfing experience that TV offers appeals to our lazier side; how else can you explain the fact that Two and a Half Men is still on the air?

But rare is the TV show, movie, or web series that succeeds purely on its own merits. 

For every Simpsons there’s an American Gothic—a dark, twisted, and captivating FOX series from the mid-1990s (and produced by former teen idol Shaun Cassidy, of all people) that never found an audience, even though it should have appealed to the very same audience that made the network’s The X-Files a phenomenon. Why? Because FOX didn’t give Gothic main character Caleb Temple the same promotional push it gave to The X-Files’ Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.

So Jersey Shore and Real Housewives of Detroit (or whatever town they’re on to now; actually, I’d watch Detroit) get renewed for another season while truly premium content—that is, quality content—fades into obscurity.

Luckily, social media has leveled the playing field somewhat, giving a whole new meaning to “word of mouth” success; nobody needs to actually open their mouths while they’re tapping on their keyboards or thumbing their iPhones. But let’s not overestimate the power of Twitter and Facebook or, for that matter, the dream that the internet would democratize the media. At least for the foreseeable future, the power to make or break content will remain in the hands of the major networks, studios, and labels. Content that succeeds on genuine buzz will continue to be the exception rather than the rule, and “premium” will still refer more to popularity than to quality. 

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