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The Net as TV's minor league

Gay_robot_1 You know the kind of jokes that you really don't want to laugh at, but you can't help yourself? That describes much of Adam Sandler's oeuvre, particularly the "Gay Robot" skit off of his most recent LP, "Shh...Don't Tell." The raunchy piece is as subtle as its title and offensive in oh so many ways, and yet it's right in the sweet spot for some portion of America (young, male, probably single, probably not gay).
Backed by Sony Pictures Television, Sandler's production company made the skit's sex-starved automaton the star of a pilot for a TV show and tried to sell it to Comedy Central. But the channel that has hosted the cheerfully omni-fensive "South Park" for 10 years balked at "Gay Robot" out of concern that its appeal was, umm, too narrow.
Sony and Sandler's Happy Madison Productions hope to prove otherwise by releasing the "Gay Robot" pilot online later this year. Their plan is to make the show available through as many outlets as possible. Details are still being worked out, but you'll certainly be able to watch the thing on Sony-owned sites such as Grouper. Their goal is to attract so many viewers, a network like Comedy Central will be persuaded to run "Gay Robot" on TV.
If this approach sounds familiar, well, it should. It's 1999 all over again for video on the Net. During the dot-com bubble, a raft of companies tried to put broadcast-quality video and animation online, trying to build an audience large enough either to win a TV deal (e.g., Icebox and Mondo Media) or attract advertising dollars (e.g., DEN). The audience was too small then; by February of this year, however, Nielsen//NetRatings estimated that there were nearly 100 million active broadband users in U.S. homes. By summer, the hordes were averaging 1 YouTube video per person per day.
The potential deal-breaker today is the low percentage of people who can watch an Internet-delivered video on their TV. That's not a problem for short clips, which people don't hesitate to watch on their computer screens. But a 30-minute (OK, 22-minute) sitcom? To its credit, Sony isn't waiting for the TV-PC gap to close. In addition to "Gay Robot," it plans to put another niche-y, broadcast-quality comedy online (with CBS) later this year. Other studios and networks are experimenting, too, using the Net both to promote new shows and to bury failed ones. Business model or no, there's a lot of TV on the Net these days, and more is on the way. As Gay Robot says, "Good times. Good times."

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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