TV Eye

Showtime for 'This American Life'

TV Eye

I have good news and bad news. For those wondering if the TV version of This American Life meets the quality of the original radio version that airs on National Public Radio, the answer is an emphatic yes! The bad news is that it appears on Showtime. The good news is that This American Life is a get for the network that toils under the shadow of that other cable network that says it's better than TV. The bad news is you have to pay for it. The good news is you'll want to.

Like many fans of Ira Glass and his 15-year-old audio program that airs weekly on NPR, I was skeptical. Highly skeptical. How could Glass hope to capture the magic of This American Life on TV? The thrilling answer is that he does so without diminishing the spirit of the show's core mission while creating something completely unique and separate from the original and even more surprising – something unique for TV.

More than documentary and not a conventional reality show, Showtime's This American Life does what so few have accomplished: It finds and exploits the full potential of TV. Like the audio version (also available as a podcast), This American Life features real people telling their stories, revealing them at their own pace in a way that makes the rest of the world fall away. Glass enters TV with good company. With Christine Vachon and Christopher Wilcha as producers, along with Left/Right productions, Showtime's This American Life has found the perfect marriage of talent and experience to pull off the TV version.

"I like lots of reality shows," says Glass in Showtime press materials. "For better or worse, [the] reality show has now come to mean putting extroverted people into an artificial world where conflicts are set up for them to live through and react to; that's not us. The people in our stories are having their regular lives, and the stakes in the stories are the things closest to their hearts, which usually means much bigger stakes than on any reality show."

This American Life premieres Thursday, March 22, at 9:30pm on Showtime.


Seen and Heard at SXSW

TV: The Next Generation, Austin Convention Center, Saturday, March 10: TV is dead. Long live TV, but not in the way we now know it. Content and, more importantly, who is creating it, how it is accessed, and how viewers will find it was the topic of this TV-related panel, one of several at this year's SXSW conference. Several online media producers hoping to capture the lightning that is currently happening online (see the story of LonelyGirl15) were on hand to discuss how creative content online is reshaping the future of TV. Will the larger networks absorb the small online upstarts, or will new models that completely bypass conventional ways of doing business appear? What online and truly interactive media offers that conventional TV doesn't is its immediate response to audience feedback.

"The networks are dealing with size and layers," said Nicole Carrico, director of creative development for AOL. "They can't respond to how audiences are giving them feedback which is the key to how interactive media works."

Other panelists included representatives from CNET.com, Revision3, Ziff Davis Media, and CNET Entertainment. Though no one offered any predictions on what watching TV would mean in the future, all were sure that experience would include watching online content and would move beyond the two-minute video and not replicate the traditional TV show.

"I'm not sure if Andy Warhol's prediction that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes is true," said Greg Brannan, vice president of programming for CNET Entertainment, "but they will definitely have a Web site."

SXSW-related: Public Access Community Television begins live broadcasts of East by Southeast, featuring Austin bands not on the South by Southwest schedule. Everything from alt.country to swamp-rock is on the bill. Tune in to cable Channel 16 from 6pm to 1am, Thursday through Saturday.

Local plug: Adrian Archuleta, another Austin-based filmmaker hoping for a chance to be a contestant on the new reality series On the Lot (Fox), sent the link to his film: community.thelot.com/profiles/profile.aspx?un=HDfilm.

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