"Quarterlife" Creator Marshall Herskovitz Makes the Move from TV to the Web and Back Again

By Elaine Liner Archives
Cover image for  article: "Quarterlife" Creator Marshall Herskovitz Makes the Move from TV to the Web and Back Again

It’s a new media chicken or egg. Is quarterlife a TV show born on the Web? Or is it a Web series hatching on television in March?
Both, sort of. The hourlong show about six young adults pecking away at the existential crises of being single, underemployed and blog-obsessed started out as a pitch for ABC. It didn’t get the go-ahead, so creators Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick—veteran hit-makers whose previous network shows, all for ABC, include thirtysomething, My So-Called Life and Once and Again—decided to take the show Web-only.
Beginning on November 11, 2007, the 8- to 18-minute installments of quarterlife started popping up on MySpace, where the show has its own page, every Sunday and Thursday. Episodes are banked on quarterlife’s tidy home site, which also serves as a social network for young filmmakers, writers and other creative types who can post their own work there, as well as comment on the plot turns of the show. The series airs on a week’s delay on other distribution partners, including YouTube, FaceBook and Imeem.
According to data from MySpace and thequarterlife site, more than 120,000 Web viewers regularly tune in online. The series has “aired” 22 of its 36 Web-isodes so far. A larger audience will get a look at the show when it telecasts six hour-long chapters in a mini-series format on NBC beginning at 10 p.m. ET, Tuesday, February 26 (moving to 9 p.m. Sundays as of March 2).
Former So-Called Life co-star Devon Gummersall (he played geeky next-door neighbor kid Brian Krakow) has written episodes. Eric Stoltz has directed some, as has Herskovitz. Poised for stardom are the show’s six leads, played by dishy newcomers Bitsie Tulloch, Majte Schwartz, Scott Michael Foster, David Walton, Michelle Lombardo and Kevin Christy.
Launching a series on the Internet was a new adventure in storytelling, says Herskovitz, who also appears on-camera in quarterlife as a stern acting coach to a character who’s an aspiring actress. As he prepped for the show’s upcoming run on NBC, he took time for a one-on-one with MediaVillage, talking about the experiment of quarterlife, its zig-zaggy route to NBC and how a stint on jury duty led to the discovery of the show’s lead actress.
TV Maven: The series begins with Bitsie Tulloch, who plays self-conscious lead character Dylan Krieger, speaking directly into the camera as she “vlogs” for the first time. What’s your experience with blogging?
Marshall Herskovitz: Blogging is something I never did. I wrote a few things for Huffington Post. That was like writing an op-ed piece. It wasn’t a personal document. New media is about storytelling.
TV Maven: quarterlife looks like a big-budget television series, even chopped into short segments for the Web. How is doing a show for the Internet viewer different?
Herskovitz: This was written as hour-long stories with the act breaks written into them. So each 8-minute segment stands on its own. I did not know how to evoke emotion in eight minutes. It takes an hour to tell a story. That’s all we know how to do. We’re not going to jettison our 30 years of writing experience, you know, for anything. When I first said “Let’s put it on Internet,” I was told that you can’t do hour-long anything on Internet because people only watch for two minutes at a time. “No one’s going to watch eight minutes on the ’net…it can only work in two-minute increments.” I said I didn’t believe that…I’m going to live or die by 8-minute increments. And MySpace would only let us put up two episodes a week. We’ve gone to them twice to let us do longer ones or three in a week--
TV Maven: Because the No. 1 complaint from the quarterlife community bulletin boards is…
Herskovitz: The episodes are too short, right! If we have another season, God willing, I’ll definitely do longer segments.
TV Maven: How much did this challenge you as a writer-director-producer?
Herskovitz: It was a slow process of coming to see the potential in being on the Internet, outside of the power structure of Hollywood and being able to speak directly to your audience in that way. This was the first thing we ever did in that space. Ed [Zwick] and I have been joking for six or seven years about this hypothetical of two kids out of film school who make a movie for $15K, put it on a Web site, it makes $80 million and it makes the studios obsolete. When we realized that quarterlife was not going to have a home on ABC in a way that worked for us…should we let it die? Take it elsewhere? No, it’s the perfect thing to do on the Internet. Why shouldn’t we be those two kids?
TV Maven: How did it find a home on NBC?
Herskovitz: It was a long road between the two. A lot of people have misunderstood this project. What we were doing for ABC bore no relation to what it is we’re doing now. We threw out the whole story and the characters. It’s an entirely different enterprise now. Our ABC pilot was telling the wrong story. We started from scratch. It was around that time, thinking of the new story, we realized it was suited to the Internet. Actually we spent many months trying to do this with Disney, another wing of Touchstone, where we had a deal.
TV Maven: But they wouldn’t go for the Internet social networking angle?
Herskovitz: Not enough of them were excited by it. It didn’t fit with their corporate strategy. They didn’t like something with an independent identity separate from Disney. They were gracious enough to give it back to us. And we went off on our own. We had no intention of doing it on television.
TV Maven: Is NBC changing anything about the show for broadcast?
Herskovitz: It was tricky for us…this was an Internet show. What would it mean if it went to television? There were a lot of complex issues we had to figure out. The key for us was that we still had to own it and have total creative control. Nobody gives that anymore.
TV Maven: And you got that from NBC?
Herskovitz: Yes, we’re delivering completed episodes, with some changes in language because of the FCC mandates. NBC doesn’t know what they’re about until they get them. They trust us. That’s a big part of it. Going back to television–I love television–what I’m against is the loss of control and independence that TV producers have suffered in recent years. NBC has been totally great. They love the episodes. This is a new regime with [NBC-Universal Entertainment co-chairman] Ben Silverman. They’re incredibly respectful. They get it and they’re happy to put this on.
TV Maven: Are you confident that the young audience who found you on the Internet will be interested in quarterlife on conventional TV?
Herskovitz: Audiences on television are still much bigger than audiences on Internet for anything. The networks love the 18 to 34 demo. Are they going to be there watching the whole hour? Are they going to be online at the same time? They do watch TV for sure…My sense with NBC is that they’re not concerned with cannibalizing the audience.
TV Maven: What surprised you about the popularity of the social networking aspect of quarterlife?
Herskovitz: Well, remember, most of the production was done before we went live. But the social networking part has been incredibly gratifying. We guessed something that we thought would be true and it turns out to be true beyond wildest expectations: That there is a large group of people out there who want something more from a social network. There are serious, artistic, creative, introspective, thoughtful people who felt isolated in their digital lives. In how they communicated on the Internet, they did not have a venue that spoke to this more emotional, aspirational part of themselves. That’s not what MySpace and FaceBook are about. I describe those experiences as “cool” experiences. quarterlife is warm. It engages with a more passionate, emotional, authentic, private part of your inner life. People just got that right away.
TV Maven: You comment a lot and answer questions all over the quarterlife site. Do you spend a lot of time there?
Herskovitz: I do. The rate at which people are uploading content to the site is extraordinary. It’s a positive environment. It’s about art and trying to develop yourself, to be recognized for who you are and what you do. I’m completely connected to the community there. I have to hold myself back and play a certain role. I do answer questions and clarify things. But if something catches my eye, I’ll read their blogs and profiles…I’ve had hundreds of people emailing with me from the site.
TV Maven: Does the ongoing WGA strike have any impact on quarterlife?
Herskovitz: We were finished with our scripts before strike began, but Internet productions are not covered by the strike. It’s an unprecedented circumstance, our being re-purposed on NBC. Now we’re negotiating an indie deal with the WGA because we’re an independent company. This is not a TV show and it’s not budgeted like a TV show or shot like a TV show. There will have to be some accommodation. I believe.
TV Maven: Back to the show: Who are these characters? Your kids? Their friends? The male leads, budding filmmakers/creative ad guys Danny and Jed, seem a bit like Michael and Elliot from thirtysomething.

Herskovitz: Danny and Jed more closely represent Ed and me than Michael and Elliot did. With thirtysomething, both Ed and I were Michael (the Ken Olin character). And Elliot was somebody we’d never met. In this case, we talked about what we were like when we got out of film school and we wanted to be more personal in that way. Danny and Jed, in caricature, represent where we were at 26 years old. The other characters…I don’t know who these people are, but I knew them so well. Dylan just burst out of my brain fully formed. I got her, understood her. She’s difficult, wonderful, smart. I immediately fell in love with her.
TV Maven: Did that make the role harder to cast?
Herskovitz: The actress who plays her, Bitsie Tulloch, I met at jury duty. I was so taken by her. She’s such a special person. I kept thinking, is that Dylan? We went through a whole casting process. We must have read 50 people for that part. But something was so electric in this girl that I kept calling Bitsie back. She’s completely different from the character. Bitsie does not have ADD and she’s a neat freak. Dylan Krieger is a total slob and dresses like a mess. Bitsie embraced the challenge, bringing in all the ugliest clothes she had, wearing no makeup. When she walks in our office now as Bitsie, I’m still sort of taken aback.
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