Reincarnating The West Wing

Could the canceled NBC drama be reborn on iTunes?

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When iTunes began selling episodes of hit NBC shows like Law & Order a few months ago, I kept checking and re-checking the listings. Where was it? Where was the show whose affluent, literate, BlackBerry-toting audience would make it a no-brainer for the new iTunes $1.99 per episode model? Where was The West Wing?

Well, now we know why NBC didn’t make its long-running political drama available to the video iPod set: It was getting ready to impeach Josiah Bartlet & Co. On Sunday, NBC announced it was canceling TWW. To those of us who still love the show, even after a few less-than-stellar seasons, it will be remembered as the “Sunday Night Massacre.”

In the days since the ax fell, my mind has been running through fanciful scenarios in which the condemned gets a reprieve. NBC television chief Jeff Zucker is ousted in a palace coup. The fictional election in this season’s storyline becomes so exciting, audiences flock to it. Pigs fly.

Then a more interesting scenario came to me: Why not continue the series on iTunes and cable/satellite pay-per-view? Make the chronicles of the new administration (whoever wins the fictional election, Matt Santos or Arnold Vinick) a download-only experience. I know it sounds absurd, but stay with me for a moment.

Writing in Slatelast year, MIT media analyst Ivan Askwith suggested that dead or dying shows might find an afterlife on iTunes. I can think of no current TV show better placed to blaze this new distribution model than The West Wing.

First, it’s a soap opera, meaning it has a cracklike effect on its victims. We must know what happens next, and we’re willing to pay for our fix. Two dollars an episode? Sure. Four dollars? Fine, just give me my damn program!

Second, it has seven years of audience equity it can leverage. It’s hard to imagine paying for a brand new program online, but it’s easy to imagine doing it for a series in which I’ve invested so much time already.

Third, the audience for this particular soap opera is unusually well-heeled, well-educated and (I strongly suspect) tech-savvy. Hey, a lot of us are already TiVo-ing the show and skipping the commercials. We’d be quite comfortable downloading it as well.

So, what would it take for a pay-per-view-only West Wing to be financially viable? I realize the economics of Hollywood involve more trickery than a Harry Potter movie—as Edward J. Epstein points out regularly in Slate—but here are some basic numbers: The West Wing has about 8 million viewers per week. It costs about $6 million per episode. In other words, if every person who now watches the show paid $1 a week, TWW would more than pay for itself.

Obviously not all 8 million viewers could or would pay for the show. But let’s say a quarter of them would. That’s 2 million people paying $3 per episode (or maybe $4, throwing in a buck for Steve Jobs and the cable companies). The episodes could be viewed on a PPV channel, downloaded to a DVR, or slurped onto video iPods.

The same model could work for other quality shows that are always teetering “on the bubble“—shows like Arrested Developmentand Scrubs(as well as departed critical darlings such as Freaks and Geeksand I’ll Fly Away).

This model would have been absurd a year ago. Now it’s completely possible, although admittedly improbable. In the near future, I guarantee it will be happening regularly. Once we realize that we can overrule the lowest-common-denominator decisions of network honchos with a few bucks a week, I think it’ll become a habit.

So, what do you say, John Wells? We’re standing here, wallets in hand, begging to pay you for the show we love. Will you think about it? Please?

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