11/09/2012 01:58 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

The Future of TV: What We Can Learn From The 'Community' Fiasco

No matter what kind of entertainment we're talking about, it's pretty clear what it takes to create a successful property in the digital realm.

The must-haves: A relatively high profile in an array of niches and subcultures, the kind of credibility that comes from having built up grass-roots support over a period of years, a cadre of peers and fans willing to help a creator do the social-media equivalent of street-team marketing, and the attention of the mainstream media.

Oh, and critical acclaim sure doesn't hurt.

With "Community," NBC had all that. Yet as a commercial entity, "Community" was pretty much a failure for the network, which publicly blew up its relationship with the show's creator, Dan Harmon, not too long ago.

Pretty smooth transition into the future of entertainment, NBC!

But leaving aside that particular kerfuffle, which isn't all NBC's fault, let's consider a bigger question: What does the future hold for the broadcast networks if even their most fervently followed properties aren't helping them make the transition from over-the-air broadcasters to purveyors of digital buffets?

Now, it's worth noting that "Community," which returns Feb. 7, is far from dead. And no one's ready to hold a tag day for the broadcast networks yet: They're still making a lot of dough, and they're diligently trying to adapt to present and future realities about where and when people want to watch TV.

So NBC is doing fine, more or less. (Ironically, its apocalyptic hit, "Revolution," is helping keep the lights on.) And "Community" creator Dan Harmon is doing well too: He has projects in development at CBS and Fox, his new animated show was picked up by Adult Swim and he's part of a successful Kickstarter campaign for a new Charlie Kaufman movie.

But what about the next phase? How can networks like NBC cultivate the kind of talent that gets them attention and eyeballs -- and make some money in the process? And how can creators like Harmon -- but who don't have his visibility -- use the industry's distribution methods to get their work to longtime fans and new viewers?

I'm betting some "Community" fans wish Harmon would fully embrace the Kickstarter model for his future projects. No interference from the Man! Freedom! But I can't shake a memory of a 2008 interview I did with Joss Whedon around the time of the debut of "Dollhouse." He had just overseen the launch of of "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," and I asked whether the success of the Web series had tempted him to go fully independent.

He gestured to the lavish, two-story "Dollhouse" set we were sitting on and said, "You know, it doesn't suck to have a set."

The fact is, creators and corporate content mills still need each other, and realistic, forward-looking compromise from both sides can create real benefits for consumers. It's hard not to think of hardcore "Community" fans, at this point, as the children of divorce: The comedy is coming back next year with new showrunners, who'll probably have to deal with a fair amount of feedback that amounts, more or less, to a cry of "You're not my real dad!" But it doesn't have to be this way.

There's a lot to said for the freedoms of creator-controlled digital distribution, but building a brand and/or a new entertainment property from the ground up is a ton of work. Also, some ambitions are very expensive to realize. Kickstarter would not have funded a full season of "Community," much less Whedon's "Avengers" movie. But Whedon's success with that film perhaps contains a few lessons for those who want to find or nurture the next Dan Harmon.

Everybody in the digital age has had to adjust expectations and priorities, sometimes radically. Television networks have had to adjust their thinking about Nielsen ratings. Advertisers have had to adjust their thinking about when and how their ads are viewed. Content itself has changed; we can't pretend that writers and showrunners aren't thinking about the risks -- or rewards -- of sparking Twitter freakouts. There's nothing wrong with that; the closer connections between creators and fans can be half the fun.

In selecting directors for its movies, Marvel has shown a keen awareness of how that connection works. Marvel didn't just get an enormously successful movie from of a guy whose television output makes "Community" look like a hit; it also hired "Community" and "Game of Thrones" directors for its upcoming films. Creating a bond with a fervent audience -- on a realistic budget and a tight schedule -- is doable, and these directors and creators have proved that.

Properties that induce passionate engagement -- shows and movies like "Buffy," "The Avengers," "Community" and "Game of Thrones"-- have at least one thing in common: They were made by groups of people, but they don't look like they were made by committee. That is a hugely important distinction, in my opinion. Letting creators have partial ownership the thing they're creating is a crucial part of where we go from here (and that's why so many people fervently hope the next wave of "Star Wars" films have bear the stamp of creators who feel fully invested in creating new worlds).

And by the way, when I speak of "ownership," I'm not just talking about financial gain (though that's surely part of the conversation for some top-tier talent). What I mean is that it should be not just possible but preferable for top creative talents on a project to put their personal stamps on a movie, a TV show or whatever we're calling Netflix offerings like "Arrested Development" and "House of Cards."

We've all seen TV shows and movies that were clearly made according to bland formulas and safe checklists. Do "Community" and "The Avengers" qualify as that kind of entertainment? No way. They might take tropes and structures we all know, but those familiar building blocks have been filtered through a personal prism and altered by an intensely engaged intellect. "Friday Night Lights" and "The Wire" will sell in every format that will ever be invented, because they aren't like anything else.

Yes, Marvel is part of an entertainment colossus that traffics in well-known archetypes, but the spirit of "The Avengers" was true to the ideals of the Whedonverse and those of us who grew up in it. Marvel paid for the "Avengers" orchestra, so to speak, but they let Whedon write the song. And the lesson here is not to "give creators with geek cred lots of money" but to "give disciplined people with specific visions enough money to make their ideas come alive." The future lies in playing to win, not trying to avoid failure.

My two cents: It'd be smart for entertainment corporations to establish separate divisions that function like new-media Pixars and leave them the hell alone. There would be failures, sure -- creativity is messy and unpredictable -- but what if a few smart investments unearthed the next wave of creators who are able to inspire the kind of loyalty "Buffy" and "Community" did?

Complete freedom is great for artists who have the resources and energy to swing it and for those who have the self-awareness and discipline to avoid self-indulgence. But a lot of people with good ideas could use an assist, and in the brave new world, who made something is becoming more important than who's distributing it.

That's why the "Community" story is an important cautionary tale. Shortly after NBC fired Harmon, I wrote, "When someone rubs you the wrong way, you acknowledge that, figure out how to move forward, and move forward. Why couldn't NBC and Sony do this?" I didn't mean to imply that it's OK for creative types to run roughshod over co-workers. What I mean is this: Entertainment companies should try harder to understand that they won't augment their bottom lines in the long term if they don't embrace the things that make each creator distinctive.

Adding layers of executives and nitpickers and second-guessers isn't the way to nurture the next "Community" or the next Whedon. Smothering writer/creators with notes and paranoia hasn't produced a substantial number of breakthrough hits on the broadcast networks in the last few years. The biggest hits, in fact, have come from networks (HBO, FX, Showtime and AMC, among them) who are willing to take chances and trust voices and genres that the broadcast networks didn't want to touch with a 10-foot pole.

There are a ton of creators doing their own thing right now on the Internet, and if they are paying their bills and don't want the help of NBC or Netflix or Marvel or any of the big entertainment conglomerates, that's great. But why not give the next wave of Harmons, Whedons and Felicia Days a platform for the contents of their own personal Dreamatoriums?

There are worse ways to spend the Man's money.