The creators and stars of "Nobody's Watching" got to be part of a feel-good story when NBC agreed to redevelop the show thanks to the pilot's phenomenal success on YouTube.
Now comes the hard part: Figuring out how to keep that out-of-nowhere momentum going online, while at the same time working on a way to make the leap from the Internet to broadcast television.
"The problem is that it's got to retain some edginess," says Bill Lawrence, who co-created "Nobody's Watching" with his fellow "Scrubs" writers Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan. "If it becomes a homogenized corporate product -- which anything that goes through the network system does -- we're doomed."
To review: Lawrence et al make the "Nobody's Watching" pilot for The WB in 2005. It's not picked up despite positive buzz. With The WB dying, someone posts it to YouTube in June of this year. After a little publicity, several hundred thousand people view it, and the feedback is hugely positive. NBC orders six scripts in July and gives the show money to play around online.
A "Nobody's Watching" web site launched this week, with links to several videos starring Derrick (Taran Killam) and Will (Paul Campbell), TV-obsessed best friends who, after the failure of their WB show-within-the-show last year, have been kicking around Los Angeles.
They have, however, managed to get on camera as "valets" at the Emmys, played "24" around their apartment and done their own experiments with Mentos and various beverages. The site also contains forums in which people can suggest ideas for more webisodes and a "Backlash" board, which thus far has very little backlash. (One user did "out" Derrick and Will as fictional characters, something that was news to no one else and has drawn a good amount of ridicule.)
What it doesn't have are any links to NBC; nor does NBC link to it. That's by design, Lawrence says.
"We're still shooting guerrilla stuff on our own that we're not clearing with them legally. We're just going to be putting it on various sites we have access to," Lawrence says. "Because this thing got a little buzz, all these sites are very cool to us."
NBC has ordered six scripts from the "Nobody's Watching" writers, and it has signed Killam and Campbell to holding deals. The network has to decide whether to greenlight production of the show by February. Until then, Will and Derrick will continue to do their thing.
"The webisodes are all about what these guys have been doing for the last year and a half," Lawrence says, "because they can't go home out of embarrassment: They told everyone they were going to be on TV, and then they weren't.
"So if the show gets picked up, the last webisode will reveal who actually put the tape on YouTube and it's NBC picking it up. We've got footage of [NBC Entertainment chief] Kevin Reilly doing it. If the show doesn't get picked up, the last one will be these guys going home."
With either outcome, though, Lawrence is happy knowing he may have helped bring about a new way of developing TV shows.
"Even if the show ultimately fails, the fact that we've proven you can go around the system" is gratifying, he says. "I think more people will start trying to do that. I don't think it'll always work, because the Internet's ruthless, for example. But it'll occasionally work, and that's a good thing."