2011 Winter TCA Tour - Day 9
Not even Inspector Spacetime might have imagined the alternate universe in which this would take place: "Community," the cult-fave NBC comedy that survived five seasons of low ratings, the firing (and re-hiring) of its creator, and the departures of two major cast members, is also going to survive its cancellation by the broadcast network -– it'll be resurrected for a sixth season (and maybe more?) online at Yahoo Screen.

"Community" isn't the first show to find new life on the Internet, but its salvation by Yahoo is unique in a number of respects. Unlike "Arrested Development" –- which Netflix revived for one reunion season many years after its network TV cancellation by Fox –- "Community" will barely miss a beat, picking up right where it left off with the Season 5 cast intact and no older. (Yahoo reportedly picked up the actors' contracts on Monday, just hours before they were set to expire, at midnight on June 30.)

More important, the series is finding a home at a site not previously known for streaming content, self-produced or otherwise. Sony Pictures Television (which produces "Community") had been hoping to land the series at Hulu, but talks fell through. At that point, Yahoo snapped it up, making its first big commitment to an original series. Following last week's announcement that Yahoo had offered $250 million for Fullscreen, a major content provider on YouTube, the "Community" deal helps vault Yahoo into the ranks of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and iTunes as a provider of high-quality streaming content

The "Community" deal was a further sign of how extravagantly Yahoo is willing to spend to become a player in this arena. Back in April, Yahoo had announced it was developing two original sitcoms to debut in 2015, but with "Community," Yahoo has a show with a ready-made fanbase that'll be ready to air this fall. Sony has said that Yahoo is willing to spend TV network-sized money on each episode (which means about $2 million a pop) so that neither the stars nor the viewers will notice any lapse in quality or production values. What's more, Yahoo says it hopes to do more than one season, meaning that hopeful fans' hashtag campaign for #SixSeasonsAndAMovie could well come to pass.

There are still a lot of questions about the deal, such as the Season 6 premiere date or whether the series will be free or require a subscription fee. It's also not clear whether Yahoo would release all the episodes at once (as Netflix has done with "House of Cards," "Orange Is the New Black," and "Arrested Development") or dole them out once a week (as seems more likely, especially if they're starting to air as soon as this fall).

And these questions lead to bigger questions: Can Netflix-trained viewers go back to waiting once a week for each episode? Can viewers used to free content be persuaded to pony up for a subscription to a single series (in case Yahoo decides to go that way)? And what will be the bar for success for this lavish experiment? Series creator Dan Harmon said he hoped that the move to Yahoo would expand the show's audience beyond its TV fan base, which had dwindled to below 3 million viewers when NBC canceled the show this spring. But will the show turn a profit for Yahoo? Or will it just be an expensive loss leader that will serve its purpose by introducing Yahoo! Screen to consumers with a big splash? Harmon and his cast may have modest aspirations, but the move to Yahoo seems to aim high –- at changing the way people view shows online.

One measure of success may be artistic. There, Harmon and his cast have always been ambitious, and there's no telling what he'll do with the freedom the Internet will give him to play with form and content. For one thing, he need not necessarily be limited to a half-hour per episode (or rather, about 21 minutes after commercials, as it aired on network TV). For another, Harmon has always used "Community" as a means of exploring (and spoofing) the limits of TV as a storytelling medium; imagine what a playground this new medium will be for his fertile imagination. Not that everything is going to be highbrow; as star Joel McHale put it in his own statement regarding the new season, "It's the Internet. We can swear now."

In a way, moving "Community" online represents a homecoming for Harmon, who was one of the co-founders of Channel 101 back in 2002. That site fostered a variety of creative, funny, online-only TV programming at a time when very little of the video made for the Web was of broadcast quality –- not that many users had the bandwidth then to see shows stream as smoothly as made-for-TV series. If Harmon's earlier project helped raise online viewing to network-TV-quality level, it would be fitting if "Community" set a new standard, forcing broadcast TV to aspire to the quality level of online TV.

CATEGORIES Columns, TV