The Internet saved ‘Community,’ but will ‘Community’ save the Internet?

BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF

According to Game of Thrones, “All men must die.” But what about plucky NBC sitcoms?

Defying its odds of survival yet again, the news broke this week that Yahoo! would be picking up Community for a sixth season, and that the original cast (minus the already departed Donald Glover and Chevy Chase) and creator Dan Harmon, would be onboard. Suffice it to say, the Internet rejoiced.

That Community’s sixth season will be brought to you not by Netflix, Amazon, or even by Hulu, but by good ol’ web portal Yahoo is probably the most shocking thing of all about this development.

Since Hulu owns the digital rights to Community (at least for now), they were the obvious choice to resurrect the Sony-produced program. But after negotiations with the well-known streaming service fell apart last week—and with contracts on the verge of expiring—things started to look pretty grim for the future of Greendale’s prodigal students. The situation wasn’t helped by rampant speculation that lead actor Joel McHale would be taking over for Craig Ferguson on CBS’s Late Late Show (a rumor which has since been all but put to bed), and a blog post from Harmon which didn’t exactly sound enthusiastic at the prospect of continuing the show. 

While Yahoo! may not be the first place that anybody would’ve predicted for the future of Community, the decision is a smart move all around. Yahoo! isn’t just making a name for themselves with any show; they’re making a name for themselves with the show that defines Internet fandom. The cult of Community may be fairly small, but they’re also very dedicated. By relying on the show’s established brand, Yahoo! is paving the way for their future, and for the future of other content providers.

Most importantly of all, they are proving that in today’s marketplace, the Internet is more essential to the survival of television than ever.

Everyone wants in on the Internet programming war. With the pedigree of Netflix at an all time high, its streaming peers are either waiting to strike or figuring out their next move. For Yahoo!, this meant greenlighting two scripted series, one from Bridesmaids’ Paul Feig and the other from The Office’s Bryan Gordon, in addition to two news shows from Katie Couric. Like Netflix, their scripted content will be released all at once, in hopes of capitalizing on the “binge-watching” method.

This is a good business decision, as Amazon’s approach to streaming original shows is a little more complicated and has not seemed to work in their favor. It’s also interesting that Yahoo! has diverged from their streaming competitors by choosing to focus—for the time being—solely on comedies, with Community fitting nicely into that mold.

Deadline’s Nellie Andreeva reported what awaits Community‘s Internet future.

The deal for Community extends Sony TV’s strong track record in bringing back cancelled series. The studio previously brokered a deal to move acclaimed drama Damages to DirecTV after it was cancelled by FX… What wasn’t immediately clear was how Yahoo! plans to make money from continuing the cult show online. Reviving Arrested Development for another season and bankrolling award-winning originals such as House Of Cards and Orange Is the New Black helped cement Netflix as a go-to place for all kinds of shows.

Amazon is trying to follow a similar if not quite so high-profile path as it has been building up its Amazon Prime offerings. In both cases, the companies use the owned content to drive subscriptions, where they make their real money… But unlike Netflix and Amazon, Yahoo! has been betting on advertising to generate most of the revenues for its programming… ‘Yahoo! is all about connecting the best creators to the audiences who love their work,’ said Kathy Savitt, CMO of Yahoo! ‘Community has an incredibly passionate and loyal fan base who have fought hard to keep this amazing show alive.’

Analyzing Andreeva’s findings, two things become abundantly clear. One, that Sony’s deal to save Community is unlike their deal to save Damages, which didn’t have the same kind of cult following, and thereby indicates that despite having met their syndication requirement with Community, Sony understands that dedicated fandom pays off in the long run.

And two, that Yahoo! aims to succeed where Hulu has failed. Unlike Netflix and Amazon, Hulu relies heavily on advertising. They have done well with streaming current and classic television shows but have had trouble attracting users to their original content. By resurrecting a beloved show like Community, they had a chance to put themselves on the map in a big way and begin attracting users based on their own scripted programming. But they passed over budgetary concerns, and Yahoo! is now in that position.

And it’s a good position to be in. Let’s not forget that what really got people talking about Netflix as content creator three years ago was the announcement that they were bringing back Arrested Development.

Although in some ways, Community’s resurrection via an online platform is even more fitting than Arrested Development’s was. Like Arrested, part of the intense love for Community stems from a complex series of running gags, perfect for Internet dissection.

But unlike AD, Community has maintained a an almost legendary mythos online since its introduction—#sixseasonsandamovie has become a movement unto itself. Arrested Development was always more of a critics/awards darling than anything else; it was the show that “smart” TV viewers would chastise you for not watching.

Community, on the other hand, while always receiving solid reviews, was never a favorite at the Emmys or Golden Globes or the like; Community was the show that people got “weird” about whenever they discussed how much they loved it. And said weirdness has manifested perfectly through online fandom, making Community a show with a cult that’s fiercely loyal, even by Internet standards.

An then there’s Dan Harmon. Somewhere between crazy person and genius, Harmon is the embodiment of the television showrunner for the Internet age. Where other shows’ creators have no time for indulging in fan theories and open discussion, Harmon embraces the Internet’s ability to form a link between him and his fans with open arms. He routinely shares his feelings in great detail, perhaps revealing more than he should on occasion. In many ways, his entire Harmontown podcast is an experiment in connecting with an audience as intimately as possible.  

Still, all the upsides about Community’s move to Yahoo! notwithstanding, it isn’t quite time to pop the champagne yet.

Reboots are a common but tricky gambit in today’s entertainment landscape, even for cherished properties like Community. The Arrested Development reboot simmered in fans’ minds for years before Netflix pulled the trigger, while Community fans only had a few months to miss the show. And even when AD did come back, many reactions were quite mixed, solidifying the idea for some that the show was perfect in its original three season incarnation.

For now, Netflix remains open to the idea of doing more Arrested Development, which would at least mean the possibility of righting some of the wrongs various fans felt were committed in the fourth season. Creator Mitch Hurwitz does after all have a multi-year deal there, indicating that he can pretty much do whatever he wants, including AD and beyond.

But for Arrested Development’s oldest and most passionate fans, there will always be a part of them left to wonder whether the show should’ve left well enough alone.

Community is likely to receive a similar examination when it returns in the fall. Slate’s Aisha Harris, for one, felt that the show already got the perfect ending with the completion of its last season. “The Season 5 finale as it aired last month was pitch perfect in its delivery, a great mix of reasonable optimism and wise acceptance of what could be the inevitable: the end,” Harris wrote. “And now that we know for sure that it’s the end, we can be thankful that the series went out with its creator in place, its wonderful original ensemble cast (mostly) intact, and its signature meta humor in full force.”

Others, like TIME’s Eric Dodds, have said that Community’s “six seasons and a movie prophecy” has become a constraint for the show whether it continues or not. Dodds claimed, “There’s no denying its mythology, but the mantra that was once a rallying cry for the show may now be limiting its potential.”

But when all is said and done, one thing is for sure. Last week, no one knew what the future of Community was, and no one cared about the future of Yahoo!’s original programming (except for those who work at Yahoo!, of course). This week, Community fans are happy, Yahoo! is gaining traction from the announcement, and a major step has been taken for the future of TV and the Internet.

TV is getting smaller. There are more content providers than ever, and the race to create new and exciting television means that Netflix can’t be king forever. To wit, the continued legacy of a show like Community proves that you no longer need huge numbers to matter. Sure, huge numbers help, but if enough people love what you’re doing, there’s a good chance you’ll find a home. And chances are, that home will be on the Internet.

Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University’s Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.

Photo via Community/NBC