How Hulu’s Battleground changed the web TV ballgame

A TV show that won’t air on any TV network? Quite a few people were hesitant when producer J.D. Walsh told them about his political comedy series project Battleground going to Hulu last year.

Fox had fronted the money for a pilot episode, but then declined to pick up the show. “They were very polite as they showed me the door,” Walsh recalled about his exit at Fox during a phone conversation last week. Attempts to take it elsewhere were met with interest, but not commitment. Battleground seemed stuck. “No project in L.A. ever dies,” he told me. “It just slowly drifts into the ocean…”

Walsh didn’t want that to happen to Battleground, and jumped on the opportunity when Hulu offered to pick it up as the service’s first-ever original scripted show. Others, however, were not quite as convinced. Battleground lead actor Jay Hayden recently remarked in an interview with Lost Remote that his manager and agent were pretty nervous, and Walsh acknowledged that online-only project was a tough sell: “There was definitely a stigma attached to it,” he said.

A much different ballgame

Fast forward a year, and those attitudes have changed dramatically. Walsh said that he doesn’t have any problems anymore with people not showing up for auditions, just because it’s an online-only gig. Instead, actors are now reaching out to him. “It was a much different ball game a year ago,” he told me.

Part of this has been a general trend towards original programming for online platforms like Netflix and Hulu. Netflix launched its first original show, Lilyhammer, a few days before Battleground started on Hulu, and has been investing heavily in other originals, including the Kevin Spacey-produced show House of Cards and a new season of Arrested Development, both of which will air next year. Hulu hasn’t been shy about its original content ambitions either, and is premiering a number of additional originals this summer.

A place for inbetweens

J.D. Walsh wrote, directed and produced Hulu’s first scripted show Battleground.

But part of the change in perception of web-only TV also has to do with Battleground itself. The show had a modest budget and was largely shot on location in Madison, Wisconsin, where it chronicles a Senate campaign with the kind of mockumentary style we’ve learned to love from watching The Office. But unlike The Office, Battleground isn’t afraid to leave the safe haven of comedy and venture into the nitty-gritty of politics. When, for example, was the last time The Office tackled voter suppression?

Battleground doesn’t just take clues from The Office, but also from The West Wing, and to some degree any other good workplace drama. This mixture of comedic and dramatic elements is what makes it unique, but it’s also what made Fox pass, Walsh believes. Networks either want comedies, or dramas — not anything in between.

“There is no third box to sit in,” he told me.

Hulu, on the other hand, gave him a lot of freedom, which resulted in more daring experiments. One episode of Battleground explores the background of the characters through the lens of a nineties reality TV documentary that reminds you of MTV shows like True Life. Wash believes traditional network execs wouldn’t have let him go through with these kinds of experiments. “I don’t think the show would have the same tone if it was on a network,” he told me.

New options for new shows — and old ones, too!

Walsh thinks that services like Hulu and their investments in online content could help others reach audiences that aren’t available through traditional networks. “With the Internet, there is no shelf space,” he said, explaining that this would make it easier to reach a passionate niche. That could help networks as well, he argued: “Wouldn’t it be interesting if networks canceled shows and immediately kept them going on the Internet?”

Speaking of keeping shows going: There’s no official word from Hulu on a second season of Battleground yet, but Walsh seemed optimistic. “It all looks very positive,” he told me, adding that its audience was comparable with that of other shows airing on prime-time cable — which is an important achievement in itself.

Hulu has also submitted the show for consideration to the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, so we might see an Emmy nomination for Battleground later this summer. “It all looks very positive,” he concluded, only to caution that in Hollywood, anything could happen. Said Walsh: “I live in a city that crushes dreams for breakfast.”

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