You have to wonder, why doesn't Cartoon Network produce its shows the way Rooster Teeth Productions creates its comedy hit machinima series Red vs. Blue? Nielsen Media Research says the cable network pulled in one and a quarter million viewers a night, prime time, in the week of September 11th, 2006. Bet they spent a bundle on their original programming for those nights - Teen Titans, Camp Lazlo, Xiaolin Showdown, the Adult Swim block, and all the rest. Sure, Cartoon Network can charge tens or hundreds of thousands for a 30-second ad spot, but even so, it's hard to swallow the price tag for all that animation: $150,000-plus per half-hour, over $600K for a two-hour block.
Meanwhile, the audience for Red vs. Blue is currently over a million, comparable to Cartoon Network's, and with its DVD sales, plus semi-annual sponsorship fees from some percentage of its half-million forum accounts, Rooster Teeth may well beat the network in clear profit per two-hour block. Rooster Teeth's total production costs: the price of four Xbox 360s, four copies of Halo 2, desktop computer with video capture card, editing software and Wal-Mart microphone - top to bottom, maybe $4K. By Cartoon Network standards, basically zero.
OK, the comparison is admittedly stupid. A cable network must fill hours of air time daily; the six guys at Rooster Teeth, who have just started Red vs. Blue Season 5, produce just a few hours of material a year, five minutes a week. Due to a nondisclosure agreement with Halo publisher Microsoft, they don't talk about their income, so it's pure guesswork whether they clear more profit annually than Cartoon Network does nightly. And, of course, the network can rerun its cartoons forever, amortizing animation costs to a pittance; Rooster Teeth must use bandwidth, lots of it, to deliver Red vs. Blue and its other series, The Strangerhood and PANICS. Oh God, does Rooster Teeth use bandwidth. In a single month in 2004, they pushed 488 terabytes. Yes, terabytes.
You could list a dozen ways Rooster Teeth's little operation in Austin, Texas won't undermine cable's dominance. That's not the point. This comparison illustrates how an indie (not to say "amateur") sitcom, created in a videogame engine with practically no money or resources, is reliably building numbers that rival the lower echelons of cable TV.
How long until someone realizes that in Hollywood?
Among many measures of Rooster Teeth's success is a comprehensive suite of Red vs. Blue Wikipedia entries. The main treatise, one of the encyclopedia's Featured Articles (under "Media"), recaps the origin and premise of the series, as well as the entire 78-episode run since its premiere on April Fool's Day, 2003. Each season has its own article with meticulous episode summaries.
Still, as with most attempts to summarize comedy, these efforts miss the essence, the prana of the subject. Episode transcripts help, but without the voices, you can't parse the vibe. Red vs. Blue (RvB) features sharp dialogue delivered with flair and cesium-clock timing. Almost uniquely, amid hundreds of machinima shorts apparently voiced by semi-literate Jackass rejects, these actors actually understand what they're saying.
The direction stands out, too. "I think the attention to detail that we pay to every episode really helps," Rooster Teeth's Gustavo "Gus" Sorola said in a December 2003 interview on Machinima.com. "Sometimes hours of work can go into a shot that just appears on screen for two or three seconds, but in the end it really pays off."
"In many ways, RvB is comparable to a Blizzard game like World of Warcraft," says machinima pioneer Hugh Hancock. "The idea of doing a sitcom set in a computer game isn't new; what is new and brilliant, though, is the polish and quality of the product. Other people have made game sitcoms, but very few of them have actually been, you know, funny. RvB consistently is, and that's what makes it different.