Bar Karma logoCurrent TV just announced a new television series from an unlikely source: Will Wright, the gaming genius being the Sims franchise, is developing a user-controlled show called Bar Karma. (A title that alternately conjures images of LOST and images of the free shots you get after you're nice to your barkeep.)

Wright has created new technology that will let audience members participate in the evolution of the series, from start to finish. Each episode will be developed in three phases: users will submit show ideas and storyboards, the community will vote on the concepts, then the winning idea will be produced by Wright and former Spike TV president Albie Hecht.

The history of user-generated TV has always been hit-or-miss. MTV experimented with the genre in the UK with Flux, the channel that allowed viewers to upload video footage for possible TV broadcast. The resulting content was mostly fluffy shootout videos and fankid gushing. The channel lasted only 15 months before undergoing a "rebrand" that put control back in the hands of producers.

Decade-old reality show Big Brother experimented with user input in its 8th season, when producers introduced the "America's Player" concept. This saw one cast member taking assignments directly from viewers who texted in their ideas. The season of Brother was controversial for a number of reasons, and the America's Player feature was scrapped after the single attempt.

A successful model for user-generated TV is Channel 101, an LA and NY based project developed by Dan Harmon (now the exec-producer of Community) and Rob Schrab eight years ago. The project culls from a community of users: participants create short pilot episodes and screen them at monthly gatherings. Audience members vote on the pilots they like best and those episodes return month after month until they fail to garner enough support. The screenings have launched a number of popular series like Computerman with Jack Black and Ikea Heights, a series shot entirely in a Los Angeles IKEA behind the store staff's backs. Channel 101's success stems from its moderated format -- the project gives its audience the programming it wants without having to relinquish creative control over the content itself.

In his write-up of Bar Karma, NY Times media blogger Brian Stelter made a point to emphasize Current's decision to call its user base "viewers" instead of "players" -- rhetoric that highlights that there is, in fact, a difference between the two. When we sit back to watch the tube, we want to be entertained by storytellers who have proven themselves to be the best of the genre. Good television is art and our favorite art is never the stuff we could never have thought up ourselves.

Will Wright is a games guy, not a TV guy (incidentally, Will was my film school commencement speaker and I don't remember one single thing he said, though that may have been more an consequence of the nips of Jack I taped to the inside of my cap), and he's brilliant at the software he puts out. Current's mistake here is emphasizing the project in terms of being innovative TV instead of being innovative gaming. As a user-controlled game, the project's fresh and exciting, but as something that must compete directly with stellar original programming like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, Bar Karma is sure to butt up against more roadblocks than just a vague and Darlton Cindelof-y title.