October 9th, 2008

NBC Aligning Brands With A-list Talent -- Online

By Andrew Hampp
Advertising Age

Digital Studio Wants Advertisers to Fund Production of Original Web Series

Ben Silverman, NBC’s co-head of programming, changed TV’s traditional upfront ad-sales model this year by soliciting advertisers to be part of the development process, integrating their brands into scripted shows from the get-go. Now Cameron Death, Mr. Silverman’s digital counterpart and former Reveille colleague, is hoping to do the same for NBC.com.

Using the Rosario Dawson sci-fi series “Gemini Division” as his model, Mr. Death, VP, NBC Universal Digital Studio, is shopping a development slate of seven new original series to advertisers. But unlike a lot of web-based TV shows, NBC.com’s offerings use name actors and TV-quality production values. The lineup, co-produced with 60 Frames Entertainment, includes everything from reality competition series to scripted dramas from high-profile writers such as “The Bourne Ultimatum” scribe Scott Burns (comedic drama “Love at First Sight & Other Dangers") “Oz” creator Tom Fontana (crime drama “Men With Guns: The Assassins") and “Big Fish” screenwriter John August (quirky comedy “The Remnants").

Of course, developing TV-quality shows for the web means a different set of economics must be applied. Mr. Death said everything from cheaper locations to shorter episode lengths (four minutes online vs. the traditional 22 for TV) helps shave off production costs, not to mention allow the studio to devote more dollars to high-quality film stock and hiring recognizable actors.

Advertiser support
But ultimately, each show will depend on advertiser support. “Our stated goal is to have the shows funded entirely by the brands,” Mr. Death said, noting that each show can be released around a brand’s specific marketing schedule. “If the brand is all about back-to-school, there’s no reason we couldn’t launch the show around back-to-school season,” he said.

Mr. Death said his team is already in discussions with an automotive company and a hotel chain to become integrated sponsors of “Four Corners,” an “Amazing Race"-style competition where contestants from four extreme locations across the globe race to make it to the center of the U.S. “We want to find a way to do it well where it’s still additive to the story,” Mr. Death said.

“Love at First Sight & Other Dangers,” featuring Radha Mitchell ("Finding Neverland") and Eric Balfour ("24"), began at 60 Frames and is now seeking sponsors ranging from health and beauty to financial services for its NBC.com run.

Big-name talent
Brent Weinstein, CEO of 60 Frames Entertainment, said having more big-name talent attached to more web-based projects has enhanced the appeal of these shows to advertisers. “Given the choice between really good content and really bad or average content, more often than not, consumers are choosing the good. And advertisers are learning it’s a more important way to reach their intended consumers,” he said.

Added Mr. Death: “Perhaps 12 months ago, A-list talent wouldn’t jump into anything in terms of a web series. But now it’s OK, and in fact they’re coming to us with ideas and projects.”

Of course, getting consumers to tune in to a new show somewhere other than their TV sets is still a nascent concept, and one that failed miserably when NBC tried reversing the model by bringing MySpace TV’s “Quarterlife” to NBC prime time. Mr. Death declined to share specific audience figures for “Gemini,” saying the studio would release a roundup after “Gemini” completes its 50-websiode run later this fall. “What I can say is it’s growing across each platform on a weekly basis,” he said. “Anyone can get a hit out there. We have the ability to sustain and grow viewership.”

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