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Subject: [NYLXS - HANGOUT] Media and the Internet: New Opportunity for Freedom or Dark
From: Ruben Safir
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Date: Wed, 03 May 2006 04:21:33 -0400
Microsoft Teams Up With Hollywood to Offer Original Web Shows
Article Tools Sponsored By
By LORNE MANLY
Published: May 3, 2006
Nearly 10 years after wholeheartedly but prematurely embracing original
entertainment programming on the Web, Microsoft is re-entering the fray.
But instead of attempting to contort itself into a media company by
hiring scores of relatively unknown writers and producers and go it
virtually alone, this time Microsoft has chosen to team up with some
high-profile Hollywood talent.
The first deal for its MSN Originals initiative is an alliance with Ben
Silverman, one of the prime movers behind importing the reality show
craze to the United States and the producer of shows like "The Office"
and "The Biggest Loser" on NBC.
The one-year, multimillion-dollar deal calls for the creation of 10 Web
pilots for MSN, each tailored to one or more strengths of the Web. Four
shows have already been given the go-ahead, including a short-form
comedy that can be described, in classic high-concept Hollywood style,
as "The Office" meets "Reno 911" meets "Airplane," doled out in
two-and-a-half minute bits starting this fall. Adding to the sitcom
verisimilitude: Tom Arnold is close to signing on to star as the lovably
flawed pilot for a commuter airline.
Another show, "Under the Influence," plans to pair a musician with one
of his or her inspirations ("Unplugged" meets "Crossroads"), have them
engage in a musical give-and-take, and then allow the audience to delve
more deeply into the lives and music of other important figures in the
Other approved pilots are "Face Off," an interactive "Crossfire" with a
pop-culture slant, and the tentatively titled "Chef to the Rescue,"
which will allow people whipping up meals to get specific advice from a
To harness the Web's attributes, many of the shows and applications will
wrap around them community offshoots, commerce opportunities and the
ability to dig deeper for related segments or information. Product
placement, a specialty of Mr. Silverman, will also be an integral part
of the programming.
And in a final twist, Mr. Silverman's Reveille, the independent
production company he founded and runs, will be able to turn any of the
Web shows into television series. Microsoft will have a financial stake
in any resulting show. "We are all about building brands that can go
across mediums," Mr. Silverman said.
Microsoft's move comes as it is looking to jazz up its MSN portal, one
part of its accelerating competition with Google, Yahoo and AOL.
Ultimately Microsoft executives want to lure more Web users to MSN, keep
them there longer than they have stayed in the past and sell plenty of
advertising to marketers wishing to woo them.
The deal is expected to be announced today at the MSN Strategic Account
Summit, a Microsoft-convened gathering of marketing, technology and
entertainment executives in Redmond, Wash.
Microsoft's previous foray into original Web content was not
particularly auspicious. In 1996 and 1997 the company poured about a
$100 million into shows like "475 Madison" (a dark comedy about a New
York advertising agency) and "Project: Watchfire" (a serious look at
U.F.O.'s) and mini-sites like Mungo Park (an outdoor adventure project)
and the movie-obsessed Cinemania.
In November 1996, when MSN announced its transition from a proprietary
service to a Web supersite, it unveiled a lineup of more than two dozen
shows for what its executives — borrowing from the language of
television — called a new season. In the ensuing months it found itself
mimicking another tradition of the television business when it canceled
almost all of the shows.
Within a few years Microsoft had dumped nearly all of the original
entertainment programming for more practical, utilitarian services.
"Perhaps we invested too much too quickly in content before the audience
was there and the bandwidth was there," said Gayle Troberman, the
director of branded entertainment and experiences for MSN.
Faster connections and the audience's embrace of Web video have
persuaded Microsoft executives to intensify their original programming
ambitions. But Microsoft executives have also learned to play to the
company's strength: its collection of large numbers of Web users, thanks
largely to the power of its Web browser and its ability to steer people
While continuing to license content from existing media and
entertainment companies (like clips of NBC shows or the streaming of new
shows before they make their debuts on network television) and beefing
up its user-generated content platform, MSN is adding a third pillar to
its content strategy.
"We're going to partner with the experts," the new generation of content
creators for the broadband experience, said Rob Bennett, general manager
of entertainment and video services for MSN.
"We're not going to go build a massive studio in Santa Monica and go
give someone a Handycam," Mr. Bennett added, in a playful dig at Yahoo's
media efforts. (Yahoo recently scaled back its ambitious plans to
produce television-style programming for the Web site, shifting more to
user-generated content as well as repurposed fare from media and
Mr. Silverman and his staff — and the connections to talent they bring —
are the attraction for MSN. Mr. Silverman's longtime relationship with
Mr. Arnold, for example, helped interest the actor in the concept for
the Web sitcom, tentatively titled "Airplane." And for "Face Off,"
Reveille is working with Woody Thompson, a co-creator of "Pop-Up Video,"
the VH1 creation in the 1990's that spurred a generation of wisecrackers
to ironically and affectionately deconstruct the detritus of popular
"We told Woody, 'The same way you took on the static music video, you
should be attacking this new medium,' " Mr. Silverman said.
MSN meanwhile has the distribution to get these new shows in front of
millions of people, quickly. And MSN has plenty of knowledge about what
their audience flocks to. Entertainment, for example, represents about
half of the searches on MSN, according to Mr. Silverman. Knowing that
tidbit helped Reveille decide to make the most-searched
entertainment-related query become the topic for the debate of the day
for "Face Off."
MSN and Reveille executives understand that Web users want content they
can snack on, and then — when the mood strikes and spare time
materializes — immerse themselves in offshoots. That characteristic
causes Mr. Silverman to rave about the possibilities of creating
programming for the Web.
"It's creativity without walls," Mr. Silverman said. "You're never in
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