Steve Buscemi was in something of a quandary. The lauded star of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire stood in a Brooklyn, N.Y., bar with a few friends and family members, lamenting the state of television production. “It’s so hard to do your own TV show, you’ve gotta pitch it, it takes money — there’s got to be some way to do it quick,” he said.
“What about a Web series?” his father said. “It’s on the Internet — ever hear of the Internet?”
He had — and, conveniently enough, he said, “I have an AOL account.” Buscemi decided right then to do a talk show; at the other end of the bar, an eavesdropping Chris Rock suggested an original concept: “You could do it on a park bench,” he said.
And, ahem, just like that, Park Bench with Steve Buscemi was born, with this episode-one exchange having established its style: Irreverent enough to poke fun at “unscripted” reality fare conceits, and boastfully low-budget enough to take its rightful place among the increasingly popular over-the-top (OTT) Web series that are starting to give cable cohorts a run for their ad business money. They’re also competing for the best stars, concepts and show creators and, in turn, a greater number of viewers.
“Convergence is real and undeniable; audiences are becoming more screen-agnostic, with consumers consuming good content wherever they can,” Gabriel Lewis, AOL’s head of originals & AOL Studios, said. AOL’s slate of 16 originals, announced at the recent NewFronts, favors reality shows that give celebrities a chance to attempt something unique and offb eat. “We’re creating series where, when you watch them, you genuinely get the feel for the talent’s point of view,” Lewis said. “We’re trying to avoid conflict-style and overproduced reality. There won’t be any train-wreck content on our network in originals. We’ll see how that goes for a few years — although we might eventually have to contribute to the decline of Western civilization; but just for now, we’re doing our best not to.”
AOL continues to refine an originals brand alongside the likes of Hulu, Sony Pictures Television’s Crackle, Google/YouTube, video-game systems PlayStation and Xbox and others, in an online neighborhood dominated by Netflix and, to a lesser degree, Amazon. The business models and programming philosophies may be as different as the lengths of programs, but the idea, as always, is to stand out from the crowd. AOL’s tagline is “Authentic Voices, Remarkable Stories.” With relative hits such as #CandidlyNicole starring Nicole Richie, AOL saw five times growth in audience on a year-over-year basis, according to Lewis.
If you believe the numbers, the rising tide is lifting all boats. A nationwide Leichtman Research Group study of 1,211 households in April found that 49% of U.S. homes have at least one television connected to the Web, a climb from 38% in 2012. In that same time, the number of adults who watch video from the Internet via a connected TV at least once per week rose from 13% to 24%. According to PricewaterHouseCoopers research, revenue generated by OTT video streaming services is slated to grow 28.1% annually, with 24/7 access to content being a key to monetization models. Internet TV advertising is predicted to double its piece of the total TV ad revenue pie from 2.2% to 4.5% from 2013-18. The huge Google/YouTube, hyper-aware of the stats, made strong NewFronts pitches, with Nielsen data from November stating that YouTube reached 49% of the 18-34 demo, giving it a longer range than FX (at 45%), TBS’s sitcoms (44%), Comedy Central (41%) and AMC (40%). With greater competition, cable providers, according to the PwC report, will have increasing trouble keeping their subscribers. The doors are wide open for streaming Web nets and shows.
“I think it would be foolish to believe that these kinds of things in some form will not be part of the landscape going forward,” Katz Television Group vice president and director of programming Bill Carroll said. “Timing is everything and this is the time where experimentation and unique approaches — especially if they’re somehow associated with a known person or brand — are looked upon as having potential.”
That has certainly been the case with Netflix, which made TV history last year, becoming the first OTT service to earn Emmy and Golden Globe recognition with drama series House of Cards (including a Best Actress Globe win for co-star Robin Wright). With a subscription-based business model, additional top series (including Orange Is the New Black) and the House of Cards star power of Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey, Netflix is staking its claim as a competitor to premium cablers HBO and Showtime.
“You can create an event with a guy like Kevin Spacey,” Horizon Media senior vice president of research Brad Adgate said. “It’s something where either you take somebody very known or an unknown and roll the dice.”
And there are plenty of gamblers at the table. Amazon tried to even the odds last year, letting viewers play programmers by watching pilots and choosing which series they’d like to see on paid service Amazon Prime. Xbox is hoping video-game popularity will translate as the basis of drama series; Yahoo will trot out both dramas and Katie Couriccreated news shows. And some smaller players are chiming in with a wide array of lifestyle series. There will be plenty of shorter fare — meant to appeal to younger generations weaned on snackable viewing options — and, when budgets and business models permit, longer dramas.
The number of choices is certain to multiply. To get an idea of just how diverse the offerings are, check out the chart of OTT shows that starts on page 10, which offers a snapshot of what’s on and a preview of what’s coming. “It’ll be interesting to see where we all go as producers and as consumers over the next five to 10 years,” Lewis said. “I think we’ll see drastic shifts across the board.”
What’s on the Programming List for Over-the-Top Originals Providers
(All shows currently available for viewing unless otherwise indicated)
Series: The After
The Sketch: Look, it’s not like the end of the world or anything. Oh, wait — it is, and eight strangers have to navigate this post-apocalypse now.
The Skinny: Instant weird sci-fi cred, courtesy of creator Chris Carter, who gave us The X-Files.
The Sketch: It’s Party time! And by that we mean Dems and GOPs as four senators share a townhouse and try not to drive each other crazy.
The Skinny: Great political junkie fare, starring John Goodman, and created by “Doonesbury” scribe Garry Trudeau.
The Sketch: A homicide detective must deal with two murders, investigating the grisly death of a 13-year-old boy and standing trial for slaying a serial killer.
The Skinny: Based on one of Michael Connelly’s popular crime novels featuring Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch.
Series:Mozart in the Jungle
The Sketch: It’s sex and drugs and Bach and soul as a behind-the-scenes look at a symphonic troupe offers up some orchestral maneuvers in the dark.
The Skinny: When it comes to capturing ego and anger, stars Malcolm McDowell and Gael Garcia Bernal know how to conduct themselves.
ALSO:Transparent (starring Jeffrey Tambor), and kids’ series Annedroids, Creative Galaxy, Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street, Tumble Leaf and Wishenpoof!
Series:Kevin Nealon’s Laugh Lessons
The Sketch: Kids and comedians have one thing in common: They say the darnedest things! The former Saturday Night Live regular picks up on his concept birthed on Ellen as comics give life advice to young’ns.
The Skinny: Co-executive produced by Ellen DeGeneres and Nealon; comes with built-in audience.
Series:Making a Scene With James Franco
The Sketch: A doozy from the Oscar-nominated actor, known for making maverick-y choices: He and friends discuss favorite movie scenes and then recreate them, sometimes inserting characters from one movie into another.
The Skinny: To quote Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein, “IT … COULD … WORK!” Or, it could come across as just plain odd. Sorta like the rest of Franco’s career choices.
The Sketch: Steve Buscemi converses with an eclectic list of folks (Fred Armisen, GZA, Debbie Harry, a Buddhist nun) and, in litt le sitcom touches, interacts with family and friends.
The Skinny: Sorta like his character in the film Fargo, the show is kinda funny — you know, just kinda funny.
The Sketch: Actor-comedian Mike Epps uses humor to explore the backstories of ethnic stereotypes, asking Jamaicans about marijuana, Mexicans about tacos, African-Americans about fried chicken and Jews about horns. Oy!
The Skinny: A perfect melding of host with topic, as Epps, an envelope-pushing standup comic, tries to defuse tension through humor.
ALSO:Connected, Follow Me, In Short, Inspired, My Hero, The Road to Disrupt, So Much More, Win/Win. And renewed series #CandidlyNicole, city.ballet., The Future Starts Here, Hardwired 2.0.
(owned by Sony Pictures Television)
Series:Comedians in Cars Gett ing Coffee
The Sketch: Return of two new seasons for Jerry Seinfeld’s celebration of caffeine and gasoline and punchlines. Passengers will include Jon Stewart, Sarah Jessica Parker, Robert Klein and George Wallace.
The Skinny: A subtle dissection of humor and perfect timing. Already a classic model.
The Sketch: A 12-episode series with a “12 angry mien” about it finds a dozen good men and women stuck in a hotel, deliberating a whopper of a case.
The Skinny: The verdict will depend on the writing and the chemistry of the principles.
The Sketch: A spinoff from Sony Pictures’ hit game show, with Dan Patrick playing Alex Trebek, and no doubt set to offer a dismissive glare when “Who was Ty Cobb?” turns out to be the incorrect response.
The Skinny: Live sports remains wildly popular, and Jeopardy! is a syndie juggernaut. A good mix.
The Sketch: Bryan Cranston shifts from Heisenberg to Weisenheimer as exec producer of this series that replaces the main character of old detective shows with a modern actor, keeping everything else the same, for comedic effect.
The Skinny: Dragnet’s Joe Friday was already funny; could be like shooting fish in a barrel for Cranston.
ALSO: Returning shows Chosen and Cleaners.
The Sketch: Who you gonna call? A slacker medium who’s down on his luck starts making his living by helping coax restless spirits into the afterlife.
The Skinny: A second season has already been ordered for the popular sixth-sense series.
The Sketch: Hulu’s first original for kids, this update of Fraggle Rock comes from The Jim Henson Co., and packs a curriculum’s worth of learning in an updated, animated package.
The Skinny: Several episodes in, it’s already proved popular with kids, and is a throwback thrill for adults.
Series:The Next Step
The Sketch: Shot in reality TV style, this Canadian teen drama series finds top dancers competing to see who will go to Regionals, and the one new dancer who sends the action and relationships spinning.
The Skinny: Could develop the kind of Glee-esque following it earned up North.
Series:The Hotwives of Orlando (premieres July 25)
The Sketch: The Real Housewives franchise provides fertile territory for this scripted parody, with six women whipping up a beotches brew of upper-class trouble. “Family is everything to me,” one of the wives says. “And by ‘family’ I mean shoes.”
The Skinny: Looks a litt le too close to the real thing — which makes it that much funnier.
ALSO: New seasons of The Awesomes, Behind the Mask, East Los High (premieres this summer), Elite New Face, Fresh Meat, Line of Duty, Moody Family (premieres this spring), Moone Boy, Mother Up, The Only Way is Essex, Pramface, Quick Draw (premieres this fall), and Rev (premieres this summer).
Series:BoJack Horseman: A Tale of Fear, Loathing and Animals (premieres August 22)
The Sketch: Once upon a time, it was all equine women and song for beloved ‘90s sitcom horse BoJack Horseman; 20 years later, he’s washed up, but has a lot to say, in this animated adult series.
The Skinny: Voices of Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris and Will Arnett should help elevate this project.
Series:Hemlock Grove (season two premieres July 11)
The Sketch: Everybody seems to have a secret in the title town, and the heir to its biggest riches joins with a newcomer to help make sense of a rash of otherworldly murders and mayhem in this thriller.
The Skinny: New showrunner Charles H. Eglee brings experience from The Walking Dead and Dexter to this supernatural tale.
Series:Orange Is the New Black
The Sketch: Season two of the stars and bars prison dramedy is available for full viewing, as Taylor Schilling’s Piper deals with life on the inside. Guests this season include Lori Pett y and Lorraine Toussaint.
The Skinny: The popular Jenji Kohan series has already been renewed for season three.
Series:Marco Polo (premiering late 2014)
The Sketch: An international cast, exotic martial arts, political mischief, crazy battles and sexual intrigue — those are the James Bondian elements peppering this tale of the famed adventurer who gets caught up in a vicious 13th-century war.
The Skinny: A big-budget project from The Weinstein Co. that should look beautiful and brutal.
ALSO:House of Cards, kid shows King Julien, Puss in Boots and Veggie Tales in the House.
Xbox Entertainment Studios
(Created by Microsoft Studios)
Series:Every Street United (premieres in 2014)
The Sketch: An unscripted series due, conveniently enough, during a World Cup year, with soccer stars Thierry Henry and Edgar Davids bopping across eight countries; their gooooooaaaaaal: find the most gifted, undiscovered street stars of soccer.
The Skinny: The series concludes with an hour-long episode, featuring a street-game finale in Rio de Janeiro, site of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. That oughta score well.
Series:Halo (premieres in 2014)
The Sketch: A live-action series taking place in the Halo game universe is the perfect stop for tech movie wunderkind Steven Spielberg, who serves as executive producer of the series.
The Skinny: An ideal melding of all universes: a live-action Halo distributed on Xbox. Master Chief would no doubt approve. A separate digital feature, coproduced by Ridley Scott, is also due.
Series:Humans (premieres in 2015)
The Sketch: A sci-fi drama series about a family that purchases a very lifelike “synth” robot to help around the house, but faster than you could say, “Open the pod bay doors, HAL,” there’s a load of trouble.
The Skinny: The series will hit prett y close to home, given our love of tech toys.
Series:Signal to Noise
The Sketch: A six-film documentary series explores how technology affects the way we live. The first entry, “Atari: Game Over,” explores the tech world’s legendary Jimmy Hoffaesque tale of a landfill in New Mexico, and millions of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial videogame cartridges that were always thought to be buried there.
The Skinny: British co-producer Simon Chinn has won two Best Documentary Feature Oscars, putt ing this project in good hands.
ALSO:Deadlands, East of Exurbia and Fearless.
The Sketch: Paul Feig, co-creator of Freaks & Geeks and director of Bridesmaids, executive produces a comedy about space explorers finding an alternate universe that presumably won’t feature talking apes.
The Skinny: Originally meant for NBC, the net passed when Feig said he didn’t want the series shot like a traditional sitcom. One is advised to trust Feig’s instincts.
Series:Sin City Saints
The Sketch: A drama series about an expansion professional basketball team in Las Vegas.
The Skinny: Making all eight episodes available for binge viewing a la the Netflix model will only improve the Vegas odds on its success.
Series:Now I Get It (premieres summer)
The Sketch: Katie Couric series that helps explain complex news topics through short videos.
The Skinny: Couric has already established Web cred and this is a good way to keep her name in that arena.
The Sketch: Katie Couric talks to tech iconoclasts, focusing specifically on how innovators and entrepreneurs have helped change our daily lives.
The Skinny: Couric’s interviewing skills were always among her greatest assets.
Focus is on new and continuing brands and channels on the YouTube platform, ranging from a DreamWorks Animation channel (reaching for family audiences), to the “big think” options of creator Rainn Wilson’s SoulPancake offerings.
Powers, a Sony Pictures Television supernatural drama will be the first original series specifically for PlayStation. It had previously been developed for FX.
Comedy channel Above Average (part of Broadway Video) offers sitcom Seriously Distracted to go along with the likes of Charles, Your Hangover, That Couple You Know and You Bet Your Ass.
Condé Nast Entertainment (CNE) network with a variety of lifestyle series, including Big Fat Weekend, Cassandra To the Rescue, I Effed It Up, Epicuriosity and 30 Things; the net features names such as Cassandra Bankson, Andrew Knowlton and Dawn Perry of Bon Appetit, Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos and iconic photograph Annie Liebovitz.
From Scripps Networks Interactive, featuring new lifestyle shows such as Foods for Dudes, Like a Vegan, How Not to Kill Your Kids and 5 Things with Anne Sage.
Rob has written for Broadcasting+Cable since 2006, starting with his work on the magazine’s award-winning 75th-anniversary issue. He was born a few blocks away from Yankee Stadium … so of course he’s published three books on NASCAR, most notably, Full Throttle: The Life and Fast Times of NASCAR Legend Curtis Turner. He’s currently the special projects editor at TV Guide Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post and his origami art has been in The Wall Street Journal. He lives with his family in New Jersey and is writing a novel about the Wild West.
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