TV’s New Greenhouse

Twenty-year-old college student Andrew Mathas had no hopes of TV stardom when he created an online spoof of popular music video “Sugar We’re Goin’ Down,” a depressive rock love song that has been the subject of much Internet chatter. The Fall Out Boy video, a hit on MTV, featured shots of the band with footage of a doomed bond between a human boy and a girl with antlers.

Mathas’ spoof—essentially stick figures he created with $100 editing software—drew nearly 1 million streams in just a few weeks on Google Video and other sites, and landed him a production deal with MTV’s broadband site Overdrive when the network’s short-form development chief hunted him down through e-mails.

“I had just made it as a joke with me and my buddies at school,” says Mathas, whose video has also run on MTV. “I was, like, bored in my apartment.”

For budding video artists like Mathas, who says he might shelve plans to become a literature professor in favor of working in television, broadband Websites represent fertile ground for making a name for themselves in TV. For TV networks, the new-media platforms offer a haven for incubating talent and ideas, a minor league where executives roam the sidelines scouting for talent to jump to the majors.

At a time when broadband penetration has never been higher and advertisers are demanding content on digital platforms, TV networks are rapidly launching broadband channels, and they are desperate for fresh voices to fill them. At the same time, the price of powerful video-editing software has dropped to below $50, giving wannabe TV producers across America the tools to craft their stuff.

What cable networks were for legions of frustrated writers and producers whose irreverent views weren’t suitable for broadcast TV in the 1980s and ’90s, broadband is to progressive new producers. The potential audience: 47 million U.S. homes that can download broadband shows. Many of the most prolific voices in broadband—established industry players and novices alike—are hoping to gain enough exposure to end up on a TV screen.

“As we start to develop more of these, it’s our hope and goal to get linear-TV plays out of our short-form content,” says Tim Healy, the MTV VP of production who discovered Mathas.

Healy sets aside time early in the morning and late at night to scour user-submitted–video sites and encourages his production staff to do the same during lunch. “Our goal is not just to make content for Overdrive and mobile [phones],” he says. “We want cross-platform hits.”

Cable networks are most evolved in offering original broadband fare. Comedy Central, an MTV sister channel, is developing 20 series for broadband, with another 40 under consideration. NBC Universal created an entire digital studio last fall to cultivate broadband and mobile shows across the company and has staffed it with twentysomethings who churn out cheeky short-form programs. Its broadcast network NBC just picked up a new TV pilot of failed WB series Nobody’s Watching after the original gained significant traction on YouTube.

Several creators have already made the short leap to the big screen. MTV launched The Andy Milonakis Show in 2005 after late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel spotted the baby-faced producer’s wacky online videos and brought them to the network. Milonakis, a former computer technician, gained notoriety after posting rough home videos online—including one widely circulated song clip “The Super Bowl Is Gay.” After a successful run on MTV, the show now runs on MTV2.


More recently, late-night host Carson Daly signed popular YouTube star Brooke “Brookers” Brodack to a TV/Internet/mobile talent-and-development deal with his production company. Brodack rose to fame on YouTube for her video diaries and comedic shorts, notably “Zuma,” a mock version of “Dragosteta din Tei,” a music video by Romanian boy band O-Zone.

For the most part, broadband series’ production values are low—often jerky animation and grainy video—and so are the paychecks. Production costs per episode range from about $5,000 for a crude three- to five-minute video to $25,000 for sophisticated animation.

Comedy seems to work best on the Web. King of Queens co-creator Mike Weithorn, for example, is producing a two-minute animated comedy series about a pair of testicles for Comedy Central’s broadband channel MotherLoad. Weithorn says that, besides not making money off the show Baxter & McGuire (it all goes back into production), he has had to call in favors to friends to voice the characters and help provide editing facilities.

Although networks don’t yet know how much advertising money will eventually flow to broadband, for people like Weithorn, who is looking to land a deal producing a cable-TV series when King ends its run this year, broadband’s promise of creative freedom and immediacy is what matters now.

“My feeling is, 'Let’s get it out there, and if it’s really good and it gets any kind of attention, it’s all been worth it,’” he says. “If the right idea [for TV] comes along, it feels like we’re a few steps ahead.”

Not everyone is hoping for a TV deal. For the first time in years, video producers have new outlets for content. In the past 12 months, nearly every single broadcast and cable network has created broadband video players, under pressure from advertisers to offer content on various platforms. They have begun filling those channels with extras attached to shows on TV—reality-show–contestant house tours, for example, or edited versions of shows that use the same content. But to really boost their brands and drive more traffic, they are commissioning original series of short-form video.

The new outlets are welcomed by a legion of comedy writers pushed aside when networks became enamored of reality TV and by those whose offbeat ideas don’t lend themselves to traditional TV. “Comedy’s been so compartmentalized into 19- to 20-minute slots on broader mediums where you have to contort to a certain political correctness,” says former WB CEO Jordan Levin, who now heads up Generate, a development and management company devoted to content for emerging media.

Levin has multiplatform shows in development at several MTV Networks channels and says his company’s talent-management division has been “overwhelmed” by requests from producers lured by broadband’s promise of creative freedom and the immediacy it offers in getting shows on. One client is an Emmy-winning writer using broadband to build a clip reel as a director; another is developing a character for broadband in the hope that it lands him a pitch meeting for a feature film.

Says Levin, “If you’re willing to roll the dice with a platform that doesn’t offer immediate financial upside, it allows you the opportunity to get something on much more quickly.”

Critics say the broadband channels are a novelty that won’t likely sustain a market for millions of ad dollars over the long run. Indeed, it remains uncertain just how much advertisers will be willing to pay for broadband originals. Although NBC, for example, pulled in $50 million for digital applications during this year’s upfront, many advertisers were reluctant to commit money to broadband in advance, instead wanting to wait and see what kinds of digital applications came up during the year. CBS is approaching advertisers now to place spots on its fall TV shows on broadband channel Innertube, after having announced last week that it will be streaming them this season (see Beyond the Box, p. 4).

“At some point, advertisers are interested,” says E! Networks Executive VP, Marketing and Promotions, Suzanne Kolb. “But it’s difficult to justify spending tons of money on an original if you don’t know just what you’re going to make back yet.”

Knowing that, some sites like Yahoo! have already scaled back their original broadband efforts. Former ABC Entertainment chief Lloyd Braun, now head of Yahoo! Media, said in March that his company would not follow through on plans to churn out expensive broadband originals and instead will rely on acquired content and user-submitted video.


Still, the risk for networks is low. Compared to the millions it costs to make a hit TV drama, $5,000 for a broadband video is small change. Putting a series online allows networks to immediately gauge viewer interest in it. Even major studios are looking to launch broadband sites, creating an incubation box for series to grow legs before they’re pitched to TV.

Sony has already found new life for Gay Robot, a live-action scripted adaptation of a character from an Adam Sandler comedy album. When Comedy Central didn’t pick up the pilot, Sony put it up on MySpace and attracted several hundred thousand “friends” to its page, increasing the chance that another network could take notice and pick it up.

“Broadband is a great lab to see how much the viewer wants without high financial stakes,” says E!’s Lisa Berger, senior VP, programming development.

NBC Universal started an in-house production studio last fall to create digital content—broadband and mobile video—to be farmed out across the company’s assets, including the owned-and-operated stations, the NBC broadcast network, startup broadband site, and iVillage, which NBC acquired for $600 million in March.

At the NBC Universal Digital Studios, about 20 producers, mostly in their mid to late 20s, devise ideas and write scripts for broadband and mobile content. They are currently producing Junior Year Abroad, a short-form reality series for the O&Os following 10 college juniors during a year overseas. “I feed them, I give them a lot of caffeine, and they go to town,” says Digital Studios VP Jordan Hoffner.

The group’s most successful endeavor to date is The Easter Bunny Hates You, a shaky video in which a man in an Easter Bunny costume terrorizes unsuspecting New Yorkers by repeatedly punching them in the face. Distributed ad-free to such sites as YouTube in a test to see what kind of traction it would get, the video logged about 5 million streams in three weeks in April.

Sometimes, a show simply fits better on the Web. Court TV is negotiating deals to exclusively license 30 five- to seven-minute documentaries for its broadband site. The first four to go up will range from Unmarked, about a girl’s transition off the streets, to 25 to Life, about California’s “three strikes” law. Court is paying its broadband-documentary suppliers “significantly less” to put their films online than it would to put them on TV.

Says Court TV General Manager of Programming and Marketing Marc Juris, “Television is finite. Broadband is infinite in terms of volume and capacity.”