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The Digital Deluge

As NATPE approaches, syndicators intensify efforts to produce broadband offshoots of shows 12/07/2007 07:00:00 PM Eastern

When the syndicated version of NBC’s surprisingly popular game show Deal or No Deal launches next fall, viewers at home may be able to pick the big money case through their computer screens or cellphones. That is, if viewers aren’t checking out other syndicated game shows on their PCs.

NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution and Endemol USA, which is producing Deal or No Deal, are busily hatching plans for the show’s new stripped version for life beyond TV. While NBCU is not ready to reveal specifics, executives there and at other syndication companies agree that new media applications are key to the success of any new syndicated program.

“We want all of our shows to be as ubiquitous as possible,” says Betsy Bergman, vice president of marketing for NBCU Domestic Television Distribution. “We don’t want it to just be a broadcast experience. With digital offerings, you extend your audience.”

With NATPE still nearly two months away (Jan. 28 to 30, in Las Vegas), distributors are tweaking formats, courting advertisers and building their distribution for the program they hope millions will watch on TV. But strategies for new media—broadly defined as Internet, broadband, mobile and interactive—are also a high priority, and seminars about the nascent business will be a big part of the NATPE agenda. At a time when TV viewers are increasingly lured away by the Internet and on-demand, TV programmers face more challenges than ever to find an audience for their shows.

Advertisers, too, want to reach audiences away from the TV. The syndicators’ local station partners are also bullish on new media, looking to recruit new users and advertisers to their Websites. A successful Website also proves a program’s “engagement” with viewers.

So, while new media threatens to siphon off viewers, executives say digital platforms are opportunities to market TV shows and build viewership. The stakes are particularly high for syndicators because most freshman shows do not make it through their inaugural season.

“Everyone is looking for ways to get Web users to TV and introduce them to a new program,” says Bill Hague, senior vice president for station consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates.

Game shows may be the simplest format to translate onto other platforms. Syndicators can create online versions of games and shorter contests for mobile and text messaging, as well as added content for fans. Several existing shows are already experimenting. Jeopardy! fans can sign up for online and mobile versions of the show. On Jeopardy.com, they can read about the week’s contestants and take a virtual tour of the studio. In time for the holidays, devotees of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire can buy a new interactive DVD version of the game show.

Crosswords, a new crossword puzzle show in its debut season, is very aggressive online, offering free and subscription games and shorter versions to play on mobile devices. Such features, says Josh Raphaelson, co-principal of Program Partners, the distributor of Crosswords, are designed to cultivate an audience for the show. “You need to promote the brand and get people excited about it, especially with a new show,” he says. “These features generate Web traffic and guide people to the show.” Stations benefit as well, he adds, because they can sell ad space to local advertisers.

One upcoming game show, Debmar-Mercury’s Trivial Pursuit: America Plays, will use the Internet to gather its content. Rather than have a host reading questions, Trivial Pursuit will feature video questions submitted by viewers through a YouTube-type video player on affiliated stations’ Websites. The multimedia feature creates opportunities for Debmar and its station partners, such as selling sponsorships for the video player.

But for now, Debmar Co-President Mort Marcus is focusing more on signing stations and tweaking the TV content. “We have a format that lends itself to so many possibilities on the Internet and mobile, but we didn’t develop it for that,” he says. “You have to create a television show first. None of the other opportunities exist if we don’t have a TV show.”

At NBC Universal, executives already know that Deal or No Deal has a built-in fan base. The primetime host Howie Mandel is signed on to host a daytime version, and the format will be very similar. Building online components may be a way to attract new fans, says NBCU’s Bergman. “You may capture viewers who are digitally savvy but do not tune in regularly,” she says. “If we get them hooked on an online game, ideally you convert them to watching.”

Finding opportunities online for talk and court shows requires a little more creativity. Among those eyeing online plays are The Bonnie Hunt Show, new from Warner Bros., and CBS Television Distribution’s ensemble medical talk show The Doctors. Representatives for both shows say digital will be a major component, but declined to discuss specifics. In the court genre, Sony is prepping Judge Karen and Program Partners is sellingFamily Court, featuring a former Georgia judge.

As they explore online options with talk, entertainment news and court shows, producers say, video is a valuable commodity. As the quality and speed of online video players improve, more video is going online and audiences are hungry for both full programs and short clips. Time will tell what online and mobile viewers prefer. As new shows develop plans, they can look at the handful of shows that have come before them.

Oprah recently launched a channel on Google’s YouTube with exclusive video and previews for the show. On the Oprah.com site, users can watch extended interviews that didn’t make it into the program.

Entertainment news shows have been quick to use the Web. For last September’s Emmy Awards, CBS’s Entertainment Tonight created a standalone site stocked with 100 videos, including Web-exclusive interviews and red-carpet coverage.

NBCU’s rival entertainment newsmagazine, Access Hollywood, is preparing the third overhaul of its Website, which will include a new video player. Online, the show offers streaming breaking news and bonus coverage, such as a celebrity interview or packages that were too lengthy to make it on the TV show.

Web video can even give rise to a TV program. Warner Bros’ dishy celeb news show TMZ, currently in its first season, actually started out as a Website. TMZ, which is short for “Thirty Mile Zone” to describe the glitterati zone around Hollywood, takes an edgier approach than the other entertainment news shows and is heavy on video of celebs about town. The site breaks stories throughout the day, and many of the biggest end up on the six-day-per-week TV show.

With its Website (a joint operation between Warner Bros’ Telepictures and AOL) firmly established, TMZ had a built in audience for TV, says executive producer Jim Paratore, who previously served as president of Telepictures and was also an executive VP for Warner Brothers Domestic Television Distribution. “We are bringing some young people who aren’t watching as much TV back to stations,” he says. In turn, the Website’s traffic is also up since the TV show launched in September.

Warner Bros. recently launched another Website, Momlogic.com, dedicated to mothers. If successful, the site could be an incubator for a new TV show. Warner Bros. also plans to feature the Website on some of its existing shows, including Ellen and
The Tyra Banks Show.

Producers of new programs are also trying to entice viewers with online extras that provide more detail about life on and off the set.

To introduce Family Court’s presiding judge, former Georgia State Judge Penny Brown Reynolds, distributor Program Partners is considering a Judge Penny blog. In the online journal, the judge might discuss anything from impoverished youth to her rise to the state court bench. She could also explain verdicts in more detail. “A blog would be something that many people could relate to and find inspirational,” says Program Partners’ Raphaelson.

NBCU is adding video blogs for some of its shows. In December, three of its talk shows, Maury, The Jerry Springer Show and The Steve Wilkos Show, will debut online video diaries featuring a producer giving a post-mortem report on the day’s program. The video reports will also share behind-the-scenes video not seen on TV. “This is content for our Website and our affiliates’ sites,” says Bergman. (The pay-per-view “uncensored” Jerry Springer offering has snared customers for years.)

As producers eye future syndication deals, some are incorporating digital extras into production. So, when Fox’s Twentieth Television sells off-net programs Boston Legal, Bones and My Name Is Earl to stations for 2008 and 2009, the company can promise exclusive digital content. During production for the first-run episodes, producers are creating extras exclusively for digital distribution, such as cast interviews and outtakes.

Some content is more offbeat. Production assistants might film the cast at the craft services table, so viewers can see what their favorite stars snack on. Or producers could ask a star to film a day in the life of the cast and crew.

“Right now, we look at this as a marketing tool, but going forward it is not going to just be added value in our deals with stations, it will become a requirement,” says Matthew Rodriguez, senior VP of marketing and creative for Twentieth Television. “Everyone is clamoring for original content for digital.”

One station group is building its own show to play up localism and build on-air and online business. The Meredith Station group this fall launched a local magazine show, Better, a lifestyle show based on the company’s popular Better Homes & Gardens magazine, in 12 of its markets and plans to take the show national for next year. Stations can take the program feed and also insert their own local stories and advertisers. The show has a robust Website, called Better.tv, stocked with videos and extra information related to the show.

While some syndicators have locked up station clearances—The Bonnie Hunt Show, The Doctors and Deal or No Deal already have the bulk of distribution in top markets secured—other possible programs are still fermenting, and all could have digital components. Debmar-Mercury is partnering with comic Tom Green to make his late-night Internet talk show available to stations. Twentieth Television is expected to announce a deal with Reveille Productions and Trump Productions to create a syndicated show starring real estate mogul and Apprentice star Donald Trump counseling people with financial disputes. Sony is considering converting its popular online Yahoo show The 9, about nine top pop culture moments, into a daytime series.

For these and other shows, producers and distributors are bullish about online and station managers are hungry for content, but they remain cautious. The television show must be a hit, they say, for anything else to work.

“The television mothership is still 95% of a show’s revenue,” says Magid’s Hague. “The Web can be a way to introduce people to a new program or engage them deeper.”

Debmar-Mercury’s Marcus sees business opportunities for his company and stations with Trivial Pursuit. The company has pitched all the major station groups, and Marcus says he is close to announcing deals. Together, Debmar-Mercury and the stations could unveil flashy subscription games and sell sponsorships for games and video players. The ideas are great, Marcus says, but he doesn’t want to get too far ahead. The TV show will drive success on every platform. “We need to walk first,” he says. “We can’t forget that we need to clear this show.”

 

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