Microsoft unveils slate of original TV programming
Microsoft wants to play with television's big boys. The tech company announced plans to invest in original video programming a year ago, and is finally ready to unveil a first slate of shows at its “Newfront” presentation to advertisers and media buyers today.
While it finally has a slate of programming to show off, there are still lots of unanswered questions, ranging from how the shows will be distributed to what level of interactivity they will feature.
Microsoft brought Nancy Tellem, a three-decade TV veteran who'd most recently served as president of CBS Television Studios, to lead the effort in late 2012. Tellem in turn hired Jordan Levin, the former C.E.O. of the WB Network, to work alongside her at Microsoft as executive V.P.
The duo spoke to Capital last week in the "Xbox Loft," a loft space the company keeps in Manhattan, not far from Madison Square Park.
The slate Tellem and Levin are developing is ambitious, if in varying stages of readiness, with a number of shows still in the very early stages of development.
Boldface names are abundant, from the producers of “Robot Chicken” to Sarah Silverman to Scott and Spielberg. The first original series, soccer competition show “Every Street United,” will debut in June and be hosted by French soccer star and New York Red Bull Thierry Henry and Dutch soccer legend Edgar Davids, and will be tied to the World Cup in Brazil. Others will roll out throughout the year, with many coming in 2015.
“We used to do upfronts, and upfronts for us were a function of a cyclical nature to the broadcast business,” Levin told Capital. “In digital, with essentially no confined linear programming schedule, with more year-round windowing of content, there isn't really as much of a need for a traditional upfront.”
For starters, Microsoft isn’t yet sure whether it will sell ads against its shows, or if it does, which ones. It also isn’t clear what shows will be available to everyone through, say, MSN.com, and what will be available only to Xbox Live subscribers, who total around 50 million worldwide (Tellem says there are 85 million connected Xboxes around the world).
“We have a premium-cable view of things,” Tellem said. “We are debating back and forth about what is in front and what is behind the paywall, so everything is pretty fluid right now. We are looking at all different revenue opportunities.
“The focus is to ensure that Xbox Live Gold provides a real value proposition,” she added, referring to the premium subscription service Microsoft sells.
Microsoft is trying to create a service that rivals the big players in digital TV, like Hulu and Netflix, built around its Xbox ecosystem. That said, Tellem said it will probably expand to P.C.s, smartphones and tablets at some point, Whether the program expands beyond the Microsoft ecosystem for, say, Apple or Android is something they are “still looking into.”
The programming is varied, from a documentary series (“Signal To Noise”) to reality shows and scripted comedies and dramas. Two half-hour comedies are in development, including a comedy variety show from the “Jash” comedy collective, which consists of Sarah Silverman, Michael Cera, Tim and Eric and Reggie Watts, as well as a series from the “Robot Chicken” producers that blends live action and animation. The first drama pickup is “Humans,” and is based on a successful Swedish format.
“We want to talk up to this audience, not down,” Levin says. “We don’t want to participate in a race to the bottom, which is something people have a tendency to do with this audience.”
The pair do not want to ignore the Xbox's videogame heart, however. There are the two projects in development based on the “Halo” game franchise. The first, a live-action series from Steven Spielberg, was announced earlier this year, but today the company will announce a second project, a digital feature from producer Ridley Scott. “It’s big budget,” Levin says, noting that it will be shooting in Ireland and Iceland this Summer.
Using the Microsoft I.P. is a high priority for Tellem and Levin, and will cap the presentation, featuring footage from games like “Halo,” “Gears of War” and “Fable."
“We don't want to exploit games simply to exploit them, and create something that is disappointing to fans,” Levin says. “That will really detract from our ability to build out a credible brand, and at the same time there is no mandate for us to develop these games into something else.”
One of the more challenging aspects of the job, according to Tellem and Levin, has been to incorporate interactivity in a meaningful way into the programming. Xbox users are used to interacting with the system, through games and the Kinect camera system.
For starters, Xbox Live will have live coverage of the Bonnaroo Music Festival in June. Users can choose to watch the festival from one of two stages. They can watch a produced feed, with the director and producers controlling the action, or they can choose different camera angles and feeds, such as a camera in the crowd or on the side of the stage. They will also be able to Skype with bands backstage after performances to ask questions.
Some other shows also have interactive functionality baked in. “Fearless,” for example, is an unscripted show that follows a former Australian Navy SEAL, Paul de Gelder, who lost two limbs in a shark attack. In the show, he attempts challenges like fighting a forest fire, or embedding with the Coast Guard. The show will likely let viewers choose which camera they see the show through, from a GoPro camera on de Gelder's head to shots from different camera operators or producers.
The experimentation continues with how the shows are released. In addition to the questions surrounding the platforms, the paywall and interactivity, Tellem and Levin are trying to figure out the best way to release the series. Some, like "Every Street United" or Bonnaroo, are tied to real-world events, but comedies and dramas need to be released where they can have an impact, built around existing TV schedules and game releases, both of which can eat up potential viewers’ time. Another question is whether episodes of the shows will be released all at once, as Netflix does, or on a schedule, as traditional TV networks do.
“I think that there is certainly an expectation that binge is a necessity, for some,” Tellem says. "I think that actually people are toying with that a little bit, and trying to analyze when you are offered binge, is it the concept that you have all the episodes, whether or not you actually watch them all at once. It is more the value proposition.”
Microsoft's investment is substantial, and clearly rivals that of Netflix, Yahoo! and others in the digital TV space. The worldwide proliferation of the Xbox system can work for or against the service, both giving the company a place in people's living rooms, while also potentially limiting the viewership base.
The big question, as one TV media buyer told Capital regarding digital TV programs, is in the execution. Netflix has become synonymous with quality programming, thanks to shows like "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black." In Tellem and Levin, Microsoft has Hollywood veterans making its case, but without any finished products, the future is still in play.
Here is Microsoft's full development slate, from press materials being distributed this morning:
“Halo” television series
The “Halo” television series is a groundbreaking original series based on the award-winning “Halo” franchise. Award-winning filmmaker, director and producer Steven Spielberg will executive produce the live-action TV series, created in partnership with 343 Industries and Amblin Television.
“Every Street United”
“Every Street United” is an unscripted series of eight, thirty-minute episodes and a one-hour finale, featuring legendary soccer players Thierry Henry and Edgar Davids, focused on the global search for soccer’s most gifted and undiscovered street stars scouted across eight countries (United States, England, Argentina, Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands, Ghana and South Korea). The series culminates this July in a 4v4 street game finale in the shadow of the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro.
Each episode will feature unique and incisive narratives about the grassroots street stars and the communities that shaped them. Industry veteran and eight-time Emmy-Award winning producer, director, writer and editor Jonathan Hock (“Streetball,” “30 for 30: The Best That Never Was”) is directing the series. Emmy-Award winning producer Mike Tollin and Mandalay Sports Media are executive producing. Professional soccer luminaries, Henry and Davids, will serve as coaches for the 4v4 street game in Rio. “Every Street United” will premiere in June 2014. All episodes will be available through Xbox Video for Xbox One, Xbox 360, Windows 8 (PC and Surface) and Windows Phone 8.
Xbox owners around the globe can experience the magic of the 13th annual Bonnaroo music and arts festival with a live concert destination on Xbox Live Friday, June 13 through Sunday, June 15, 2014, brought to viewers in partnership with Superfly Presents. With the Bonnaroo app, fans can enjoy live music like never before, with a virtual experience featuring the best performances, multiple stages, biggest artists and amazing SuperJams, and explore this year’s lineup to see the best of Bonnaroo’s past with exclusive performances. Fans can also join the conversation with fellow virtual-Bonnaroovians and get connected to their friends and the festival. Xbox is the exclusive broadcasting partner for Bonnaroo and the only location to get all of the interactive features.
”Signal to Noise”/“Atari: Game Over”
Xbox is creating a new six film documentary series, “Signal to Noise,” (working title) with two-time Academy Award winning producer Simon Chinn (“Searching for Sugar Man” and “Man on Wire”) and Emmy winning producer Jonathan Chinn (FX’s “30 Days” and PBS’s “American High”), through their multi-platform media company, Lightbox. The series will expose little known stories of how modern technology has radically altered the way we interact with our world.
The first installment, “Atari: Game Over” (working title), explores the fabled Atari mystery, dubbed “The Great Video Game Burial of 1983.” As the legend goes, the Atari Corporation, faced with overwhelmingly negative response to the E.T. video game, disposed of millions of unsold game cartridges by burying them in the small town of Alamogordo, New Mexico. Fuel Entertainment took an interest in the legend, and in December 2013, with help from local garbage contractor Joe Lewandowski, acquired the exclusive rights to excavate the Alamogordo landfill. Fuel Entertainment then brought the opportunity to Xbox Entertainment Studios. The team will head to the landfill in question to determine if the story is true, interviewing a cast of characters related to the game and its mystery along the way. “Atari: Game Over” is directed by writer/director Zak Penn (“X-Men 2,” “Avengers,” and “Incident at Loch Ness”). It will air exclusively on Xbox One and Xbox 360 in 2014. EDITOR'S NOTE: The dig happened Sunday, and they found a slew of Atari games, including "E.T."
“Humans” is a bold new drama co-produced with UK broadcaster Channel 4. Award-winning UK production company Kudos (“The Hour,” “Utopia,” “Broadchurch”) will produce the hour-long, eight-episode series, which will share a premiere broadcast window on the Xbox platform and Channel 4 in the UK in 2015.
Executive produced by Jane Featherstone (“Life on Mars,” “Broadchurch”) and Derek Wax (“The Hour,” “Sex Traffic”), and written by British writing team Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley (“Spooks,” “Spooks: The Greater Good”), “Humans” is an English-language adaptation of Sveriges Television and Matador Film’s acclaimed Swedish series, “Real Humans.” “Humans” is set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for any busy family is a ‘Synth’ – a highly-developed robotic servant eerily similar to its live counterpart. In the hope of transforming the way they live, one strained suburban family purchases a refurbished synth only to discover that sharing life with a machine has far-reaching and chilling consequences. Casting for “Humans” will begin in May 2014, and production will commence later this summer.
“Halo” digital feature
343 Industries and Scott Free Productions are creating a "Halo" digital feature to be released later this year. The project will be executive produced by Ridley Scott and Scott Free TV President, David Zucker. Sergio Mimica-Gezzan ("Battlestar Galactica," "Pillars of the Earth," "Heroes") will direct.
Projects in Development
Xbox Entertainment Studios has committed to a script based on the successful pen-and-paper role playing game created by Shane Lacy Hensley. “Deadlands” is a genre-bending alternative history of the Weird West, filled with undead gunfighters, card-slinging sorcerers, mad scientists, secret societies, and fearsome abominations.
“Fearless,” (working title) is an unscripted series currently in pilot production starring Paul de Gelder, an Australian Navy bomb clearance diver and shark attack survivor who takes on an adrenaline-fueled quest to aid individuals who risk their lives to make the world a better place. “Fearless” will be produced by Australia’s International Emmy-Award winning production company, Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder (CJZ).
Xbox Entertainment Studios acquired the rights to “Gun Machine,” a hardboiled detective thriller based on the New York Times bestselling novel by Warren Ellis. Ellis will executive produce with Brett Conrad (“The Killing,” “Sons of Anarchy,” Netflix’s upcoming “Marco Polo”) who has signed on to write the pilot script about a detective tracking a serial killer who is tied to a mysterious collection of guns used in infamous New York murders.
Untitled JASH Comedy/Variety Half Hour
In this unique comedy format developed by Xbox Entertainment Studios with JASH (a comedy collective founded by Sarah Silverman, Michael Cera, Tim and Eric and Reggie Watts), the biggest names in comedy will showcase the people that make them laugh. Each week, a different comedian will host/curate a show featuring new and unsung talent, in various video formats. Sarah Silverman will host the pilot episode and Daniel Kellison (“Late Night/Late Show with David Letterman,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Crank Yankers”) will executive produce. The series has a pilot commitment and will begin shooting in June.
Xbox Entertainment Studios is developing an innovative, hybrid stop-motion show dubbed “Extraordinary Believers” (working title) with Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, creators of the Emmy-Award winning “Robot Chicken,” the longest running stop-motion show on television. The executive producers on the project are Seth Green, Matt Senreich, and creators/writers/executive producers are Eric Towner and John Harvatine IV.
Xbox Entertainment Studios and IDW Entertainment are co-developing a limited event live-action series based on Chuck Dixon and artist Jorge Zaffino’s seminal graphic novel series “Winterworld,” in which our world has been encased in ice from pole-to-pole. The surviving humans have formed tribes that war, enslave and trade with one another in an effort to survive the infinite winter. Ted Adams and David Ozer from IDW Entertainment, and Rick Jacobs and Dave Alpert from Circle of Confusion (“Walking Dead”) will executive produce.