NBC sings it online only

NBC is jumping into the world of Net-based reality programming, pacting with Tommy Mottola and the producers of “The Biggest Loser” for an “American Idol”-like music competition skein.

Project, dubbed “StarTomorrow,” reps the first time one of the major TV broadcast nets has launched an original entertainment series exclusively on the Internet. Rival Netcos are aggressively pursuing the genre as well, however: “Survivor” exec producer Mark Burnett is working on Web-based projects for Yahoo! and AOL.

“StarTomorrow” — designed to let audiences select the next big singing band or group — will be a co-production of the Mottola Co., 25/7 Prods. and 3 Ball Prods. Mottola, Dave Broome, JD Roth, Todd Nelson, John Foy and Jeb Brien will exec produce.

Jeff Gaspin — prexy of NBC U Cable Entertainment, Digital Content and Cross-Network Strategy — is supervising the project.

Pre-production is already under way, with the skein expected to roll out on NBC.com this summer. Winner will be signed to Mottola’s Casablanca label, a division of the Universal Music Group.

Mottola — who’s worked with artists from Mariah Carey and Celine Dion to Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel — will also help guide the winner’s career.

“Unlike others before us, we are not limited to solo performers,” Mottola said. “We will look at rock and pop bands, duos, R&B and hip-hop groups, among others.”

Gaspin said “Star” began life as a TV idea pitched to him by 25/7, 3 Ball and Mottola.

“We toyed with it but decided that with ‘American Idol’ and ‘Rock Star,’ the field was too crowded,” Gaspin said.

But soon after he was promoted and put in charge of digital content, Gaspin called the producers back and asked them if they were interesting in bringing their show to the Net. They agreed, and the two sides began figuring out a way to morph the project into a Web series.

Because commercial inventory for Net skeins isn’t as valuable, production costs had to be scaled back. Gaspin estimates the show will cost NBC about 20% of what a similar series on TV might run.

Broome said he and his partners were “willing to settle for less money upfront” in order to roll the dice on Web content. They worked out a deal with NBC to share profit from product integration deals.

“If you believe this is where (programming) is going, you’ve got to jump in on the ground floor,” he said. “You can’t make the same fees as if you’re producing a network show, (but) there’s definitely an award in being a true (endorsement) partner with NBC.”

No deals are ready to be announced, but a skein like “Star” could be expected to attract interest from cell phone companies, soft drink bottlers and, of course, a music giant such as Apple’s iTunes, which already has a strong relationship with NBC.

NBC U will give “Star” a huge marketing push come early summer, with Gaspin comparing the campaign to ones mounted on behalf of projects such as Sci Fi Channel’s “Battlestar Galactica.”

But Roth noted that the bands involved will also be key in hyping the project.

“All these guys are self-promoters. When you’re trying to make it big, all you have is your passion for yourself,” he said. “They’re going to get their fan base motivated to go online to vote, and when they do, people are going to want to check out other bands.”

Final creative specs are still being worked out, but “Star” will begin with producers spotlighting 100 unsigned bands and groups. Each week during the first half of the four-month series, Netizens will be able to obtain information about and listen to performances from about 20 auditioning acts and then vote for which ones should move forward.

Bands will initially focus on cover versions of songs but will begin performing original works in later rounds of the competish.

Instead of being confined to a studio, producers plan to shoot audition footage in four cities around the country.

Audition segs will also be heavily produced with concert-style production values. “I’m going to shoot these guys the same way I’d shoot Coldplay or Aerosmith,” said Broome, whose resume is heavy on music-themed programming such as the Radio Music Awards and NBC’s tsunami relief concert.

Wraparound bio packages will also have a TV-quality feel, giving viewers more info about each competitor.

In addition, Mottola will do his best Simon Cowell, offering auds his take on bands. Guest celebrity commentators also will offer their opinions.

Netizens will be able to put together their own version of “Star,” watching as much or as little content as they’d like before voting.

“The real difference between this and TV is that you control it,” Gaspin said. “We’ll give you lots of clips, and you can watch for 10 minutes or two hours.”

Gaspin and Broome cited Mottola’s involvement as key in getting “Star” off the ground.

“One of the things that’s critical in something like this is credibility,” Broome said. “It’s all about that. And Tommy’s made so many people superstars.”

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