Endemol, Electronic partner up

'Virtual Me' bridges TV and videogames

In what could be a game-changing development in the online entertainment biz, Electronic Arts is partnering with European-based TV format producer Endemol in a creative partnership dubbed Virtual Me. This new digital entertainment concept will try to bridge the divide between traditional TV and videogames.

Deal is a first of its kind for both players and has been in development for more than a year. It’s also arguably one of the most content-focused arrangements ever put together jointly by these two heretofore disparate businesses: videogames and smallscreen TV.

The major components of the relationship were unveiled Monday in Cannes on the first day of the Mip TV sales bazaar — and instantly became a signal of just how important the online aspect of the global TV biz has become.

Endemol’s chief creative officer Peter Bazalgette and EA’s exec VP and general manager Gerhard Florin unveiled the project and also flanked a screen featuring uncannily persuasive cyber clones of themselves. The video presentation dramatized the online possibilities of the concept, and how it would be applied to existing Endemol properties like “Big Brother” and “Deal or No Deal.”

Going forward, the two partners also plan to develop from scratch formats that lend themselves to this kind of new media treatment, as well as to television exploitation.

Bazalgette said Virtual Me combines “cutting-edge avatar creation technology” from EA with popular TV formats from Endemol to give consumers “a break-through way to meet, compete and socialize in online digital worlds.” In short, the idea, is “to reinvent interactivity so that viewers can create virtual copies of themselves online and experience entertainment brands of all sorts.”

Thus, journalists were treated to Bazalgette as a “Star Academy” contestant and Florin as a contestant on “Deal or No Deal.”

The entire event was a far cry from the traditional Mip TV press conferences about co-production and output deals.

Florin put the emphasis on the ease of use in downloading the software for this activity (which will be free to the consumer) as well as the way in which EA hopes this will expand the online gaming universe into the broader television realm.

For Endemol, a mature player in traditional TV, the move suggests “a follow the money” approach to the entertainment biz, having seen so many young eyeballs and ad dollars migrate to the Internet and online interactivity.

For EA, the deal could potentially expand its audience from mainly young male videogame players to include a bigger female component of casual gamers attracted to shorter, more fantasy-led opportunities online. EA is the creator of games such as “The Sims” and “FIFA Football.”

No financial details of the arrangement were made available but the principals emphasized that this was not a joint venture per se, but rather a collaboration involving an integrated team to share expertise in their respective fields. An unspecified number of hires are being made to work on the project.

Virtual Me will launch this summer with “Big Brother” software whereby viewers can set up their own online house and play the game according to established rules of the TV version.

“With Virtual Me we are at the forefront of a new hybrid form of entertainment that takes gaming beyond the console,” Florin said.

There are already several virtual online realms including Second Life, owned by Linden Labs, but this new offering would seem to take the concept further, per other outside observers in Cannes.

Both Bazalgette and Florin were adamant that each partner would “stick to its own knitting,” bringing to the party its own expertise, not entering the traditional business of the other partner.

Bazalgette said he saw no reason why an eventual sale of Endemol, which has been mooted for months, would affect, let alone derail, this new venture.

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