Social site attracting British teens

LONDON — Three months ago when Bebo international topper Joanna Shields addressed the British TV industry urging them to think of her social-networking site as a potential partner they were skeptical.

Now they are beginning to have second thoughts.

San Francisco-based Bebo, bankrolled by private equity firm Benchmark Capital Europe, is poised for European growth and is arguably the hottest social-networking site in the U.K. and Ireland.

With what the outfit claims is more than 35 million users worldwide, Shields reckons that much of teen-focused Bebo’s recent success is down to interactive drama, “Kate Modern,” a soap-style saga that comes crisply tailored in one- to three-minute webisodes.

For Bebo, the beauty of this kind of fare is that it allows auds and, importantly, advertisers to involve themselves with the character and storylines in ways that seem impossible in old-fashioned linear TV storytelling.

“Kate can interact with you,” Shields says. “And the community can chat about what the latest episode means and engage in a whole new way.”

Skeptics may shake their heads, but advertisers are impressed at this way of reaching those elusive teens and twentysomethings.

For “Kate Modern,” Shields signed up lucrative product placement deals with MSN, Orange Mobile and Disney/ Buena Vista, each shelling out a reported $500,000.

No wonder Bebo, which employs just 50 staffers, is profitable.

Formerly head of Google’s European strategic partnerships team, Shields joined Bebo in January to head a new international division based in London’s Carnaby Street, a thoroughfare forever associated with the Swinging ’60s.

But thanks to “Kate Modern” and Shields’ latest commission, “Sofia’s Diary,” based on a Portuguese soap and co-produced by Sony Pictures Television Intl., Bebo’s Carnaby Street office may be as trend-setting as the fashions sold there when the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” was newly minted.

Shields, 45, born and educated in the U.S., admits the inspiration for “Kate Modern” and “Sofia’s Diary” was the YouTube online drama “lonelygirl15,” whose heroine Bree struck a chord with teen web users.

“If you emailed Bree and her friends, they — the characters, not the actors — would email you back,” says Shields. “Suddenly there was a piece of narrative fiction that captured the essence of a two-way communications medium.

“The boundaries between fiction and reality, and between brands and individuals had become a lot more elastic. At Bebo, we want to take this new form of programming a step further.”

How much of this is old wine in new bottles remains to be seen.

For the time being, these interactive mini-dramas are making waves — and putting blue water between Bebo and main rivals MySpace and Facebook.

Bebo plans to bow the first local-language version of the site any day soon in Poland, with the strong possibility that France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Holland will follow by the end of the year.

But not everything is plain sailing for Bebo in Blighty.

Given its teen appeal, there have been complaints that the site encourages virtual bullying, a charge denied by Shields.

“First and foremost safety is at the heart of what we do,” she insists. “We do everything we can within our powers.”

Back in June, when Shields gave her talk to U.K. TV folk, she warned that the success of “Kate Modern” might one day undermine the traditional, long-form TV drama, especially considering the high cost of such fare. By contrast, content like “Kate Modern” is inexpensive.

“We don’t spend a lot of money on them,” she says. “Our budgets would shock TV people.”

To some of her colleagues Shields is known as Hurricane Joanna. With Bebo going down a storm the nickname looks likely to stick.

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