Video games have been competing with broadcasters for viewer eyeballs for years. But now the PlayStation is taking a page from the broadcasting playbook.
Sony Computer Entertainment America is teaming with producer 51 Minds to launch a reality series that will run exclusively on the system’s PlayStation Network. The program, dubbed “The Tester,” will only be available to PlayStation 3 owners.
This is the video game industry’s first run at ongoing original programming that mirrors a broadcast format. And the company says it won’t be the last.
“Ultimately, for us as a programming team, we aspirationally look at something like HBO,” says Susan Panico, senior director of the PlayStation Network. “They created groundbreaking original content that becomes a part of pop culture. … That, in the long, long term, is the direction we’d love to go in.”
Previous video programming for the PS3 has included an original anime series and digital magazine-like programming focused on upcoming games and behind the scenes looks at the gaming industry.
“The Tester” will keep its foot in the video game waters – contestants are hoping to win a job as a video game tester – but the program follows the reality show footprint familiar to anyone who watches the genre: Larger than life personalities, competitions that sometimes get more physical than expected and emotional outbursts. Contestants were chosen from a mix of casting agent finds and submissions from PlayStation enthusiasts.
While the show might not appeal to a wide audience if broadcast traditionally, it will run on a platform that has a focused demographic – increasing its odds of success.
“I think it’s brilliant,” says Mark Cronin, co-founder of 51 Minds. “They’ve got boxes in  million homes that are able to provide content – and in some homes those boxes are in use more than any other device in the house, aside from the TV. … It’s exciting, because this might be the new model for television.”
“The Tester” won’t be available for all 37 million PS3s – just the 11 million in the U.S. and Canada (as well as the 17 million North American PSP handheld gaming systems). The eight-episode, 15-20 minute program will be available for free download every Thursday starting Feb. 18.
While Sony is the first company to offer a reality show that follows the network model, Microsoft has made a run at recurring programming in a different manner. The company is wrapping up season two of “1 vs. 100” on the Xbox 360 – a scheduled live interactive video game modeled after the NBC game show of the same name. Production company Endemol, which created the program for NBC, partnered with Microsoft on the new version.
Microsoft is working with Nielsen to determine the average size of the audience and how those players interact with in-game advertising this season, but has kept the data internal for now. In 2009, the virtual game show was downloaded by more than 2.5 million people and set a Guinness world record for “most contestants in a game show,” with more than 114,000 simultaneous players.