MTV-Verizon pact, the latest example of two-way street for series

The mysteries of Valemont University could become a textbook case for how networks and advertisers create a two-way street for entertainment properties on the Web, on TV and on mobile platforms.

MTV and Verizon experimented last fall with a short-form series, “Valemont,” that ran in 2 1/2-minute weekly installments during commercial breaks in MTV’s “The Hills.” Billed as a “supernatural mystery,” the series revolves around a young woman who disguises herself as a student at an elite university in an effort to find her missing brother. MTV and producer Electric Farm Entertainment set up an elaborate website designed to draw fans deeper into the mystery.

“Valemont” was sponsored by Verizon, and the episodes were featured on its V Cast mobile entertainment service. The program itself was chock full of product placement for Verizon phones and services, as each installment began with the woman receiving a text message from her brother’s phone. Fans were encouraged to sign up to receive their own clues on their mobile devices, which would send them off on a search through the Valemont U. website.

Only 12 of the 35 “Valemont” installments ran on MTV’s air. The rest were made available on MTV.com and Verizon’s service, in an effort by MTV to test the stickiness of “Valemont” and the ability to direct viewers from TV to Web and back again.

In all, “Valemont” proved to be a low-budget development play for MTV that was designed from scratch to accommodate built-in sponsorship. MTV is further developing the property as a possible telepic, and the entire batch of 35 shorts has been licensed by MTV’s international division for airing in selected markets.

As networks look for ways to cut costs associated with pilot development, the “Valemont” model is an instructive lesson. It also reflects the kind of multiplatform programming boom that recently spurred the Producers Guild of America to acknowledge an entirely new category of “transmedia” producers, or those who are responsible for outlining the vision for a project in multiple media.

“The Web and TV already have so much convergence with one another that it only makes sense that development of any kind should be done this way,” says “Valemont” writer Christian Taylor, whose credits include “Lost” and “Six Feet Under.”

Plenty of others in the biz share that sentiment.

Vuguru, the Internet production shingle backed by Michael Eisner and Rogers Communications, is developing an ambitious slate of advertising-supported Web serials. The hope is that at least some of the properties will be adapted to other media.

Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim recently picked up the webisode series “Children’s Hospital” for airing on the latenight block. “Hospital” originally bowed on Warner Bros. TV’s WBtv.com website, which is the studio’s attempt to recreate the WB Network brand of youthful-skewing programming on the Web.

NBC famously flamed out with its stab at putting the Marshall Herskovitz-Ed Zwick web serial “Quarterlife” on the Peacock’s air. But that hasn’t dissuaded others from harnessing new media as a development lab for traditional TV. “Valemont” attracted familiar faces in thesps Kristen Hager (“Wanted”), Eric Balfour (“24″) and Nikki Blonsky (“Hairspray”).

“It is such a low-cost way to (develop) a property,” says “Valemont” co-creator and exec producer Brent Friedman. “Besides having a built-in fan base, (a digital) pilot is also making money through ad spots and the Web. Even if it doesn’t get picked up, at least that pilot went to some use instead of being thrown away and not used, like so many pilots that go through development.”

But the “Valemont” experience also indicates how important a Web component is for programming aimed at the demo that treats text messaging as an involuntary reflex. On an independently run “Valemont” fan site, dubbed “Valemont Commons,” Friedman instructed fans to watch the hourlong compilation of “Valemont” episodes that MTV aired in late November. But even more important, he wrote, was for supporters to go to MTV.com to watch the remaining episodes online to indicate the depth of their interest in the property.

“How many viewers get hooked by the end of the one-hour edition and migrate to MTV.com to watch the remaining 15 episodes will go a long way in determining the fate of ‘Valemont,’?” Friedman wrote.

Though “Valemont” and “Children’s Hospital” show that niche-oriented cable outlets are intrigued by such projects, one network exec says that prospects are limited for the major networks.

“The Internet hasn’t matured yet as a marketplace, which causes a problem when you are trying to get a revenue stream to come from certain acquisitions or finds,” according to a talent agent involved in digital deals. “Still, this is a marketplace with various opportunities and plenty of crossover, so it’s really only a matter of time before that development is gained.”

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