Netcaster takes another stab at TV-style programming

Exclusive: The broadcast networks will find themselves with some unexpected company this fall in their pursuit of eyeballs and ad revenues: Yahoo.

The beleaguered online giant will launch its first-ever slate of original series beginning in October. While Yahoo isn’t about to overtake Fox or CBS as those nets launch their fall schedules, the company will mix some traditional TV programming tactics with its own new-media savvy.

Morgan Spurlock, Niecy Nash and Judy Greer are among the stars featured in this batch of eight shortform shows, which Yahoo has been pitching to advertisers as a femme-skewing slate. It’s the first of several slates planned for 2012 as part of a dramatic increase in investment toward originals expected to yield even bigger names, longer programs and maybe even scripted fare, according to Erin McPherson, VP and head of video at Yahoo.

She needs to sell Madison Avenue on the growth story unfolding in her department. “Continuing the success we’ve had in video is critical to the company,” said McPherson, who declined todisclose specific spending estimates.

But ambition at Yahoo has a way of invoking skepticism. Talk of a turnaround since CEO Carol Bartz came in nearly three years ago has done little to quell persistent takeover rumors and high turnover. Yahoo’s media division has seen as much turbulence as any other portion of the company going as far back as 2006, when former ABC programming chief Lloyd Braun was brought in by then-Yahoo CEO Terry Semel to turn the company into an entertainment powerhouse, only to fizzle fast.

What Yahoo has long had — but gotten frustratingly little recognition for — is incredible traffic. The 177 million monthly unique visitors Yahoo attracted in July, according to Comscore, was second only to Google. That same month the company finished No. 1 in 11 different content categories, topping huge brands in very competitive sectors like ESPN in sports and CNN in news.

Yahoo’s original video programming is a part of that success. The company claims nearly all of the top 10 most-watched original series online like “Primetime in No Time,” a highlight reel of TV’s most memorable moments from the previous night.

Of the 47.3 million video streams Yahoo generated in July, its original series alone garnered 27 million — more than the 24.4 million Hulu scored in its entirety that month.

Yet neither Yahoo nor any other online purveyor of original programming can hold a candle to the number of video ads served per month on Hulu, with its massive stockpile of primetime TV. It’s no wonder, then, that Yahoo is among the companies bidding to acquire Hulu, a purchase that could cost as much as $2 billion.

Mickie Rosen, who oversees all content efforts as senior VP of Yahoo Media Network, wouldn’t address acquisition prospects but made clear that Yahoo’s slate strategy doesn’t require that Hulu be in its future. “Rumors in the marketplace don’t affect our focus on executing against this strategy,” she said.

Rosen was brought in to oversee all of Yahoo’s content efforts in January by Ross Levinsohn, the former News Corp. digital czar who was named exec VP of Yahoo’s domestic business last October. His goal: Siphon off as much of TV’s $85 billion advertising business as possible with video as a key driver.

To make that happen, Yahoo is trying to broaden its programming palate to unscripted formats more common on cable. Spurlock, who just launched a series he produced for Hulu called “A Day in the Life,” will host and produce “The Failure Club,” which follows 10 adults as they try to get past their fear of failure and take on various challenges, such as a banker looking to break into standup comedy.

Greer, a character actor best known for comedic roles, hosts “Healthy Gal: A Work in Progress,” which takes a lighthearted approach toward exploring how best to stay fit while on the road.

“When a lot of people were going online to watch video initially, it was all about giving information,” said Drew Buckley, chief operating office of Electus, the IAC-backed studio that is partnering with Principato-Young Entertainment to produce three Yahoo series including “Gal.” “What you’re seeing now online is more programming that’s much more about lifestyle and story.”

Yahoo will also move away from the branded-entertainment strategy common online that essentially built shows around the advertiser whose payment covered cost of production. This slate will be presented to marketers for sponsorship or light integration opportunities but, like TV shows, will launch regardless of whether advertisers are attached.

Yahoo will also take the unusual step of marketing the specific time each new episode premieres — a rarity online given that the Web doesn’t have to adhere to the strictures of a linear channel. “Even though the Web is all about VOD, this kind of scheduling works as an awareness tool,” McPherson said.

But for all the TV-inspired strategies Yahoo will bring to bear on the new shows, its approach is also steeped in technology. The company’s programming choices are informed by sophisticated mining of its user data. For instance, Yahoo ordered “Let’s Talk About Love,” which features comedienne Nash (“Clean House”) offering witty insights on all things romance, because of how well relationship-related content performs on the site.

That data also allows Yahoo to introduce that programming in the right context. Any articles that touch on issues in “Let’s Talk About Love” on popular Yahoo sites from OMG to Shine can introduce viewers to thematically similar video programs — something YouTube and Hulu can’t offer.

And where those sites do have a considerable advantage — a platform designed to drive video consumption — Yahoo intends to close the gap. To support the new series, Yahoo is also revamping its video-destination site to provide the kind of immersive experience other digital content hubs from Netflix to YouTube have built.

This effort will intersperse the new programming with the considerable supply of TV programming Yahoo is already licensing from partners including CBS, Turner Broadcasting and Discovery Networks.

While Yahoo’s revamped video destination won’t launch with full functionality in October, additional capacities such as a recommendation engine and social-media integration will soon follow.

All together, Yahoo has a multilayered syndication strategy in place that pump these new programs through a combination of the destination site, its many Web properties like Yahoo News, external sites through which it has partnerships and even connected TVs, where the company’s Yahoo Widgets division was an early mover to the app market.

Perhaps most important, Yahoo will also make the unprecedented move of treating the slate launch as if it were an event like the Super Bowl or a royal wedding, providing the kind of exposure that can draw huge traffic.

Rosen said, “When we get completely behind something, we can push it forward in a way that’s pretty much unparalleled.”

Other series coming to Yahoo’s inaugural slate include:

“Ultimate Proposal”: A team of experts will help men of all shapes and sizes deliver memorable marriage proposals. Hosted by “All My Children” star Cameron Mathison (produced by FishBowl Worldwide Media)

“Your Friends Will Never Believe You”: A new celebrity will surprise one of their fans in a unique manner that will literally never be believed.

“OMG! Now”: A fast-paced program gives you everything you need to know about Hollywood in three minutes flat.

“Blue Ribbon Hunter”: The chef host prepares one special recipe each week, then travels to a food festival with the goal of winning the top prize.

Untitled Food Program: A cooking show with a TBD host; still in final stages of development.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more