'4 to 9ers' merits attention on two separate fronts

As a TV critic, paying minimal attention to the growing onslaught of original Web programming might represent the difference between being mildly crazed and going completely off the deep end.

Still, a new series from Hulu, “The 4 to 9ers,” merits attention on two separate fronts: Illustrating the prospect of moving beyond product integration to something more direct, overt, and perhaps more organic; and second, advancing the notion of using the Web as a lab to sprout programs that can then be “upsold” to more traditional networks, working out kinks and defraying development costs.

There’s nothing particularly ground-breaking regarding the premise of “4 to 9ers” — a 34-minute comedy pilot, which Hulu is presenting in a half-dozen installments — which focuses on teenage kids working at the mall after school. Except instead of some generic store, they muddle along at Subway, which has underwritten the entire production and whose signage, without being heavy-handed, is visible throughout.

Veteran sitcom scribe Tim O’Donnell and “Two and a Half Men” director Jamie Widdoes — whose relationship dates back to “Dave’s World” in the 1990s — created the prototype.

Unlike a lot of Web-originated fare — a category that includes the underwhelming “Web Therapy” and “Children’s Hospital,” which made leaps to Showtime and Adult Swim, respectively — “4 to 9ers” at least possesses the look and feel of a TV show. One can see it, with minor modifications, airing on a network with a youth-oriented lineup, which these days is pretty much all of them.

That’s no small accomplishment, since the program was shot for only about $500,000 — roughly a third the cost of an average half-hour pilot. Part of that has to do with the fact there were no notes or network approval to speak of, O’Donnell said, leaving the producers to cast the project without the customary “Bring us three actors” for every key role requirement.

As for Subway’s involvement, the initial queasiness one might feel over such arrangements begins to melt away faster than calories from the company’s sandwiches when considering the awkward, sneaky manner in which product integration is often handled. There’s something more honest about incorporating the advertiser brazenly — as, notably, reality TV shows already do, without a trace of embarrassment — than conveniently sliding a Ford into every chase scene.

“I’m not interested in placing a ketchup bottle on a table and finding where that revenue stream is anymore,” said Widdoes, who has grappled with such placements before.

Besides, O’Donnell noted, if “Friends” premiered today Central Perk might as well be Starbucks, which wouldn’t dilute anyone’s artistic vision. And while “4 to 9ers'” protagonist probably wouldn’t wipe his nose on a whole wheat bun, he’s too preoccupied with wooing a female mall worker to deliver an “Eat fresh” pitch, either.

As O’Donnell put it regarding Subway, “The lead guy happens to work there.”

Content & Co CEO Stuart McLean, a new-media studio that brought the parties together, has built a strategy around forging and facilitating such creative-sponsor connections. “We’re in a very experimental time right now,” McLean said, adding of the relationship between the producers and Subway, “It was a very pure creative experience for all of us. There are no middlemen in there.”

The question is, what next?

Measuring success by Hulu’s standards is somewhat vague, but the broader goal would be to find a permanent home, where eps wouldn’t be diced into six-minute increments.

“We can’t do the next one in two days for a wing and a prayer,” Widdoes conceded. “Everyone who gets involved with a Web series says, ‘Hey, we’re going to upsell this.’ ”

If nothing else, thanks to Subway’s participation nobody winds up eating (pardon the expression) the cost of an unsold pilot. “It turns into a very interesting way to get things financed,” McLean said.

That it is. As for the creative community’s understandable reservations about advertisers insinuating themselves further into the process, that’s a recipe we’re apt to see more of, whether or not “The 4 to 9ers'” quest for gold ultimately pans out.

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