Fox, CW strike deals with Wigs, Machinima

Bedfellows don’t come any stranger than a pair of separate deals announced Tuesday that will see broadcasters and YouTube channels join forces.

Fox is taking an unspecified stake in Wigs, a YouTube channel aimed at female viewers led by filmmakers Jon Avnet and Rodrigo Garcia. The pact will give a News Corp. division better known for big-time TV series a seat at the table of a micro-budgeted venture that may even become an alternative path for primetime development.

If the most male-skewing of the broadcast nets coupling with a mini-version of Lifetime isn’t odd enough, consider another off-kilter combo: The CW will look to one of YouTube’s most popular original programmers, Machinima, to stream an aftershow following each episode of drama “The Cult,” which premiered Tuesday.

While the unlikely partnerships couldn’t be more different in their strategic rationale, both point to an increasingly complex programming landscape where the closing gap in audience scale between broadcaster and digital platforms is encouraging collaborations that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Fox finds itself alongside Google as an investor in and ad-sales rep for Wigs, which is one of the dozens of YouTube channels that receives funding directly from the search giant. The venture is in negotiations with Google over whether that funding will stay in place, as it is with many other channels, which could conceivably continue operating on the platform even without outside investment.

Wigs offers a slate of scripted dramas that consistently attracted a caliber of talent virtually unprecedented online, with Jennifer Garner, Julia Stiles, Stephen Moyer and Jeanne Tripplehorn among those who toplined its programs.

The partnership is just the latest sign of Fox’s increasingly digital-minded orientation under the aegis of Kevin Reilly, chairman of entertainment at Fox. Over the past few years, he’s installed a president of digital at the network in David Wertheimer; launched an inhouse animation unit that will develop for both TV and online, and developed an on-air vehicle, “Short-Com Comedy Hour,” that will double as a short-form half-hour incubator and a TV show in its own right to be unveiled this summer.

But with Wigs, Fox is stepping outside its own borders to get in on the ground floor of a programming brand in a way that presents a far lower barrier to entry than the hundreds of millions of dollars that would be required to acquire a cable channel.

“Our overarching goal is to create an ecosystem where creative people and ideas can find expression independently in the online environment, but benefit from the resources that the larger platform of the network affords,” Reilly said.

Wigs will benefit from Fox’s expertise and capabilities in programming, marketing and distribution, which could mean everything from leveraging the network’s production infrastructure to getting exposure on the Fox Now app alongside primetime shows. Fox could also potentially pluck a program from Wigs to give a shot at primetime success instead of the costlier traditional pilot development process that Reilly has publicly complained on more than one occasion is in desperate need of innovation.

If there was any indication that digital-centric programming is becoming increasingly important in Reilly’s thinking, the network also unveiled an overhaul of its current programming staff that includes the creation of an event series and multi-platform programming department for the first time.

Wigs is off to a solid start on YouTube, where it has amassed over 22 million streams and over 100,000 subscribers since launching last May. But that’s a far cry from Machinima, which has aggregated over 2.6 billion views across its portfolio of channels.

“Machinima’s ETC After Party: The Cult of Cult” will stream live on the ETC YouTube channel and the CW’s website Tuesdays at 10 p.m., directly after every episode of “Cult.” Each recap will feature castmembers, producers and experts on the show. First recap episode took place Tuesday night after the series debut and include “Cult” star Matt Davis.

A digital hub that attracts elusive young males with a content mix heavy on gaming, Machinima has become a popular home for marketing alliances, with networks like Showtime and AMC looking to grab new audiences for their TV programming. Partnership with CW offers “Cult” not only greater exposure through one of the most popular destinations for original programming on YouTube, but also access to male auds that may otherwise overlook CW and its mostly femme-skewing shows.

While recap shows have been an increasingly used method for maximizing fan engagement in shows including AMC’s “Walking Dead” (“Talking Dead”) and Lifetime’s “Project Runway” (“After the Runway”), CW is putting a new spin on the practice by scheduling the recap series not only off-network, but off the TV medium entirely.

It’s a sign of the time that a brand that counts itself a broadcaster — once peerlessly atop the TV pecking order in its ability to draw mass audiences — is turning to a digital-only brand to help drive viewership.

CW auds, though, are comfortable in the digital realm. Network topper Mark Pedowitz even stated during the CW’s winter TCA session that 20% of the net’s total viewership comes from streaming and VOD, and CW has moved forward with programs like “Breaking Pointe” because they performed well online, even when broadcast ratings disappointed.

“Cult’s” serialized format will also help drive viewers to the Web for analysis on the show’s complex plot.

Pact also encourages viewers to engage during the show’s live broadcasts on Twitter. Fans will be able to submit questions to the show’s hosts and guests by using the hashtag “#Cult” in their tweets, which will then be answered by Machinima’s ETC Twitter account.

Should auds miss the live recap, an edited version will be made available on the YouTube channel and CW site.

(AJ Marechal and Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)

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