Entrepreneurial producer, AT&T and BBDO enlist former MTV CEO Judy McGrath to take format-busting video program to new level
With “24” and “Under the Dome” returning to TV in coming weeks, summer viewing may generate heat among couch potatoes. But one of the season’s most interesting programs won’t be seen on the boob tube.
That show, “@SummerBreak,” is a reality series about kids ripping through their last summer before college, and can be viewed only by using social media. It sounds like an experiment. As the program enters its second season, however, its backers hope to turn it into a familiar and expected piece of entertainment.
Casting has begun for the show, which is produced by the Chernin Group, Omnicom Group ad agency BBDO and telecommunications giant AT&T, and aims to harness the attention younger consumers devote to social-media sites and the increasing ease with which they use such venues to watch video content. The series is slated to surface in mid-June on such outlets as Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube and Instagram, expanding for its new run to photo-messaging app SnapChat and video-sharing service Vine.
“We don’t want to come up with one-off things,” said Billy Parks, co-creator of the series and its executive producer. “I want to create franchises that are great and have emotional resonance with audiences.”
To that end, the three original partners have enlisted Astronauts Wanted, the production company led by former MTV Networks CEO Judy McGrath and backed by Sony Music Entertainment, as a creative and production partner on the series. The idea, said Parks, who was once affiliated with Chernin but is now with Astronauts, is to elevate the quality of the program, which has a production team follow a band of Southern California teens, and to move @SummerBreak from a “great experiment” and “take it to the next level.”
The show’s backers have reason for pressing forward. The producers said the first season generated 10 million “engagements,” which encompass viewers reacting in tangible fashion, such as an outreach on Twitter or a “share” of some sort. Data provided by AT&T last year said consumers viewed @SummerBreak content 644 million times by accessing Twitter feeds of the show, the sponsor, the cast, influencers affiliated with the show and sponsored hashtags; Tumblr; YouTube channels; AT&T’s Facebook page; advertising around the show; and social-media conversations.
The telecom company, which gets its products placed into the hands of the teens at the center of the action as part of its participation with the series, views the show as a way to make younger consumers consider its products and services as conduits to new types of communication with peers, said Liz Nixon, director of engagement marketing at AT&T
“This generation is all about connecting and curating and creating,” she said. “To be a mobile brand facilitating that fandom is a really important place for us to be.”
When AT&T finds a good “mobile moment” to insert its wares into the program, Nixon said, the company will “surround” it by using its own social-media feeds that provide additional information that consumers might use in making a purchase decision.
The second season of @SummerBreak will offer more of it. Believing social-media users desired short videos, producers originally issued daily episodes around two or three minutes in length, said Parks, and weekend episodes lasting just five to six minutes. But they found audiences wanted more, and daily episodes soon grew as long as five to six minutes with weekend episodes, expanding to 10 or, in some cases 15 or 16 minutes, Parks recalled.
Producers are open to using some of the kids who appeared in the series last year – juniors and others who were hangers-on of the original set of teens. But Parks said he is seeking a group of friends whose ties needn’t be forced. “This is not like ‘Real World,’ ” he emphasized, where a bunch of strangers are placed into a home and forced to interact. He wants the stars of the show to have “organic:” ties to one another.
Part of the challenge of producing @SummerBreak is having to operate on the fly. All the production partners must be ready to move in tandem with how data demonstrates the audience is experiencing the program, or be prepared to follow the stars of the show, Last season, for example, BBDO had to rush to get new Samsung Galaxy S 4 Active phones into the cast’s hands when it became apparent the teens were planning to go to a quarry for a swim outing. The phones were designed to withstand some contact with water.
However @SummerBreak develops this year, tinkering with new programming ideas and the new means of distributing them may prove crucial for media companies of all stripes. “It occurred to us this was a window to sort of push the ball forward in thinking about how to produce entertaining content,” said Scott Bromley, a Chernin Group vice president. If you were to launch an MTV or a Fox show for this audience today, you’d probably do it in a way that leveraged more traditional television distribution, but also this sort of data-driven storytelling and online performance in a way that @SummerBreak has done.”