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Fox phones it in

'24' rings up cell users with spinoff

Fox drama “24” is going from the small screen … to the even smaller screen.

In a first-of-its-kind deal for a U.S. TV studio, 20th Century Fox TV has greenlit production of a live-action “24” spinoff skein that will be produced exclusively for cell phone users. Dubbed “24: Conspiracy,” the show — featuring original characters separate from the Fox TV skein — will unfold over 24 roughly one-minute episodes; one seg will be downloaded to subscribers’ phones every week.

“Conspiracy” will bow first in the U.K. on Jan. 30, launching in conjunction with the fourth-season premiere of “24” on SkyOne. It’s expected to arrive Stateside next spring or summer via U.S. carrier Verizon.

Project is the first major initiative to emerge from a content deal between 20th parent Fox Entertainment Group and international cell giant Vodafone that’s set to be announced this morning in London. Both “Conspiracy” and the larger Fox-Vodafone deal are designed to take advantage of new technology that allows consumers to access streaming video and a host of other multimedia features via their cell phones.

Preem in U.K.

Such technology, known as 3G, will begin rolling out Stateside next year, explaining why “Conspiracy” will premiere in the U.K. first. Vodafone will distrib “Conspiracy” in as many as 29 markets where “24” airs.

In the U.K., “Conspiracy” will be available as part of the Vodafone Live subscription service, with consumers paying either a per-seg price or subscribing to a package of services that includes “Conspiracy.”

As part of the Fox Entertainment Group/Vodafone deal, studio will provide Vodafone with a slew of other cell content, including a “Fox Movie of the Month” promotion in which various content relating to a Fox feature will be hyped to Vodafone subscribers. First pic to get the Vodafone treatment will be animated feature “Robots.”

While “24” exec producers Joel Surnow, Bob Cochran and Howard Gordon have blessed the spinoff, neither they nor 20th will produce the new skein. Twentieth has instead licensed production to Spark Hill Prods., which has produced content for DVD releases of “24.” Eric Young is set to exec produce.

Battles with terrorists

As with the “24” TV show, “Conspiracy” will revolve around CTU agents battling would-be terrorists. First episode of the cell skein features federal agent Susan Walker (Beverly Bryant) brutally murdering a top government official. She’s then pursued by a Fed named Martin Kail (Dylan Bruce), but it’s unclear whether Walker is as evil as she seems. Steve Kramer also stars.

While segs — or “mobisodes,” as 20th is calling them in a term trademarked by News Corp. — won’t roll out in real time, each episode features the same urgent “24” music and a cliffhanger.

Gary Newman, prexy of 20th Century Fox TV, declined to discuss specifics about the production costs of “Conspiracy” or to say how much Vodafone was paying for rights to the show. Still, the 24-seg series is not expected to represent any financial risk to the studio, and will likely cost significantly less than a single episode of its TV cousin.

In any case, Newman said 20th has no illusions that cell phone series will immediately turn into a hot profit center for the studio.

Hot opportunity

“What this is is a fantastic marketing opportunity,” he said. “It’s about building the brand of the series and extending it to new people, all to support the bread and butter, which is the television series.”

Idea to bring “24” to cell phone users sprang from a lunch meeting between New Corp. senior VP of content/marketing Lucy Hood and 20th senior VP of marketing Steven Melnick.

Melnick said he wanted to create a parallel universe for “24” and Hood then suggested the wireless world.

“By the time we had pulled into the Fox lot, we pretty much had ’24 Mobile’ figured out,” he said. “We then had to get everyone to embrace it, which took about three seconds.”

Hood credited Vodafone for “stepping up to the plate” for “Conspiracy.”

“Carriers in the U.S. tend to be conservative, but Vodaphone took one look at this concept and pursued it aggressively with us,” she said.

Industry soothsayers are already predicting so-called “3G” cell phones will open up a significant new market for studios and networks. In the same way “American Idol” helped text messaging take off in the U.S., it’s expected that within a few years, it won’t be uncommon for consumers to watch videoclips or entire mini-shows and movies on their phones. One Swedish broadcaster attracted thousands of subscribers to a cell phone live feed of “Big Brother.”

Hood is already promising another skein like “Conspiracy” soon. “You will see more mobisodes coming from across the company in 2005,” she said.

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