‘Runner’ laces up

Yahoo! revives abandoned ABC reality idea

Yahoo! is teaming with Mark Burnett and Live Planet in a bid to bring back shelved ABC project “The Runner” — and if it happens, it could be one of the biggest entertainment events ever on the Internet.

Lloyd Braun, the ex-ABC chief who heads the Yahoo! Media Group, is spearheading the new project with Burnett and the original Live Planet production team of Ben Affleck, Sean Bailey, Matt Damon and company CEO Larry Tanz.

Concept began life with Live Planet and ABC back in 2000 but was halted due to production difficulties heightened by the aftermath of 9/11.

While “The Runner” always boasted a strong online component, new take is envisioned as an Internet-driven event for Yahoo! in what’s easily the most ambitious production since Braun joined the company at the end of 2004.

A spokesman for Yahoo! confirmed the project “is in development, but it hasn’t been given the greenlight.”

If it does move forward, “The Runner” could go live as soon as this summer and would likely unfold over the course of one to two months. Scheduling is a big question: Internet usage is down in the summer, but a fall launch would mean competing against the broadcast networks’ new shows.

Indeed, it’s possible that financial and production considerations could yet prevent a greenlight for “The Runner,” insiders insisted. A final nod would have to come from Yahoo! CEO Terry Semel.

None of the parties involved would comment on specifics, but the basic concept of “The Runner” remains the same: A designated operative — the “runner” — has to elude capture by average folks as he or she travels across the country. Game will take place in both the real world and online, with audience members competing to snag a cash bounty by “capturing” the runner.

Grand prize is expected to be several million dollars, a value that exceeds the sum offered up by most TV reality shows. Other, smaller prizes could be offered throughout the event.

People familiar with the project envision teams of players banding together in a bid to share information about the whereabouts of the “runner” — much as diehard viewers of TV skeins such as “Lost” and “Veronica Mars” turn to the net to decipher clues to those dramas’ mysteries.

“If we provide the spark, people will build the fire,” one person connected to the project said.

Agent on the run

It’s believed Burnett and the Live Planet crew have tossed around several scenarios for a fictional backstory that could be a part of the game. In one, the new “Runner” would play on the idea of a fictional CIA operative trying to avoid capture, a la the Jack Ryan and Jason Bourne characters played onscreen by Affleck and Damon, respectively. No final decisions on storyline have been made, however.

“The Runner” was originally envisioned as a once- or twice-a-week show that would resemble a typical reality skein. Yahoo! version will be much different, reflecting the strengths of the medium.

While there will be a significant video component to the game, it won’t take the form of half-hour or hourlong episodes like the ones Burnett produces for television. Instead, it seems likely video clips of varying lengths will be added throughout the day or night, resulting in a show that’s always “on.”

“The hope is that it’s going to be a fun experience for people who are playing the game as well as for people not playing the game,” one person familiar with plans for the project said. “But this isn’t going to look like television.”

What’s more, it’s believed the new “Runner” will try to utilize all of Yahoo!’s various sites as part of the game. Players trying to track the runner could call on Yahoo!Maps to find a location or Yahoo!’s travel tools to investigate a flight or hotel. Clues could be spread via the Yahoo! instant messenger.

‘The Internet is the show’

When producers were first working on “The Runner” back in 2000, “The Web was driving the TV show. Now the Internet is the show,” said one person familiar with what Burnett and Live Planet envision.

If Yahoo! decides to develop a TV component for “The Runner,” it would likely take the form of a series of specials. ABC would get first crack at it, insiders said; so far, the Alphabet has not been approached about such an idea.

While many expected Braun to quickly start making deals for Hollywood talent when he took the post overseeing all of Yahoo!’s content operations, exec has instead focused primarily on building up Netco’s new entertainment hub in Santa Monica. Only significant new original content to come out of Yahoo! in the past year has been “Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone,” a series of original video reports from war zones around the globe.

Last month, one of Braun’s divisions also announced an early 2006 launch for “Wow House,” a Web-based reality show that will follow families as they renovate their home theaters; viewers will determine winners.

Those efforts would pale in comparison with what Yahoo! has planned with “The Runner.” It’s likely Yahoo! would spend a low seven-figure sum on the project — much less expensive than what a TV production would cost but serious coin for a Net-focused event.

It’s believed Braun reached out to Bailey about reviving “The Runner” almost as soon as he arrived at the Internet company, with Burnett joining the production not long after. Company officially optioned “The Runner” about six months ago.

Braun’s tenacity in sticking by “The Runner” isn’t out of character for the exec. He famously championed the small-screen smash “Lost” even when some of his superiors thought him crazy to pursue such a risky and expensive concept.

That said, the promise of profitability will likely be key to Yahoo!’s ultimate decision to greenlight “The Runner.”

Burnett and Live Planet have opted against huge upfront payments in favor of generous backend profit participation deals.

Netco will try to make money on the project via advertising and product-integration packages. Burnett is an expert on the latter, with all of his TV shows regularly incorporating corporate sponsors into storylines.

As the Web’s top portal, Yahoo! is able to draw a huge audience to entertainment events. Last month’s Webcast of Howard Stern’s farewell to traditional radio was seen by 4.4 million people on the site.

Concept’s challenges

Original “Runner” was part of the initial wave of reality mania that swept the networks in the wake of the success of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Survivor.” After ABC committed to 13 episodes back in June 2000, it took producers nearly a year to find a showrunner — live TV vet Roger Goodman — they believed capable of mounting what Braun himself at the time admitted was a “monumental production challenge.”

In spring 2001, Goodman was replaced by “Millionaire” exec producer Michael Davies. At its May 2001 upfront, ABC told advertisers the show would premiere sometime in the winter or spring of 2002.

Just a few months later, in September 2001, Braun decided to shelve the project despite more than a year of intense development. Security concerns in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks were cited as the main reason for the decision, but difficulties in figuring out how to make the production work also played a major role.

Technological advances since then make mounting “The Runner” much easier.

Hidden cameras are smaller and even wireless, making it easier to document the runner’s journey without tipping off his or her whereabouts through the presence of camera crews. Wi-Fi and broadband access are also now widespread, making regular video updates a snap for both producers and consumers.

(Ben Fritz contributed to this report.)