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Yahoo Counts on Comedy to Invigorate Original Slate

Biggest slate yet could get a boost from ‘SNL’ library, binge viewing

Braodcasters won’t be be the only place to boast new comedy series next month.

In its most aggressive bet yet in original online video, Yahoo will launch eight shortform comedy series Sept. 9.

Yahoo has tried its hand at comedy before, including a smaller block last year headlined by a live standup perf from Bill Maher. But now the portal has a bazooka in its laffer arsenal: a collection of nearly 5,000 “Saturday Night Live” clips spanning the past 38 years, under pact with Broadway Video. (NBC and Hulu retain online rights to full episodes of “SNL.”)

The portal plans to draw in users with “SNL” sketches, peppered on its homepage and elsewhere, then guide them to other video content. “We’ll put the Yahoo secret sauce to work — in my mind, that is our ability to marry great technology with great content,” said Erin McPherson, Yahoo veep and head of video.

The strategy borrows from TV in presenting a slate of shows, debuting in the traditional fall timeframe. Several of the skeins feature brand-name talent including Jack Black, John Stamos, Ed Helms and Zachary Levi (NBC’s “Chuck”).

In addition, the approach adopts Netflix’s binge-viewing philosophy, as Yahoo will offer nearly all 100 episodes of the originals at once along with the “SNL” material. Yahoo already pumps out a ton of video: Its websites cumulatively served up 324 million clips in July, per comScore. But most of that is via syndicated partners.

As far as original entertainment programming, Yahoo has seen few hits. Its most successful may have been “Burning Love,” a scripted spoof of the reality dating genre that notched 11 million views for the first season last year and was picked up by the E! cable network.

Among the disappointments are the animated sci-fi series from Tom Hanks “Electric City,” which Yahoo had hyped as a potential “digital blockbuster.” Yahoo declined to furnish numbers for the Hanks skein, but a rep said the company was “very happy with the viewership and the types of audience it brought to the network.”

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer sees video as a keystone for reinvigorating the company’s traffic and sales. “We are working hard to drive traffic and video views and will make this a primary area of investment over the next year,” Mayer said on Yahoo’s second quarter earnings call in July. “We think there is room for lots of players and video really comes down to the question of the content.”

Original video programming will continue to represent the minority of Yahoo’s lineup, with most coming from partners like “SNL,” according to Mayer. In addition, she envisions strong growth for user-generated content through Flickr and Tumblr, the blogging site Yahoo acquired for $1.1 billion in May.

The challenge for Yahoo is that the vast majority of users, numbering nearly 700 million worldwide per month, aren’t expecting to visit the site to be entertained. “You can’t dispute the scale and reach Yahoo offers,” said Adam Shlachter, senior VP of media for ad agency Digitas. “But the big question is whether they can not only retain audience but attract a new audience.”

Comedy is a smart place for Yahoo to focus energy. It’s a hot genre on YouTube, and Yahoo’s shows are a bite-size 5 to 10 minutes per episode, making them easily consumable and shareable, said Larry Tanz, CEO of digital studio Vuguru. “With comedy, you can make a splash at a relatively low budget,” he said.

Yahoo extended Principato-Young Entertainment’s clients, who include Helms, Levi, Rachael Harris and Cheryl Hines, the freedom to work creatively on their passion projects in a way a TV network wouldn’t, said Corey Moss, percentery’s digital veep. At the same time, “They have such a great, clear vision of who their audience is and the numbers to back it up,” he said.

The trove of “SNL” content is another big plus to partners. “Being neighbors to that level of comedy, how much better company could you be in for new voices coming into public?” said Vivi Zigler, who heads up Shine America’s digital division.

Portal presented the comedy block this spring at the NewFronts in New York. McPherson said the event had a “tangible impact” on sales, but she declined to ID advertisers ahead of the launch or characterize the size of the deals.

Despite the big comedy bet, Yahoo remains fundamentally in test mode on original video. “If it’s successful, we’ll continue to program in this manner,” McPherson said. “And if it’s not, we’ll change course. The beauty of our medium is that it lets us learn.”

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