Why Xbox Was Always Going to Struggle Making Original Shows

Xbox Entertainment Studios, we hardly knew ya.

The decision by Microsoft to pull the plug on its in-house division to produce a slate of original shows for the Xbox platform on Thursday didn’t come as much of a surprise as new CEO Satya Nadella wants the company to focus more on cloud computing and mobile devices like smartphones and Surface tablets.

Producing entertainment just wasn’t part of that new strategy.

Yet even if Microsoft had stood behind the projects former CBS chief Nancy Tellem developed and kept the team she’s put together over the past two years in the job, could Xbox have even succeeded at the content game?

It would have been tough.

Tellem lost her biggest champion when Don Mattrick left as the head of Xbox last year to become the CEO of struggling social gamemaker Zynga, shortly after the Xbox One was introduced.

For a company based in the Seattle suburb of Redmond, Wash., Mattrick had close ties to Hollywood, and considers Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Robert Zemeckis and Barry Diller as friends.

He helped attract Spielberg to a “Halo” series that Showtime is considering partnering on. The show will still be made, along with a live action web series Ridley Scott’s company is producing.

Those projects, however, will serve as ways to help build the “Halo” franchise for Xbox’s game division and promote “Halo 5: Guardians,” out in 2015. Future series would likely have that same kind of marketing approach in mind. See the trailer for “Halo: Forward Unto Dawn,” another web series released around the fourth game in the series.

While Tellem’s new boss, Phil Spencer, who runs the Xbox group, is a supporter of original content for the platform, his main task right now is to sell hardware. In fact, Microsoft dropped the price of the Xbox One by $100 without the Kinect in order to sell more units as it competes with Sony and its new PlayStation 4.

Beyond that, the biggest challenge for XES was always going to be what’s already on the Xbox One and Xbox 360 videogame consoles: 225 apps by the end of the year, many of which like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Machinima and Crackle offer original programming.

That meant whatever Tellem’s team produced would have to compete alongside shows like “House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Deadbeat” and “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” as well as popular series available through apps from HBO, Showtime and the major broadcast and cable networks. See all of the available apps here.

SEE ALSO: Advice for Microsoft’s New CEO: Avoid Banality

No matter how interactive Xbox’s shows were going to be — something XES used as a selling point — Microsoft would have been forced to spend a lot of money to not only make but market its original slate of shows in order to stand apart from everything else on its own device.

As a result, Xbox would have had to position itself as a new kind of HBO — an even more premium provider of programming to appeal to a targeted demo of younger males, already glued to games and streaming apps. Getting them to switch screens to watch a show would have required deep pockets — not of interest to Nadella.

The slate of six greenlit shows and at least 11 more in development Tellem, along with Jordan Levin, the former CEO of The WB network and Generate, a production studio and talent management company, had put together included an array of sci-fi, sports and comedies — all male-friendly.

“Human,” a drama, produced with U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 and Kudos (“The Hour”) about humans living with robot servants, seemed promising. See the full list of shows in development. A deal with the NFL will remain in place. Other licensed content deals are also still expected to be made.

But while there were some ambitious plans to develop live action series based on “Gears of War,” “Age of Empires,” “Fable” and “Forza Motorsport,” Tellem’s team, will largely be left with saying “Halo” and goodbye.

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