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Warner Bros. TV, FremantleMedia, More TV Titans Wake Up to Web Content

Big shingles are getting smarter about the Internet marketplace

“Mature entertainment firm seeks hot, young property for magical Internet romance.”

That’s a personals ad that a number of traditional production firms and TV networks have put out there lately. In a new wave of partnerships, companies including FremantleMedia North America, Univision Communications, Warner Bros. Television and Universal Cable Prods. are working with smaller digital-media firms on joint productions or distribution of content.

What’s behind the trend: If you’re a stranger in a strange land, you want a buddy who knows the lay of that land.

Established companies increasingly see such partnerships as a better path to learning than try to do it all themselves, said Brian Bedol, founder and CEO of Bedrocket Media, which is developing a range of content for Univision’s digital-only Flama media brand.

“It’s easier for new entrants who don’t have the legacy overhead of businesses to innovate in new areas,” he said.

There have been other recent old-meets-new pairings. Warner Bros. Television Group’s Studio 2.0 division pacted with Maker Studios to distribute an original short-form comedy series, “Robin Banks and the Bank Roberts,” which debuted on YouTube last week. Last fall, NBCUniversal’s Universal Cable Prods. teamed with digital studio AwesomenessTV to co-produce “Side Effects,” a 42-minute musical drama that debuted on YouTube. That came after DreamWorks Animation bought AwesomenessTV in May 2013 — another emblem of traditional media’s romance with web upstarts.

But why are companies that produce top-shelf TV programming bothering with microbudget, YouTube-grade content in the first place?

Look at Fremantle. The production company still rakes in the bulk of its money from shows like “American Idol” (although the singing competition franchise is fading from its former glory). But as digital-media consumption grows, FremantleMedia wants to be ready to kick into a higher gear on new platforms.

Fremantle-produced talkshow “The Crew” debuted the week of Jan. 13 on StyleHaul, a fashion-focused YouTube multichannel network that claims to have 47 million monthly unique viewers. Gayle Gilman, exec VP of digital content for Fremantle, said the partnership made sense because it lets shows produced on a digital budget reach an audience faster. Furthermore, Fremantle gets immediate insights from StyleHaul’s execs and fans about what content resonates.

Web production is cheaper and more iterative than TV, Gilman finds. “We don’t spend a lot of money, and don’t spend as much time figuring out if it’s going to work,” she said. “We move quickly and get feedback, and make adjustments along the way.”

Another global production powerhouse, Endemol, is similarly on the lookout for digital dance partners. The global production firm expects to invest some $40 million to acquire and develop Internet-distributed video content spanning multiple genres.

For some big players, a partnership with a startup is attractive because it lets them experiment — with less financial risk — in an environment that is still mutating. “The larger media companies still don’t know if Internet video is a big business, and it’s cheaper to partner than buy (content),” said Jim Louderback, general manager of Discovery Digital Networks. “This is not a billion-dollar business yet.”

On the other hand, digital production models can sometimes end up driving TV content. Cable channel TVGN, a joint venture of CBS and Lionsgate, cut a licensing agreement with PopSugar, the entertainment and celebrity website, to produce a daily news show over 12 weeks during awards season. TVGN (which used to be called TV Guide Network) wants to take advantage of insights it can gain from PopSugar’s 20 million monthly users, said TVGN president Brad Schwartz.

“This is an efficient way to get rolling with celebrity- and fan-fueled content,” he said.

It’s certainly not clear at this point if online entertainment will grow up to be the juggernaut that cable has become — or if the Internet will ultimately burst the bubble of the cable TV biz.

But media companies are being savvier about the threats and opportunities of Internet video, according to Bedol, who before founding Bedrocket sold cable sports networks to CBS and ESPN.

“We’re at a point in media history where if you don’t find a way to disrupt your own way of doing business, it’s going to be a big issue,” Bedol said.

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