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Can Yahoo Make Big TV Shows Pay?

With an eye toward landing its own “House of Cards”-style tentpole, Yahoo is looking to pour top dollar into original shows with TV-biz pedigrees. It has approached multiple studios and agents to scope out potential hits, and is zeroing in on specific projects.

But as an ad-supported site, Yahoo is making a risky bet with a shift to longer-form, prestige programming. And the company may be hard-pressed to make the economics work.

Yahoo has produced more than 70 original, shortform Web shows, but few outside of reality-dating parody “Burning Love” (pictured above) have gained traction. It’s now focusing on fewer, higher-budget properties, CEO Marissa Mayer said on the company’s earnings call last week. “Smart, more strategic investments in video can really help us grow our user offerings, traffic and, ultimately, revenue,” she said.

Yahoo marketing chief Kathy Savitt is aiming to ink TV show deals to announce at its Digital Content NewFronts presentation for advertisers next week in New York. The company is seeking to acquire four 10-episode, half-hour comedies, with budgets of $700,000 to a few million dollars per episode, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

The strategy is to capture coin from real TV ad budgets rather than simply to tap into smaller digital media budgets, said Pivotal Research Group senior research analyst Brian Wieser. According to his math, Yahoo’s big-content play could pay dividends — if the stars align.

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In 2013, HBO’s “Girls” generated 27 million hours of viewing, according to Rentrak data. Using that as a proxy for premium video viewing, a Yahoo series might garner 30 million viewing hours in its second year, Wieser said. That would yield about 360 million ad spots; with a cable-like ad rate of $25 per thousand impressions, that translates to $9 million — enough to recover the cost of two 10-seg series at $450,000 per half-hour installment (without factoring in first-year ad revenue).

However, that assumes Yahoo can produce a bona-fide hit, as well as sell out ad inventory at premium prices. Furthermore, Yahoo would have to drive big numbers without the critical mass of content that Hulu and Netflix use to attract viewers. And it wouldn’t generate subscriber fees like HBO or Netflix. Other digital players are diving into TV-style programming: AOL is producing its first TV-length show, “Connected,” but the handheld-cam reality format will keep production costs relatively low. And Microsoft’s Xbox Entertainment Studios slate of new shows with notable names like Seth Green and Sarah Silverman is aimed at boosting Xbox Live Gold subscriptions.

One show on Yahoo’s shortlist, according to multiple sources, is “34 and Pregnant,” a comedy from Lesley Arfin, who has written for “Girls” and Fox’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and served as story editor on MTV’s “Awkward.” The mom-com previously was in development as a digital-only comedy series for HBO Go. (Reps for Yahoo and Arfin declined to comment.)

A new crop of buzzworthy laffers could build on Yahoo’s attempts to carve out a spot in comedy. Last fall it launched a block of comedy originals, which included Jack Black’s “Ghost Ghirls” and “Tiny Commando” from Ed Helms and Jacob Fleisher. But those haven’t been raging successes: Premiere eps for those two series have had 262,000 and 180,000 views, respectively, over the last seven months.

One issue for Yahoo is that it’s a destination most people visit for news, info, email and search, not light entertainment. U.S. video viewing on the site averages less than 4 minutes per day per user, according to comScore. “The Yahoo home page, if you look at how it works, there’s no place to showcase a half-hour comedy,” said one top digital studio exec.

Mayer, on the earnings call, said Yahoo will invest more money in fewer original series but that overall spending will be in line with prior years. The company may need to plow more into the initiative for it to kick in.

“It’s necessary for them to commit to many programs,” Wieser said. “It’s like starting a new cable network — you can’t just hope for one hit.”

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