Newfronts Analysis: Why Microsoft, Yahoo, Etc. Invaded TV’s Turf

Xbox New Front Nancy Tellem

Netflix wasn’t at the Digital Content NewFronts this past week but the streaming service might as well have been there.

Unmistakable was its influence on the heavyweight digital brands frontloaded into the opening week of these seemingly endless presentations to Madison Avenue.

Microsoft and Yahoo unveiled their forays into scripted longform series; AOL went longform, too, for the first time, but stayed unscripted. And Crackle and Hulu doubled down on scripted longform as well.

Chalk that trend up to the natural evolution of the business, if you will. Or maybe Netflix making such a splash last year in longform, from “House of Cards” to “Orange Is the New Black,” has emboldened tech companies to try and work the same magic.

But as Hollywood knows all too well, launching series is much easier said than done. There was a time not too long ago that no one would dare try to launch 30- or 60-minute episodes lacking all the infrastructure and expertise required. Netflix’s success called that conventional wisdom into question.

But unlike Netflix, which subsists on subscription dollars, these companies are going to find out whether advertising can sustain longform economics despite the still sizable gulf between TV and digital monetization rates.

No one newfront newbie is going about this the same way though, which makes these gambits all the more fascinating. For Xbox Entertainment Studios’ first longform slate, Microsoft has hired some real ringers: You can’t find smarter executives than Nancy Tellem (pictured above), formerly of CBS, and Jordan Levin, who had an impressive run at the WB before moving on to new media firm Generate. The first of six series begin rolling out in June, with at least 11 more projects in development including a Steven Spielberg-produced “Halo.”

Yahoo seems less concerned about having experienced hands inhouse. CEO Marissa Mayer is leaving her series expansion plans to another executive with no TV development chops on her resume, CMO Kathy Savitt. From the looks of their first two comedy series, they are hoping the pedigree of executive producers Paul Feig and Mike Tollin will be enough to get by.

But if Microsoft or Yahoo think sprinkling pixie dust on a pilot script is all that separates them from “House of Cards,” keep Crackle in mind. Even with mighty Sony Pictures Television in its corner, this digital brand has been pumping out scripted longform series for several years now without generating Netflix-like buzz beyond its unscripted Jerry Seinfeld project. And that hasn’t discouraged them either from trying again, unveiling several new projects at its newfront including a comedy with Bryan Cranston as its executive producer.

For a long time, all of these newfront entrants subsisted entirely on shortform original content. Evidently those kind of projects didn’t move the needle as much as they’d like, but is it possible that digital publishers gave up on this format too soon? It finally seemed like breakthroughs including Yahoo’s “Burning Love” and AOL’s “Candidly Nicole” were getting the kind of traction that could pave the way for more of these less expensive properties.

If these companies scored singles more steadily, perhaps they wouldn’t feel the need now to swing for the seats in pursuit of longform home runs.

Note that while all these brands are venturing into longform scripted, none seem to be spending well north of seven figures per project, which may make all the difference between success and failure. Whether it’s Crackle or Yahoo, it’s worth wondering whether a company is better off sinking all of its investment into one big splashy production instead of spreading that money across a handful of lesser quantities, which is what everyone seems to be doing.

These brands may also want to pause to question just what the “hit” status they are all chasing after really is. After all, Netflix doesn’t disclose measurement numbers, so no one knows how well these shows are really doing. But maybe the perception of having a hit is worth just as much as the real thing.

As large as the ghost of Netflix loomed over the newfronts, it was actually an uncharacteristically quiet week for the headline-friendly company. That is unless you count the whopper of a story suggesting Netflix was close to signing Chelsea Handler.

What a subscription VOD service whose entire business model is based on the long shelf life of its content library would do with that most perishable of programs–the talk show–makes it seem like someone was just leaking this information as a negotiation ploy. But if you gave the report a whiff of credence, it’s an unsettling head-fake: It was as if during a week when the entire industry seemed intent on following the Netflix game plan, Netflix was hinting it might throw out its own rulebook. But that’s not likely.

Because of Netflix, it’s become an article of faith that longform original programming takes a digital video service to the next level. But look at that recent Amazon deal with HBO. Is all that library content more valuable than original programming? Maybe. Of course, even Amazon is hedging that bet with its own original slate, but Jeff Bezos can afford to pile on the chips.

That’s a question Hulu might want to chew over at this particular juncture given its recent changing of the guard in original programming oversight. A new slate was conspicuously absent at its newfront presentation, which raises an inconvenient question considering they just hired a seasoned pro like Craig Erwich: Do you have to do original programming at all?

None of what Hulu has done to date has gotten the company a Netflix-like breakthough. Why not just spend all those billions of dollars they’re pledging toward originals and divert that to stockpiling the mother of all content libraries instead? Given Hulu’s core competency is already next-day broadcast programming, leaning more into library makes more sense for them than anyone else.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Microsoft discovered that its own original series prove less valuable than their emphasis on elements of interactivity, which nicely leverages the capabilities of the Xbox platform. While that might not seem to have much of a wow factor, it’s a market differentiator with potential that doesn’t necessarily need to be realized via its own originals; imposing that interactivity on licensed content could be just as powerful.

And then there is Google, which held its newfront event Wednesday. It has got to be unnerving for all these tech companies investing in scripted originals to see that the biggest company of all isn’t doing that. Instead, YouTube is doing the opposite, using low-cost, short-form unscripted content to build an alternate universe to the scripted fare that on TV has unacceptably ancient demos.

Of course, this isn’t a zero-sum game. Both YouTube and scripted can succeed. If anyone should feel threatened, perhaps it’s broadcast and cable TV, which could see one of its core competencies erode if all these new market entrants succeed with scripted.

And you better believe the TV chiefs are watching. If having the newfronts occur the same week as the 2014 Cable Show wasn’t enough to underscore the tension between these two camps, ESPN president John Skipper made it abundantly clear in a speech earlier in the week at the convention. “You see Yahoo commission two comedy series,” he said. “Yes, they are competing in our business — but shame on us if we don’t protect our turf.”

2014 could turn out to be a turning point. Original scripted could start to blossom on multiple portals in a way that will keep conglomerates up at night because why pay for an expensive pay-TV subscriptions to get scripted content if it becomes abundant over-the-top? (However, with all of ESPN’s sports rights, Skipper may be the last guy who needs to lose sleep.)

Or 2014 could turn out to be an aberration, a time when too many companies got out over their skis because Netflix envy got the best of them.

Either way, it’s gonna be very interesting to see this play out.