ABC Lines Up Original Series for New Streaming Effort (Exclusive)

Iliza Shlesinger comedy in development for WatchABC, which could be alternative pipeline for primetime

Netflix - Iliza Shlesinger - Freezing
Netflix / Lisa Higginbotham

Count ABC among the growing number of TV networks developing original programming for its own new streaming effort, but not quite like all the others are doing.

Instead of launching standalone subscription services like CBS All Access or NBCUniversal’s Seeso, the Disney-owned broadcaster is assembling a slate of series intended to live only on its WatchABC app, according to sources. The first project has already been put in development: a short-form scripted comedy starring up-and-coming standup performer Iliza Shlesinger.

An ABC rep declined to comment.

The network is also said to be using the initiative as an alternative breeding ground for productions or talent that could eventually graduate to primetime. The slate won’t be confined to scripted comedies and ABC is also considering long-form series.

Select executives at the network are already making deals with talent to be cast for what has been dubbed “ABC3” internally, though that isn’t the brand the slate will be known by when it launches sometime next year.

WatchABC allows users to access new and previous episodes of current ABC series, in addition to a live stream of the networks’ linear feed in some markets, on mobile devices and PCs. Some of the content is only available to pay-TV subscribers.

How exactly Disney-ABC TV Group will utilize the originals on WatchABC is still being debated, say insiders. Series could be reserved just for pay-TV subs or made freely available; it’s also possible to see a blended strategy in which new episodes are free but previous ones require authentication.

If any part of the plan ends up driving value to the pay-TV ecosystem, it would represent a counterintuitive move from Disney CEO Bob Iger, who seemed to be aiming squarely for the cord-cutting crowd earlier this year when he publicly stated his intent to eventually take some of the conglomerate’s brands “over the top.” But ABC was not one of the brands he previously cited on a list that otherwise included ESPN and Marvel.

The lengths Disney is going to make WatchABC a destination may also reflect the industry’s struggles to counteract the appeal of digital programmers like Netflix and devices like Roku with a compelling solution to making content from its linear channels available on tablets and smartphones. But the TV Everywhere initiative has been a mixed bag for programmers and distributors who can’t seem to get on the same page.

Nearly all original programming being developed for off air recently has been content that would bypass pay-TV distributors. HBO has announced plans to put content from Bill Simmons, Jon Stewart and Sesame Street on its standalone HBO Now offering. NBCUniversal launched Seeso last month as as a mix of original comedies and back-catalog drawn from the conglomerate’s many TV networks.

But ultimately, the goal for putting originals on WatchABC that don’t run on terrestrial ABC may be similar to what CBS was thinking by greenlighting a new edition of “Star Trek” for its own streaming service, CBS All Access: generating buzz for a digital offshoot.

Pay-TV distributors may be happy to hear of plans for WatchABC, but the broadcaster’s affiliates may not be feeling as lucky. While stations partake in WatchABC too, they may not be wild about the network diverting any of its energies to content that won’t be on their local air.

ABC3 also likely isn’t simply a freely available content lineup intended to only soak up digital ad dollars on ABC.com and platforms like YouTube. First, other company divisions like Maker Studios and Disney Interactive would probably be better suited to handle that type of experiment, and neither is known to be involved in ABC3.

In addition, Disney has something of a tortured history with that business model, having launched a few short-lived mini-studios over the past decade that tried original digital programming, including Stage 9 and Take180, only to fade out.

However, when ABC’s digital gurus finally gave up on web originals, they switched focus to creating digital branded entertainment, and one project was good enough to transition to the primetime schedule: the quickly canceled 2009 midseason series “Into the Motherhood.”

A broadcaster using the Internet as a farm system for programming isn’t unprecedented. Fox incubated many digital projects for primetime when Kevin Reilly oversaw programming last year; a late-night animation block, dubbed ADHD, doubled as a dot-com toon zone. The CW has transitioned even more projects from web to the airwaves out of its offshoot CW Seed, which is now becoming more of a destination in its own right, offering its own schedule of programming.

No matter what business model Disney chooses, ABC3 could be intended to be something like CW Seed, which helps steer the brand toward the younger demographics more intimately familiar with their smartphone home screen than the traditional channel grid. With the broadcasters’ audience rapidly graying, any efforts to age down the brand could be well worth it in the long run.

Shlesinger, best known for being featured in her own stand-up specials for Netflix, was attached to star in ABC comedy pilot “Forever 31” along with producers Mark Gordon and Cindy Chupack. While her new untitled series for WatchABC is thematically similar to “Forever 31,” which was about the misadventures of a group of friends trying to become adults, Gordon and Chupack are not attached to this project. This project is being produced by Avalon Television.

ABC3 efforts are currently being overseen by Ben Gigli, director of digital development and production, at the network, which he joined in April after founding the digital comedy start-up 5 Second Films. Also on the project is Brittany Cope, another exec in ABC comedy development.