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As Pokemon Go Thrives, Verizon’s Own Bid for Mobile Mania Falters with ‘The Runner’

Verizon has brought to life “The Runner,” an idea Ben Affleck and Matt Damon first pitched 16 years ago to ABC, with a multimillion-dollar production stretching over 30 days that the telco is banking on to lure viewers to its fledgling Go90 digital video service.

But for a show geared around doling out clues on social media, it’s barely registering online: As of the morning of July 18, halfway through the show’s run, “The Runner’s” Twitter account had just 12,000 followers and its Facebook page had only 12,487 likes.

In many ways “The Runner” concept is tailor-made for Go90. In the show, teams of trackers try to locate a fugitive racing across America using clues and the help of viewers following the show in real-time. Mobile-oriented Go90 is providing around-the-clock coverage of the race, with three live video segments daily. And Verizon is promising a total prize pool of about $1 million, doled out among the runners, trackers and audience members who aid in the captures.

“It’s a TV show that no TV network could have put on – a 30-day, every day, social show,” said Chip Canter, Verizon’s GM of digital entertainment and Go90. “It marries everything Go90 is about: premium, mobile, live and an innovative format.”

But since its July 1 launch, “The Runner” has been eclipsed in the zeitgeist by another mobile entertainment property: Pokemon Go. The smash hit game in less than a week has become the most popular mobile game in the U.S. to date.

Like Pokemon Go, “The Runner” is “a massive scavenger hunt,” said Perrin Chilles, CEO and co-founder Adaptive Studios, and one of the show’s executive producers. “Pokemon Go and ‘The Runner’ represent the tip of the spear of being able to merge entertainment and really great storytelling with where technology is.”

Verizon declined to disclose viewership figures for “The Runner.” But it doesn’t seem to have generated much excitement, much less anything approaching Pokemon Go mania. Canter said that since the show launched, Go90 month-to-date has doubled all metrics, including number of viewers, usage. “It looks like a live sporting event every day,” he said.

Producers have been trying to inject excitement into the show, and they’ve already paid out $245,000 for the first two Runner captures. The show’s first Runner – Briana “Bri” Hill – was captured July 6 in Detroit, by tracker team #TheBrogrammers, who won the bounty of $92,759.35. This past Saturday, the second Runner, Steve Young, was nabbed in Louisiana by team ‪#‎BravoSquare‬ to win $152,473.44. Hill and Young have now joined for “The Runner” as the sixth chase team, with a third runner now on the move.

Verizon expected “The Runner” — easily Go90’s highest-profile pickup since the service launched last fall — to be a big-event catalyst leading into its fall lineup, with the appeal of reality competition franchises like “The Amazing Race” or “Survivor.” But its relative invisibility, despite the fact Affleck’s and Damon’s names are attached to the project, may have to do with Verizon’s limited marketing and promotion behind the show, as well as the newness of the Go90 brand itself.

The telco did buy an advertising campaign, according to Canter, which was aimed at millennial audiences in cinema, social and online advertising. He insisted the company still has high hopes for its success in building up Go90’s user base.

“‘The Runner’ is a tentpole that will build toward other programming we have coming,” he said. That includes AwesomenessTV’s social-media thriller “@tagged,” Machinima’s Transformers: Combiner Wars,” and sports comedy “Now We’re Talking” from LeBron James’ Uninterrupted and Warner Bros.’ Blue Ribbon Content. In addition, Go90 will have live NFL and NBA games later in the year.

It remains to be seen how well Verizon’s investment in “The Runner” will pay off for Verizon. “The Runner” is sponsored by Ford, a deal sold by AOL’s ad sales team, with the automaker’s vehicles prominently featured in the show.

In any event, it’s a large and pricey undertaking involving a crew of about 100 traveling from city to city to follow the runner and chase teams. The series is executive produced by Affleck and Damon, through their Pearl Street Films banner; Adaptive Studios’ Perrin Chiles and Marc Joubert; and Pilgrim Media Group’s Craig Piligian and Mike Nichols.

“It’s a monster. It’s the biggest game board ever,” said Piligian, CEO of Pilgrim Media.

Here’s how the show works: The Runner must follow a series of daily clues and complete tasks that lead him or her to new locations. Five two-person “chase teams” are also given clues that help them track the Runner’s moves. For example: A July 15 riddle pointed the chasers and viewers to Variety‘s front page from Dec. 30, 2008, on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine that featured a review of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; the movie is set in New Orleans, which was the Runner’s next location.

If the trackers capture the Runner, they win a bounty that increases by $15,000 daily; if the Runner eludes capture, he or she wins a pool of prize money. Viewers can cash in, too: Each chase team gives away $1,000 daily to fans for tips and general support. And at the end of the show’s run, an MVP viewer will win $50,000, chosen via a lottery drawing favoring the most active fans.

“When we can take a broadcast-quality show and put it on an app, it changes the way people view television,” Piligian said. “It’s not ‘Oh, next week we’ll tell you who won.’ It’s live all the time.”

When the show was in development at ABC 16 years ago, the premise was that viewers would need to physically capture the Runner. The biggest problem with that, according to Piligian, is that insurance companies wouldn’t cover the show — fearing the guy might actually be killed. After 9/11, with tensions heightened, “The Runner” was deemed too risky.

“The insurance companies couldn’t wrap their head around it. They thought people would hit the runner with a car or that he would be tackled in the middle of Main Street,” he said.

Then in 2006, Lloyd Braun, then head of Yahoo’s media group and former co-chair of ABC Entertainment Television, brought “The Runner” concept back into development. But Braun left Yahoo in December of that year, and the show never moved forward at the Internet company. Yahoo dropped Braun’s big video-entertainment strategy; CEO Marissa Mayer revived it three years ago and then pulled back when Yahoo’s core businesses continued to lose ground.

Now, with virtual tracking thanks to GPS, “The Runner” does not need to be literally bagged. “Technology has caught up with ‘The Runner,'” Piligian said. “When we first pitched this, there were no smartphones. There were no geo-tags, you couldn’t do the social stuff.”

Through July 30, “The Runner” episodes air three times daily through July 30, at 12 p.m. Eastern; 3 p.m. ET; and 10 p.m. ET, available on the go90 app, go90.com and AOL.com. The live segments are hosted by Matthew Patrick, aka “MatPat,” creator of YouTube series “Game Theory,” and feature commentary by Vice News journalist-producer Kaj Larsen.

The show’s L.A.-based Control90 command center serves as the set where the daily episodes are shot and producers track the progress and location of the runner and the tracker teams:

“The Runner” does not stay online 24 hours a day; it runs over 18 hours daily “because we have to rest the runner,” Piligian explained.

So what explains the low social turnout for the show so far? Perhaps the show is too sprawling or too confusing to hook people’s interest; other than MatPat, who is big among the YouTube gaming crowd, there isn’t any marquee talent. Verizon might have not pumped enough marketing bucks behind it. Or it might simply be the case that the bar for getting a mass audience to flock to original content has become pretty high — particularly if it’s on a service that didn’t exist a year ago.

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