Scouting the Web’s Wilds

Jun 26, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Two years ago, Comedy Central programming executive Lou Wallach never would have opened the e-mail that ended up convincing him to sign two Canadian comedians for a 10-episode Internet show.

Things are different now.

“I opened this thing up and was blown away” by the enclosed video clip, Mr. Wallach said of the e-mail. After laughing out loud at his desk, he brought his staffers in to ensure the clip had wider appeal. “We had to have it. … I look at that now and I say, `I can’t not look at everything.”‘

The wave of digital cinema verite that gives every kid with a video camera a shot at worldwide distribution on the Web is forcing television executives to change how they scout for talent. Mr. Wallach and others are scouring the Web for material and opening e-mails from people with whom they would never take a meeting.

Anyone can get his foot in the virtual door now, said Mr. Wallach, Comedy Central’s senior VP of original programming and development. Video-sharing site YouTube.com and its ilk have created a climate where wannabe fantasies a la Lana Turner’s discovery in a drugstore can play out anywhere, anytime, online.

The attention of Hollywood talent scouts is enough to inspire would-be producers to take their shot, even if their odds of success are infinitesimally small. That networks are even looking at the home-grown material signals how desperate they are to connect with a youth audience that’s more likely to be posting on MySpace.com or playing a video game than to be watching this season’s hot situation comedy.

“These are people we would never reach,” said Jane Francis, senior VP of Fox21, the boutique programming arm of 20th Century Fox Television. “We’re never in a high school kid’s garage.”

New Sources

Fox21 regularly trawls online video sites such as Google, YouTube, IFilm.com, MySpace and Channel101.com for videos, Ms. Francis said. She and other network executives have added those pools of potential talent to traditional sources such as comedy clubs, showcases, film festivals, word of mouth and pitches.

“My great hope is to find a great piece of untapped talent who is doing something in Muncie who is really smart and hasn’t had that right connection and break,” said Brent Zacky, executive producer for development at E! Networks.

Hopes like Mr. Zacky’s fuel the one-in-a million dreams of video auteurs who are creating thousands of clips a week for video-sharing sites. That output may frustrate the efforts of the rare creators with enough talent to go pro by turning their creations into needles in an ever-expanding Internet haystack.

Most broadcast and cable time slots. That territory still are occupied almost exclusively by Hollywood productions created the old way, with network executives taking pitches from producers.

Some networks are looking to the Web less for new talent and more as a well of content they can aggregate. VH1 Executive VP of Original Programming and Production Michael Hirschorn said he’s exploring ways the network can act as a curator for user-generated video.

Those executives who are seeking their next production star on the Web have razor-thin windows of opportunity to pounce on gems they find.

“A long time ago, there were only a few executives looking at things like this,” Ms. Francis said. “Now it’s become so mainstream and it’s part of our pop culture that [no] media company [is] ignoring this anymore. As soon as my executive is done downloading something, so are five other executives.”

The strength of the Canadian duo’s e-mail pitch prompted Comedy Central to act fast to develop their “Balloon Heads” program for the network’s MotherLoad broadband channel, adding it to a stable of Web-created features including “I Love the ’30s” and “Odd Todd.” “Balloon Heads,” slated to premiere later this year, features characters with balloons for heads and mocks celebrity culture, Mr. Wallach said.

Programs inspired by homemade videos soon may be crowding television screens: MTV Networks has shot a pilot created by a writer found on a user-generated video site; E! Networks is hammering out a deal for a project with a comedian discovered online; and G4 is considering spinning off its “Happy Tree Friends” segment from “The Late Night Peep Show.” The “Happy Tree” creators were discovered during G4’s regular online animation searches.

Some networks are tapping the format popularized by “America’s Funniest Home Videos” to create user-generated programs.

Renegade 83, the production company that created “Blind Date,” has a project with NBC this fall that will feature viral videos from the Web in a contest show. VH1’s “Web Junk 20” is a countdown of the top viral videos. It runs both on the cable channel and the Internet. And earlier this month, NBC inked a development deal for its late-night show “Last Call” with 20-year-old Brooke Brodack, whose videos were discovered on YouTube by “Last Call” host Carson Daly.

Much of the fare found online doesn’t translate well into television, either because the gag doesn’t hold up or the gritty character of the clip won’t work on TV. Entertainment companies can distribute that material on cellphones and other mobile devices, said Tony DiSanto, executive VP of series development and animation for MTV and MTV2.

Mr. DiSanto declined to reveal specifics of MTV Networks’ pilot from the previously unknown writer, but said the show is a “unique guerrilla-style sketch comedy.”

E! Networks is in discussions with a handful of video craftsmen located via its daily online searches, Mr. Zacky said. The conversation that’s farthest along is with a comedian who has a unique take on pop culture, he said. He expects to ink a deal to develop a pilot later this year.

Online Talent Tapped

The network has already tapped online talent for other projects. Earlier this year E! contracted with Chris Cox, a writer/producer who created the online video “Lazy Muncie,” the Midwest’s response to “Saturday Night Live’s” “Lazy Sunday” sketch.

Scripps Networks also scouts for talent online. The media company recently sought an online talent, rather than an on-air host, for some original “cocktail-centric” content it’s creating for Fineliving.com. The production house put the word out to talent agencies and found a bartender and aspiring actor online who fit the bill.

G4, which targets the male 18 to 34 demo for whom Web video is a basic food group, has been culling animators online for its “Late Night Peep Show” for about a year, said Neal Tiles, president of G4. The network either airs intact their online clips or commissions fresh ones.

G4 regularly trawls animation sites such as Newgrounds.com, Coldhardflash.com and Screenhead.com, as well as podcasts and user-generated sites, for talent. The Web also provides fodder for online shows such as G4’s daily four-minute show “The Daily Nut,” both a podcast and an online program at G4tv.com, that features hot viral videos of the moment.

Efforts like those are likely to increase if the networks find a way to wring revenue from home-made fare. That in turn may draw more amateurs who think they can make it in the big leagues.

“The sandbox is that much bigger now,” Mr. Wallach said.