Web Forging New Genre

Jul 10, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Internet gurus, who already have helped transform television viewing habits by offering interactive and on-demand programs online, are poised to unleash their next challenge to traditional TV.

This time they’re doing it on a massive scale-literally, with a new programming genre insiders are dubbing “massively social.”

Web site Heavy.com plans to debut next month “The Massive Dating Game,” a combination of reality TV, massive multiplayer gaming and user-generated video.

In September, AOL will follow suit with a program centered around a treasure hunt. Video site GoFish.com premiered an online dating show last week. Additional interactive reality shows also are in the pipelines at Heavy and GoFish.

These new-school, ad-supported shows are the first of their kind. The successive introduction of these offerings suggests that “massively social” could be the next Internet programming genre with the potential to fuel the creation of new styles of TV programs and new ways for consumers to use them.

“Rather than watch ‘The Bachelor,’ they can be the bachelor,” said Dave Carson, Heavy’s CEO. “You can make a show and be a part of the show. People are becoming the TV networks themselves.”

While television networks say they put the consumer in control because they’ve unleashed shows from their on-air time slots into broadband and mobile venues, massively social online programs take the concept of consumer control and turbocharge it.

Massively social shows operate as a meritocracy, letting anyone participate from the get-go.

Viewers can submit videos of themselves, answer trivia questions and vote on who should win. Participants and viewers play, watch and interact online at the same time, a community concept popularized by the über-trendy massive multiplayer games and Web sites such as MySpace.

“These reality programs, and just the whole interactivity of the Web plus the social medium sites like MySpace and so forth, all speak to the same thing: People want to be part of the programming,” said Will Richmond, president of Broadband Directions, a broadband video research firm.

In this alternative entertainment universe there is no barrier to entry, but only the smartest, savviest or sexiest will win.

Massively social shows, like most Internet programs, are not 30 minutes long. Viewers can watch whenever they want, selecting from short-form produced recaps or individual videos.

If successful, this genre could set off a flood of new programming ideas that turn traditional programming notions, like the 30-minute sitcom or 60-minute drama, on their heads, upside down and inside out.

To be sure, nearly all prime-time programming slots at broadcast and cable networks are still held by shows of traditional lengths. But programmers are recognizing the importance of the alternative programming models the Web incubates, as evidenced by NBC’s alignment with YouTube in late June.

Already, the short-form programming popularized by online TV networks such as Heavy has begun to infiltrate TV networks.

“We are moving away from standard units, like a 30-minute program or a 60-minute show,” said David Ernst, executive VP and director of futures and technology for media agency Initiative. “It will be difficult in the future to see where TV ends and where the Internet begins. Those distinctions will erode over the next few years.”

They have begun to fade for some networks more than others.

MTV2 revamped its network more than a year ago to include more short-form content because of the voracious appetite young viewers have for it, as demonstrated by their online habits, said David Cohn, general manager of MTV2.

“We have absolutely been inspired by the same reasons that viral video has exploded,” Mr. Cohn said.

In the “Massive Mating Game,” Heavy will present viewers with 10 female contestants. Viewers vote on whom they most want to date. The woman with the most votes then turns the tables and poses questions to viewers on why she should ultimately select them. The winning guy gets a date with the girl in Las Vegas.

With seven years under its belt as a provider of video online, Heavy is profitable and advertisers include Coca-Cola, Sony, Diesel, Axe, Honda, Coors and others, according to the company.

Then there’s GoFish, a new online video-sharing site that kicked off an open casting call July 4 for “America’s Dream Date,” in which the community plays the matchmaker. The show runs online for eight weeks.

Anyone can register online at GoFish to submit video entries of themselves, vote and track their contenders over the eight weeks. A final elimination round will take place in which the 10 highest-ranked men and women will battle it out for the grand prize trip to Paris.

“This takes the reality show with 5 million people watching five different people go through trials and tribulations and creates a reality show where everyone can be involved,” said Michael Downing, CEO of GoFish.

Mr. Downing said the show’s creative director, Joseph Kwong, has executive produced sitcoms for ABC and NBC and produced films for Disney, Touchstone and Columbia.

Heavy is handling production for the “Massive Mating Game.” The key to success is to produce material that doesn’t smell, look or feel like TV, Mr. Carson said.

“Broadband has more interaction and evolves when the audience participates. The audience is actively a part of the show. That requires a different set of production skills,” he said.

AOL’s “Gold Rush,” by contrast, boasts some heavy hitters in the reality TV genre. Executive producer Ted Smith has worked on several TV shows produced by reality guru Mark Burnett, whose production house is behind “Gold Rush.”

The show launches in September at AOL.com/goldrush and is tied in to the promotion of CBS’s fall lineup.

Clues for the treasure hunt will be peppered in CBS shows, promotions and commercials, on AOL.com, in magazines and on billboards. Participants vie to win more than $2 million in gold over the course of eight weeks. Twice weekly, three online finalists who solve all the challenges the fastest will be flown to a secret location in the U.S. to compete head-to-head for $100,000 in gold. Their “Survivor”-esque face-off will be taped and turned into an eight- to 10-minute online episode on AOL.com.

“We didn’t want to take shows and just stick them on the Web,” Mr. Smith said. “Why not lean into the truly interactive capabilities of the Web and the convergent capabilities possible and have the Web take the lead?”

The show counts five blue-chip advertisers, Mr. Smith said, declining to name them.

While TV networks are indeed watching the speed with which the Internet creates new programming possibilities, the Web certainly won’t dictate all network programming strategies.

Though short-form programming works especially well online, on mobile phones or sprinkled judiciously on-air, viewers still crave long-form programming and the storytelling it enables, said Lou Wallach, senior VP of original programming and development for Comedy Central.