NBC Finds Webisode Workaround

Mar 26, 2007  •  Post A Comment

NBC has long wanted to support its breakout fall hit “Heroes” with short-form Web episodes, but until last week that goal seemed untenable.

From the start, the superhero drama was practically tailor-made to cultivate a large, young online fan base that could go straight to NBC.com after each episode. All the network needed was to give fans a compelling reason to log on. So last year NBC asked producers for webisodes — exclusive Internet mini-episodes of the show — to accompany the “Heroes” fall debut.

Shortly after the order, a fight with the Writers Guild of America over the compensation of webisode writers derailed the plan and NBC Universal pulling the plug. Not just on “Heroes” webisodes, but also on short-form content for “Battlestar Galactica,” “Crossing Jordan,” “The Office” and other shows.

The other broadcast networks largely opted to wait for the outcome of NBC’s battle with the guild, and likewise put their webisode plans on hold.

That changed last week, when Jeff Gaspin, president of cable and digital content for NBC Universal, announced to advertisers that “Heroes” will finally get its webisodes this summer.

The fight with the WGA isn’t over. Instead of scripted videos, the webisodes will consist of unscripted, behind-the-scenes content — and therefore duck WGA regulations.

“The Office” and “Battlestar” have also offered webisodes this season, except they’re in the form of deleted scenes cut from current episodes so the WGA cannot claim they’re stand-alone products.

According to NBC Executive VP of Digital Entertainment and New Media Vivi Zigler, there’s more to come, with online videos in the works showing the backstories of “Deal or No Deal” contestants.

“We’re trying to do lots of online videos, just not ones written by a writer on the show,” Ms. Zigler said.

The “Heroes” webisodes were part of a bevy of “NBC 360” content announced last week at its development presentation on the Culver City, Calif., set of “Deal or No Deal.” The network also announced that it will add social-networking tools to its Web site and enhancements to its streaming video player, NBC Rewind.

The WGA’s general counsel, Tony Segall, was wary about NBC’s use of deleted scenes online.

“It obviously depends on how it’s used and whether it’s really material that’s part of the original script,” he said. “There may be implications depending on how it’s used. There may be issues about whether it’s being used as a clip. There are time limits on how long you can use it as a clip.”

Though not compensating writers for webisodes might strike some as unfair, the fight is tangled up in a larger effort by networks and studios to seize the upper hand in new media negotiations. Writers have been battling for a larger piece of ancillary and home-video profits for years, and the idea of additional compensation for online-only episodes strikes some as potentially setting an expensive precedent.

Some of NBC’s competitors are taking the same tack. CBS is offering unscripted webisodes for prime-time shows “Jericho” and “The Amazing Race.” But at the same time, CBS recently reached an agreement with the WGA for scripted webisodes for daytime soaps “As the World Turns” and “The Young and the Restless.”

But Ms. Zigler said electing to shoot unscripted webisodes is not just about ducking the WGA, but a reflection of how quickly viewers’ online habits have changed.

Are Webisodes Obsolete?

When NBC debuted the first of 10 webisodes for “The Office” last July, the short clips were credited with maintaining fan interest in the series during the show’s summer hiatus.

But for the show’s writers, the webisodes were a burden. The writing, the WGA said, was just as challenging as creating a regular episode, yet went unpaid. NBC essentially considered the webisodes promotional additions to existing episode orders rather than separate creative productions.

When the webisodes’ running time was totaled, the videos amounted to slightly longer than a regular full-length episode.

On NBC Universal’s “Battlestar Galactica,” executive producer Ron Moore had similar concerns. First, from a creative standpoint, the webisodes were by necessity shot very cheaply.

“There was no money to build a new set or even go to a different set,” he said. “We had to shoot them right on the same sets we were using that same day.”

Mr. Moore said he was dismayed when he found out his writers would not receive credit for their work.

He was satisfied with the final product, which told a story that helped bridge seasons two and three of the series. Nevertheless, once the WGA ordered members to cease working on webisodes, it became an easy call to join the work stoppage, he said.

Since then, the fight has been caught up in arbitration, a process the WGA expects to be resolved within the next 90 days. But even if the parties come to a resolution, there’s no guarantee NBC or other networks will re-embrace the mini-episode format.

“At the time, our research said that two-minute clips were all the viewers were willing to watch online,” Mr. Gaspin said. But since the introduction of streaming full-length episodes on NBC’s Rewind, he said, the network has seen viewers increasingly embrace full-length viewing.

Rewind had 5 million streams in the fourth quarter — half of which were “Heroes.” So far this year, that figure has jumped to 6.5 million.

In other words, why strain to produce two-minute episodes when viewers are willing to go online and watch the whole thing?

Not to mention, for dramas, the format is far from creatively ideal.

“The two-minute webisode is a very strange beast,” Mr. Moore said. “Two minutes to a cliffhanger. I don’t know if webisodes are going to be around long-term.”